The importance of friendships with non-lawyers

I have come to learn to keep your legal friends close but your non-legal friends even closer. The rule seems especially sensible for junior sole practitioners, but it’s perhaps a lesson for all lawyers.

Ted Flett

I have come to learn to keep your legal friends close but your non-legal friends even closer. The rule seems especially sensible for junior sole practitioners, but it’s perhaps a lesson for all lawyers.

Let me tell you about my dad. As I start my solo legal career, he is winding down his medical practice and easing into retirement. Though we work in different professions and are at polar opposite stages of our respective careers, Dad’s advice and support trumps most others. He’s my number one non-legal advisor.

When I embarked on my solo practice, he told me that availability, affability and ability are key characteristics of a successful professional. He applied this approach with patients. He underscored that being available to a client in need, being affable in creating the lawyer-client relationship and ultimately being able to help achieve their objectives are critical to success.

Of course, not all conversations and exchanges with my dad, and mom for that matter, are about practice management. It’s the ongoing bottomless support, reassurance and love that help to counterbalance the demands and toll of legal practice.

Apparently, more quality time with family and friends outside of one’s legal circle is good for a lawyer’s health.

“Social interaction is a cornerstone of mental health and wellness,” says Doron Gold, staff clinician at Homewood Health, the provider of the Ontario Law Society’s Member Assistance Program. “It is also the antidote to isolation and unchecked rumination over one’s perceived failings or weaknesses. It offers a counterbalance to the myopia of only socializing with one type of person. Lawyers are a unique breed with particular personality traits. The more diversity of an individual’s interactions, the broader one’s perspective and richer one’s experience will be.”

Gold says junior solos — and junior lawyers generally — are particularly vulnerable.

“Junior lawyers are embarking on a new, exciting and often scary endeavour and they often have much self doubt,” he says. “Non-lawyers can help them stay in touch with everything else that’s important as a person: love, passion, physical activity, political discourse and a million other topics of interest. It also offers a window into how other types of people think.”

Achieving that balance is a challenge facing new sole practitioner Robin McCourt of McCourt Law. The Hamilton, Ont. criminal lawyer courageously moved from the east coast in 2016 to article in Steeltown without knowing a soul in the city. After a year at a firm, she boldly went solo last year.

“It has been more difficult to meet people outside of the legal profession and I suspect that may be because of my particular circumstances where I didn’t know anyone in town beforehand,” she says. “The majority of my friend groups in the city where I live and practise are people in the legal profession. It’s a mix now of lawyers, assistants and paralegals and it’s really nice. We try to do things that are not law related.”

Despite this, the dynamic young lawyer appreciates the grounding that her non-legal friends provide, even if that network is in the minority.

“It’s nice when you talk about your day to other people outside of the practice and they remind you how much you’re doing and that it’s impressive because it is sort of inspiring,” she says. “You can get bogged down in the day-to-day and I’m always surprised when people say, ‘Oh, you’ve started your own practice? That’s so brave, especially for a recent bar call.’ It’s like a boost in confidence to hear that because you sort of forget that what you’re doing is quite special.”

McCourt also leans on her father for perspective and a reminder to keep tending to her network of family and friends.

“My dad is really great in terms of calming me down and keeping me grounded,” she says. “Reminding me that I am just one person and I should have a life outside of work as well and to always maintain balance.”

Jordan Barris, who dove into solo life last year following one year as an associate at Goldman Sloan Nash and Haber LLP, makes keeping up his non-legal friendships a priority.

“In terms of maintaining those, I think it’s very important to maintain a balance of relationships outside of the profession because it gives you a much-needed distraction,” the real estate lawyer says. “If your friendships consist exclusively of those in the same industry, it would consume all of your time and it would be the only thing you think and talk about.”

The Barris Law principal observes that when he invests time with friends to speak about work, there is a return as it makes him a better lawyer.

“Hanging out with lawyers and working in the law all day, you sort of lose sight of how someone outside of the profession is sensitive to terms you use and the way you explain certain things,” he says. “Especially the confusing concepts.”

By explaining complex legal situations in layman’s terms, Barris feels as though he is practising his client communications on friends.

“When they can understand a sophisticated subject because you are explaining it to them clearly and properly, they are more inclined to trust you, think highly of you and think that you’re a good lawyer, so I find that to be valuable.”

If, after inventorying your friends and family network, you realize it’s entirely or predominantly legal, Gold says it’s not too late to form important friendships with non-lawyers either by rekindling old friendships or making new ones. The latter is naturally more intimidating.

“The best way to meet new people is through shared interests, which is convenient, because one of the best ways to be personally fulfilled is to pursue one's unique interests,” he says. “So, a lawyer who is able to find and participate in activities which feed their soul will, most likely, find others who share those interests, so long as we're talking about non-law-specific topics.”

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