Darwin’s paradise: Welcome to Season 74 of Survivor: Lawyers in the Wilderness

“Paddle, paddle, paddle! Harder, harder, harder!”

1. . . . bellowed Captain Ad-hoc. With a resolute gaze, he surveyed the approaching shore. As for me, Jolly Jules Tar, kneeling on the deck of our frail craft, I was paddling furiously to propel our jury-rigged junk to victory. Dehydrated and burnt red by a scorching sun (which didn’t seem to bother the blackflies feasting on every exposed inch of my skin), I could nonetheless see from my fellow crew members that I was not the most piteous wretch on board this Raft of the Medusa. Ah, the joys of schadenfreude . . .

2. Getting off the bus, after another interminable Montreal winter, each one of us had looked like Lazarus emerging from the tomb (no more biblical references, I promise).  Summer was finally here. Blinded by the light, stunned by the silence of the forest that surrounded us (hereinafter, the “Deep Dark Jungle Full of Death Traps”) and deafened by the torrent of questions on the bus about what fate awaited us, we were about as relaxed as a group of young lawyers in the bush could be expected to be.

Welcome to Season 74 of Survivor: Lawyers in the Wilderness! This year’s show is set in northern Quebec and will be full of surprises, like — spoiler alert — bungee-jump mooting, and negotiating settlements while white-water canoeing!

Just kidding — welcome to our law firm’s annual team-building activity for non-partners. Each year, a seemingly insurmountable challenge is thrust upon us, forcing us to discover strengths — and weaknesses — we never knew we had.

3. After dumping our suitcases on one of the cots in our no-star bunkhouse, we were escorted to the shore of a small lake (hereinafter, the “Storm-Tossed Raging Sea”) and divided into four teams. We were then informed, to our considerable dismay, that each team had to build a raft with materials sourced entirely from the Deep Dark Jungle Full of Death Traps, and then paddle it across the Storm-Tossed Raging Sea. First team to reach the opposite shore still on the raft and safe and sound — i.e., with the fewest cuts, bruises and other corporeal damage — wins the prestigious Associates Cup!

This insane challenge would obviously require a lot of teamwork and co-ordinated effort if we weren’t going to end up at the bottom of the lake or — worse — lose the competition.

4. The bonhomie that prevailed on the bus quickly degenerated into palpable tension. While we were a fairly close-knit group of young lawyers, the spirit of competition was now rearing its ugly head in each of us: our individual pride was at stake. (Another spoiler alert — the theme of this month’s instalment is . . . you guessed it, competition!)

“Mark, set, Pokémon — GO!” With that command, each fledgling crew member plunged into the Deep Dark Jungle Full of Death Traps in search of suitable raft-building material. This quintessentially down-to-earth task soon made everyone forget their files and billable hours and relish their new roles as boat-builders and sailors.

Even the normally distinguished manner of speaking of Captain Ad-hoc was affected:

ARRR, me hearties!! We’d best be the winners or I’ll be giving ye all a boatload of unbillables for the next six months!

Our esteemed colleague had unilaterally promoted himself to ad hoc captain of our team. This was not entirely unjustified, as he was five years out and a very talented litigator, albeit even more talented at singing hip-hop in karaoke bars and dragging us to restaurants with no available tables. At first glance, you might think him a bit of a goofball, but he is actually an unparalleled tactician and a font of legal knowledge. Whenever I have a thorny legal question, I plunk myself down in his office and pick his brain while bribing him with plantain chips.

5. Deep thinking (a.k.a. the litigator’s déformation professionnelle) in the Dark Jungle Full of Death Traps, my first observation was that the respective practice area of my fellow crew members was not a good indicator of their aptitude for raft-building. To wit:

• The construction-law lawyer didn’t know the righty-tighty rule for screws;

• For the labour-relations lawyer, anything and everything gave rise to a grievance;

• The bankruptcy & insolvency lawyer somehow lost every tool he was given;

• The constitutional-law lawyer became so disoriented we still haven’t found him;

• We found the corporate-law lawyer, who came wearing a Paul & Shark blazer, white Bermudas and leather sandals, staring at his reflection in a beaver pond.

Only Captain Ad-hoc seemed to be in his element. He bounded through the forest like a deer and assembled the raft like he’d been doing this all his life. (I suspect, however, that he took a carpentry course specifically to prepare for this outing.) But apart from him, it was obviously not easy for lawyers accustomed to the comforts of their air-conditioned offices to function in a Deep Dark Jungle Full of Death Traps.

One thing united us and kept us all going though: the desire to win.

Which got me musing again, while more or less at sea in the jungle, about competition (the theme, I needn’t remind you, of this month’s column).

6. At university, law school, bar school, while articling and even more so once in private practice, competition is omnipresent. Don’t fool yourself; in a law firm we’re all competing against each other as much as against the lawyers on the other side of our files, and if we’re not conscious of that, we’re missing out on something important.

For, in fact, competition reveals our strengths and weaknesses, which ironically leads to better teamwork.
This self-knowledge allows us to match ourselves up with others who may have the strengths we lack. In my view, that’s what makes a good law firm — an ideal mix of complementary talents.

Ultimately, the competition inherent in our practice — the time constraints, the pressure from our clients, the compulsion to excel at everything we do — no doubt explains the healthy respect we have for our fellow competitors in the legal profession: There is a certain spirit of solidarity among us.

The sight of Captain Ad-hoc relishing his new role as lead buccaneer aboard our ramshackle craft notwithstanding, I was convinced that this competition was not driving us mad but helping us appreciate the joys of the profession despite all its trials and tribulations. Captain Ad-hoc clearly understood that despite the pressure, you have to let loose and enjoy yourself when you can. The bandana he was sporting reminded me of Axl Rose, as he perched on the bow of our vessel and burst into an entirely appropriate song under the circumstances: “Welcome to the jungle, we've got fun 'n' games!”

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