Forte launched her own firm and thinks unhappy lawyers need more stories about fulfilling careers
Sara Forte likes to question lawyers’ success. Not to tear them down but to understand how they measure accomplishment. She wants to know what makes lawyers happy and is convinced that many have discovered a formula. The profession just needs to do a better job of highlighting these stories.
Her career involved a significant shift in how she perceived success. After law school, she set herself up for a traditional legal path when she joined the labour & employment group of Borden Ladner Gervais LLP in Vancouver as an articling student in 2003 and then as an associate.
BLG was a positive environment for Forte as she began her family. Her practice group was open to having her work part-time in between her first two maternity leaves, which was unusual at the time.
Despite the firm’s flexibility, Forte did not see a long-term path at BLG after she had her second child. So, she began speaking to as many lawyers as possible to explore new possibilities.
“It really opened my eyes to the huge breadth of jobs that were out there that I just didn’t know existed. When you are at a large law firm, your network becomes quite narrow.”
Forte noticed that no online resources highlighted these interesting jobs for other lawyers considering new opportunities.
Eventually, Forte connected with Nicole Howell, a partner at a union-side labour and employment firm. Forte took a position at Howell’s firm HHBG Employment Lawyers in 2010, working from home most of the time for six years until she had her third and last child. When this child was a few years old, she again felt the need to re-evaluate her career.
“I read this article that said if you're looking at a bunch of different options, and they all have pros and cons, choose the one that is the biggest. For me, the biggest was actually the smallest, which was starting a solo practice.”
Forte was living in South Surrey outside of Vancouver and decided she wanted a practise closer to home and be part of her local community.
So, she met with as many lawyers as possible practising in Surrey. She quickly realized that many lawyers wanted to refer their clients to a local employment lawyer, but none practised in the area.
So, she launched Forte Workplace Law. The firm provides traditional employment law services, workplace investigations and, most recently, mediations.
“I love that a law practice can grow and evolve,” she says.
Most importantly, Forte could run her firm the way she wanted, through innovation and putting aside structures that didn’t work.
This new approach included doing flat rate consultations. At first, Forte felt apprehensive about billing this way, fearing a hit to her profitability. She mentioned her worry to her father, who was doing her books.
“I remember him saying, ‘you can do whatever you want to do. If it doesn't work, you can just go back to doing it the way you did it before.’
“When you turn the clock off, it's amazing how that changes your enjoyment of the work.”
With the growing demand for harassment training, but much of it ineffective, Forte also saw an opportunity for innovation. An extensive study in the US found most courses focussed only on the victim and perpetrator and did not work.
“At best, it's a waste of time. And at worst, it actually irritates people,” Forte says.
The training focused on bystanders, i.e., those who may witness harassment but do not engage in it, worked much better.
So, Forte launched StandUP Teams, which provided this bystander training. Forte began by delivering in-person workshops but pivoted to online during the pandemic. The next phase in the product, which they have just launched, is an online self-paced version, including video and animation content.
“StandUP on demand is what's going to be transformational,” says Forte. “It just meets so many of the goals of our firm, [to provide] scalable products and projects that have reached people at a cost-effective … and time-effective basis.”
When Forte decided to start her firm, she realized her measurement of success had radically changed from her days as an associate at a large firm.
“If you had told me when I was at BLG that I was going to be a sole practitioner in Surrey, I would have thought that you were insulting me. That meant that I was not that competent [and] couldn't get along well with others.”
Her solo practice has “been 100 percent the highest and best success in every measure that I've ever had.”
Forte also noticed that other lawyers were interested in her success. So, Forte decided she wanted to share those insights to as broad an audience as possible in the legal profession.
She put out a call on social media for happy lawyers and began posting their stories online. In 2021, Forte launched “Not Your Average Law Job.”
“When I started it, I was really thinking about the disenchanted, big firm associate, who is at their desk at midnight crying thinking that they hate their job [and] maybe lost touch with their family. They are there at midnight and Googling, ‘I hate my law job.’ I wanted to create something that those people would find.”
Forte says they have expanded the site beyond telling stories to examine the “pipeline to law” with a job board.
“I want to have lawyers in every province and territory, doing every kind of imaginable practice.”
In other words, Forte is looking to help other lawyers do what helped her find happiness in her career – question their idea of success by hearing from the wide range of lawyers out there who are happy.