Balancing non-billable commitments: What juniors should look for and when

At a recent fireside chat hosted by The Advocates’ Society for young lawyers, I gained an insight at just the right time.

Ted Flett

At a recent fireside chat hosted by The Advocates’ Society for young lawyers, I gained an insight at just the right time. As I approach my one-year anniversary as a sole practitioner, I have felt a certain pressure to step outside of my practice and “give back”  — to the public, to my peers,  to my community. Volunteer. Join a committee. Serve on a board. Do pro bono work. Do something more.

The expectation is acknowledged in the Law Society of Ontario’s Rules of Professional Conduct as “special responsibilities by virtue of the privileges afforded the legal profession.”

However, the event’s speakers, Heather Hansen and Danielle Robitaille, provided context to this expectation and sage advice to me and the few dozen other junior lawyers huddled in a meeting room at Neesons. While nibbling on a stash of gummy bears and chocolate almonds from the office’s candy buffet, we were uniformly captivated.

First, get good at the law. Then do what you love.

“I have noticed with young lawyers that there seems to be a real balance pressure and a wellness pressure that I think can be counter-productive,” says Robitaille, a partner at Henein Hutchison LLP in Toronto. “I worry that young lawyers are told not only are you to be a good lawyer but you also need to find a cause you are passionate about and have this totally Instagram-able life.”

This present-day standard is unlike Robitaille’s laser-beam focus when she was starting out. Her goals then were “to serve my clients and to get good at the job.”

With her firm and mentors onside, Robitaille says she was “able to stay totally focused and not be distracted.” As such, the criminal lawyer “held my horses” when it came to taking on pro bono before she was ready.

“Clients should not be guinea pigs,” she says. “I worry at the thought of amateurs going out to advise on issues without supervision that are important to the parties and they are not getting quality service.”

Robitaille suggests that younger litigators should focus on building up their advocacy toolkit before taking on too much pro bono or community work.

“You become most valuable to a client when you have honed your skills and achieved a certain level of experience,” she says.

“I think lawyers are ashamed or reluctant to admit that they have too many balls in the air,” says Hansen, managing partner at Martha McCarthy & Company LLP.

Hansen advises lawyers to get comfortable with using a word that seems to have slipped from our vernaculars whenever we are asked to step up: No.

“It is such a simple thing that, whenever you say no to something, you are actually saying yes to another thing,” she says. “So, saying no a cocktail party after work isn’t just no to a cocktail party but yes to whatever you’re doing that evening or being present with your children or catching up on work. It’s not really a no, it’s a conscious choice.”

Hansen disagrees with the sentiment that lawyers should volunteer without any expectation of return.

“You should be doing it, when you’re ready, because it’s important, it’s meaningful to you, because you are passionate about it.”

Hansen says she hears many younger lawyers ask how to enhance their practice or profile through pro bono work, for example.

“I turn those questions upside down and say, ‘You’ll figure that out as part of your practice and, when you are ready, if you care about something enough, you are going to stand up and do it,’” she says. “And it might be extraordinary or quite ordinary. Not every non-billable thing that a lawyer does needs to be a ground-breaking, overwhelming, profile-building experience. It can be small.”

It’s an approach that junior sole practitioner Kim Gale has begun to practise. The dynamic estates litigation lawyer is a graduate of the City University of London in London, U.K. Last year, with the help of her friend, Sam Del Frate, Gale launched NCA Network, a group for lawyers who studied outside of Canada to help ease the transition and facilitate networking.

Gale says the network helps tip the scales of advantage in favour of National Committee on Accreditation applicants and graduates.

“I know how hard it is coming from a law school outside of Canada,” Gale says. “It’s difficult to find an articling position, find a job. You’re not in the same cycle as Canadian students and you don’t have the same network you would have if you lived in Toronto where you have more built-in opportunities. And preparing for NCA exams can be a very lonely process.”

The NCA Network has hosted events and connected its members with various opportunities and assistance.

“It takes a lot of my time, but I am passionate about it,” Gale says. “I enjoy it and it gives me something to work on. But like any kind of change or equality where you want to move the dial, it is going to take a lot of time. And that’s OK, it’s important.”

In the meantime, I will heed the caution from Hansen and Robitaille, placing myself in the path of opportunity and capitalizing when I am comfortably ready. 


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