Lawyers in a Dangerous Time: PART II
Last week I shared with you PART I of my interview of Rob Laurie, an interesting Vancouver lawyer who’s CREATING a LIFE he LOVES in these dangerous times…
Last week’s post described the struggles Rob encountered down a traditional Big Law career path. This week’s post shares with you how he overcame those challenges and found his own way, and some insights and advice for all of us endeavoring to create our own careers.
So what did Rob do after realizing the traditional path was not where he wanted to be?
First, he turned to legal recruiters to help him find his way in the Vancouver and international market. But that didn’t go as well as envisaged either…
Rob told me that his experience with respect to international recruitment was completely different after qualifying in Canada, than it had been after completing his UK articles. This time around, he was told time and time again by local recruiters that his experience overseas, despite being international in nature, was of little value in Vancouver. He was told to take anything that would give him “Vancouver experience”.
He started considering switching jurisdictions again, but didn’t really want to take on any more school or bar qualification processes. He told me that his initial investigation of this option quickly revealed that other jurisdictions, such New York, Hong Kong, and Singapore didn’t place any value on the fact that he’d spent the last two years taking his NCAs and getting qualified in Vancouver. To them, it was like he had just spent two years away from law altogether. He said “there is so much hype within BC about the quality and prestige of the qualification, but its pretty useless compared to getting called in London, New York, or California. Those are the markets international recruiters get excited about.”
During his NCA and articling years, Rob told me he was “going through personal hell”. He felt a lot of financial stress and was aggravated that he’d spent large amounts of money and time getting international experience in order to separate himself from the pack, and instead he felt he had “screwed himself over” by not staying in Vancouver doing “dime a dozen” legal work. At this point he in some ways felt like he’d been wasting his time, but he could also see the growth and maturity he’d attained, and that the knowledge he’d gained of the barrister side of the profession would be useful to him going forward.
And so, in order to survive in the crazy Vancouver market…
He became an ENTREPRENEUR.
After six months working in a small boutique practice that could not have been further from the Wall Street and City of London experience he enjoyed in the UK, he was more or less forced to “hang a shingle” to make ends meet. After seeing what large and medium firms were spending on overhead he began a sole practice out of his apartment (across the street from the BC Court House Library and UBC Sauder School downtown library), something he never thought he would do.
“I was scared as hell,” he said. “I was so outside of my comfort zone - not working at a big firm, where everything is done for you because you are a billing machine. However, I have no overheard and with technology I can act for clients regardless of where they are based geographically.”
Rob has taken it upon himself to get his typing speed to nearly 100 words per minute and has made friends and contacts at the BC Courthouse Library who have shown him how to find the legal resources he needs. He also does his own assistant work to keep his overhead low. All of this has allowed him to offer legal services to clients at affordable rates and has enticed a few big corporate clients away from their regular Big Law hire.
Rob says “the game has changed significantly since the 2008 crash, and with gold and precious metals tanking recently we are going to see even more cut backs and challenges for big law firms. Gone are the days when clients were willing to spend money on anything that is not making a return; clients want capped fees and flat rates, especially if they are struggling with their own margins.”
Having access to the BC Court House library and making use of the free online resources that most other practices pay for gives him a huge competitive advantage. He says that having such low overhead means he can be “as patient as the Buddha himself” and take time to find work and clients that are truly of interest to him.
Since striking out on his own he’s represented both individual corporate clients and has taken on the role of in-house legal counsel. And he’s been able to work on some pretty INTERESTING stuff. While working with Silvercorp Metals Inc. (as an in-house lawyer), for example, he assisted management, directors, and internal and external legal counsel with “short-and-distort” litigation and a high-profile international corporate securities fraud and defamation investigation. Other recent experience includes working with companies such as Banks Island Gold Ltd. JWOLF Capital Corp Ltd., CPT Secure Inc., Sequel IRM, VPL Investments Ltd., and the John Robinson Group. As a budding entrepreneur, Rob has realized that running his own business is something that comes naturally to him. He says he enjoys collaborating with other entrepreneurs because of the mutual understanding and enthusiasm for being in business and standing on your own two feet.
In Rob’s view, lawyers and law firms need to consider doing more with less, operating out of their comfort zones, and embracing technology if they want to survive. Whereas in the past many people didn’t know how large law firms operate, clients are now starting to gain an appreciation for the huge markup they are paying at large firms, even to do something as simple as incorporation. “Business is a young person’s game,” Rob said. “A lot of big firms are going to suffer if they don’t re-jig themselves.”
Rob also described many personal benefits to taking the entrepreneurial route… For one, he’s learned a lot. He’s overcome fears and learned to not just live, but to thrive outside his comfort zone. He’s discovered what he is passionate about and where he can bring a competitive edge. He’s also started meeting a lot of really cool people.
He’s been able to reflect on the Big Law world and the toll it takes on a person. He described to me the long hours and the unhealthy habits he picked up working in Big Law in London, and how easy it is to end up sacrificing your life and your health for something that at the end of the day is just a means to pay bills.
And his advice to young lawyers to avoid getting caught up in this trap?
“You’ve got to look yourself in the mirror and make the changes you have control over,” Rob said. “And reach out. You aren’t alone. Talk to someone. I wish I had sooner.”
So, where’s this FASCINATING guy headed next?
The truth is he’s headed wherever he wants. In Rob’s words, “the sky is the limit if you stand on your own feet rather than on shoulders of giants.”
He confided in me that “in-house work is awesome” as it places him in a position to advise and navigate clients through unfamiliar waters, and has enabled him in his experience at Banks Island Gold, Silvercorp and working with CPT Secure, to put into practice strategies with clients to save them a lot of money. Returning to private practice is also attractive to him, but he says, “I would need to work with a crew who does work that is international and does not have a lot of the administrative red tape that is slowing down Big Law. There are some really cool and nimble practices out there in Vancouver that are more or less doing what I am doing, with a similar ethos of being able to do more with less but still make a profit.”
Family law is also something he has recently become interested in. “Unfortunately the traditional family unit is under attack,” he said, “and there is more need for family lawyers with strong corporate, commercial and finance experience. Many successful high-net wealth individuals who live in Vancouver make their money elsewhere, so having international legal experience and local insights are becoming more attractive and relevant to the Vancouver market. This also provides an opportunity for legal and private wealth management specialists to work together to assist clients with family and wealth preservation issues.”
Rob closed his discussion of his future with a smile, and said, “there is a lot of opportunity out there. Now that I better understand myself and have a better idea of where to look for environments and opportunities that are best suited to me and my mobile, flexible style of legal practice, the sky really is the limit.”
Rob told me that this approach to legal practice reminds him of his time as a member of the Seaforth Highlanders during undergrad where he completed his infantry reserve basic at Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry Battle School (PPCLI) in Wainright, Alberta. He explained that being an infantry reservist taught him how to see the world differently and make do with very little, an approach he now brings to his legal career.
"Light infantry relies minimally on mechanized vehicles and a forward operating base, your home is on your back and your office is in the field” he says. “All I need really is my laptop, a pad of paper, a pen, and a library card to practice law.” I think he’s onto something that Big Law should pay attention to.
So although there’s no certainty in where he’s going next, what he does know is that wherever he’s headed he’s going to continue to take ownership and continue to CREATE his own life. “You can either go out and do something for yourself,” Rob said, “or do something for other people – and that’s something I wouldn’t have learned if I stayed at a Big Law firm. Getting out of the ivory tower and onto the street is something more lawyers should consider, although it’s not for everyone.”
I hope you’ve enjoyed PART II of Rob’s story, and I hope you all are a little more INSPIRED to go out there and create a LIFE that you LOVE. It may not be easy, but I’m realizing more and more, that nothing worthwhile ever is, especially for lawyers in a dangerous time.
And on that note I’m going to leave you with the quote that Rob left me with at the end of our interview to sum up his five year journey of being back in Vancouver. He says…
“But nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight -- Got to kick at the darkness 'til it bleeds daylight” – Barenaked Ladies (cover of Bruce Cockburn’s 1984 hit Lovers In A Dangerous Time)
Rob is definitely an example of a lawyer, doing things differently and thriving, in a dangerous time. So keep at it. Who knows, maybe the next thriving lawyer that I write about will be you…