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Big Law Believers

Some start law school desperate to land on Bay Street. Others are dead set on fighting for social justice. And there are those who seek intellectual stimulation above all else. But as 1L wraps up, as OCI applications must be submitted and as fall tuition comes due, some students who weren’t at all keen on Big Law are starting to reconsider. And it’s not all about earning $1,500 a week at the grand-old age of 24.

Take Mike, a 2L at a law school in Toronto who’s considering both criminal and corporate law. He’s snagged interviews with several New York firms, and if none work out, he’ll apply broadly on Bay Street, in government and at the few criminal defence firms participating in the 2L recruit.

Criminal law is “one of the most stimulating areas of law that I studied this year because it deals so much with … the root causes of human actions,” Mike says, adding that he’s also attracted to the drama of the courtroom and the important role criminal law plays in ensuring society functions properly.

But he’s keen on a job with plenty of mentorship and based in a large city, which he wagers is harder to come by in criminal than in corporate.

And he’s quick to point out he really liked his contracts class, and corporate law is essential to ensure predictability in commerce, the backbone of society.

“There is a social purpose ­— you, admittedly, have to do more thinking to get there, but it's definitely there,” he says.

Others are less concerned about the social utility of their practice and simply want to be engaged at work. Oliver, also a 2L at a Toronto law school, was bored working retail and clerical jobs for a few years after undergrad.

“I found the work I was able to get with an English degree was perhaps less fulfilling than I'd hoped,” he says. “I found law was a good place to stretch my legs and express my intellect.”

Since he did best in private law classes in first year and has spent most of this summer doing research for business law professors, Oliver is keen to work at a large, full-service firm for his 2L summer.

Of course, there’s the money factor as well. After speaking with a lawyer who represents Indigenous communities in human rights and environmental suits, Oliver figured that kind of law would be intellectually satisfying — but insufficiently remunerative. While he isn’t ranking firms based on salary, his heavy debt load is a consideration.

“I don't want to go somewhere that pays under $60,000 because I probably could have done that with a B.A.,” he says.

As for Mike, the possibility of a New York summer salary (around $3,500 U.S. per week) makes the choice easier.

“My decision, when it comes down to it, would be more difficult if it were a question just between Canadian Big Law versus Canadian criminal law, whereas the potential incentives in our neighbour to the south are significantly larger and make it significantly more worth my while to go down there,” he says.

Still, Mike does think about morality of Big Law.

“Am I betraying my principles by following this path? On one hand, there might be a little bit of that,” he says.

But that guilt is assuaged in part because, whether in Canada or the U.S., Mike hopes to practice white-collar criminal defence, which he calls “a happy middle” between traditional criminal defence and Bay Street.

Plus, he notes lawyers at big firms have more opportunities for pro bono work, pointing to the recent Canada Without Poverty v. Canada (Attorney General) decision, a freedom of expression case in which McCarthy Tétrault LLP worked pro bono and changed charity tax law.

“Am I going to be spending all of my time saving the whales, saving the indigent? No, I won't be. But that doesn't mean I won't get a chance to do real good in the world either,” he says.

Sarah, a third-year associate on Bay Street who originally wanted to go into social-justice law, occasionally feels guilty about her Big Law path — but not about any of her cases.

“For the most part, the work that we do is quite neutral,” she says. “I've never felt any work that I've done goes specifically against my values.”

But when speaking with colleagues who went the non-profit or Legal Aid route, she sometimes feels pangs about the path not taken. There is “a guilt by absence, as opposed to a guilt for any work that I do,” she says.

For the most part, however, Sarah is happy at her firm, appreciating the wealth of resources that support her so she can focus on legal analysis and the intellectual challenge of crafting compelling arguments when there is no clear right answer.

But “will I stay in Big Law forever? Probably not,” Sarah says. “It is a good launching pad for your career. And once you’ve got a couple years under your belt, you have the financial stability and you have the skills to do whatever you want.”

*Names have been changed.