Posts in Rants
Lawyers in a Dangerous Time: PART I

Welcome to PART I of a two part piece that tells the story of an interesting Vancouver lawyer who’s CREATING a LIFE he LOVES in these dangerous timesdangerous times

Image Credit

Rob Laurie was born in Vancouver; spent part of his childhood in Houston, Texas; went to the University of British Columbia for undergrad; graduated with a degree in international relations and political science; and went to the University of Oxford for law school. He graduated from Oxford and was hired as a solicitor-trainee at the London office of the international firm, Ashurst LLP. He then spent a total of two years after UK articles working at the London office of the international giant, Sullivan & Cromwell LLP, advising multinational corporations and investment banks on international project finance, M&A, structured products, redomiciliation and capital markets transactions, and at the London office of Schulte Roth & Zabel LLP, as a corporate associate, specializing in international hedge fund formation and alternative investment vehicles. (Pretty impressive first few years of practice, wouldn’t you say?!)

After working long hours and accumulating diverse experience in the international market, he came back to his home town of Vancouver, to a bright future. He was taken on at a Big Law firm downtown where his prior experiences were recognized and valued, and he immediately began making effective use of his skills assisting corporate clients with challenging international legal issues. He took up yoga and started eating kale, like every good citizen of Vancouver, and he lived happily ever after...THE END.

Not...quite.

The first paragraph is all true. To get a flavor of the inaccuracies of the second paragraph, read on through Rob’s words in the following paragraphs. (Don’t’ worry its not all bad – or at least, he’s been able to reflect back and see the good in it.)

Here’s what he really had to say about his experience returning home to Vancouver:

"I was grateful to get an articling position with a leading national firm with strong Vancouver roots. It is a great firm and I still have many friends, colleagues, and mentors there, who I turn to from time to time. The environment and ethos of the firm, however, was personally very frustrating because you could only advance on the firm’s schedule."

"I felt I was not really given credit for any of my past experience in England. I was proofreading work (prospectuses) I used to draft. It was such a waste, but I could appreciate the firm’s policy, especially in a tough market when there are already too many hogs (i.e. associates) at the trough who have put in years of time.  A number of senior associates I worked for confessed they felt I had been given a raw deal, but then again I was just lucky in this market to get a top articling gig."

"Looking back I don’t think it was the best environment for me. Other international lawyers that obtained comparable experience at leading law firms like Dewey & LeBouef, Herbert Smith, Freshfields, Sherman & Sterling, and Latham & Walkins, have since told me they had a very different experience completing their BC articles. In short, they were treated like a lateral hire who needed to article, where I was thrown in the pit with the rest of the greenhorn students, which was kind of fun, but frustrating at the same time when all I wanted to do was get back to doing something comparable to what I loved doing in London."

"The NCA process, articling for a year and the BC PLTC program is in one respect the BIGGEST waste of time, if all you want to do is get back to practicing corporate, finance, and securities law. Now that I've done it, I’m glad I did, but I sometimes think that the three years would have perhaps been better spent elsewhere. I guess I am a sucker for family and quality of life considerations. After all, I was born in Vancouver – and I think I am now where I need to be. As they say, hindsight is 20/20, so who knows. I’m just glad that demon hell ride of an experience is done and I now have control over what I want to do next."

"To sum up the first three years of being home in Vancouver, I basically had to learn everything all over again, and have had to become a bit of a generalist. That is a double-edged sword and is very valuable in the ‘in-house’ practice arena as opposed to private practice where you can become very specialized very quickly. That too can be a danger that most young lawyers don’t fully appreciate. You may wake up in a few years and, like the song 'Once in a Lifetime' by the Talking Heads, 'you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?'"

"Sometimes articling really just felt like how I imagine a participant feels on a reality TV show like Big Brother or Survivor. You are competing for a prize, a “hire back” that, when you really think about it, may not even be where you want to be in the end. Like the contestants, you get so caught up in the competition that you stop seeing the wood for the trees."

Despite being able to look back now and also see the benefits of the whole thing, Rob told me that by the time he finished the required articling term in 2011, he was restless. VERY restless.  “My father described it best,” he told me, “when he said I was like a ‘race horse kept in a barn too long’. If you are used to running and you can’t, you’ll start kicking gates and fences.

Needless to say, it didn’t really work out for Rob in the Big Law firm he was at.

So what did he do? What kind of LIFE is he CREATING?

Don’t worry, his secrets will be revealed…next week in Lawyers in a Dangerous Time: PART II.

So stay tuned. And until then, I hope you get out there and ‘kick a few fences’.

xo,

Danielle

p.s. Although the NCA process is mentioned only briefly in the quotes above, I would like to note that Rob can deliver quite the entertaining rant on the subject…future blog rant perhaps?

You don’t mind taking the blame do you? You’re just an articling student after all.

frazzled If you`re having a rough day, I hope you will read this and feel a little less alone. As awful as JD`s experience was I think we will all be able to relate in some way. I know I definitely can. So let me tell you her story...

JD was having a rough day.

She’d just returned to her office to find two more files on her chair. The top one had no note. The bottom one had a sticky that said “Urgent.”

Great. Just great, she thought. She was already billing 12 – 15 hours a day and 6 or so each day on the weekends. She had been for the past month and there was no light at the end of the tunnel. She was exhausted. The files were starting to pile up, the to-do list seemed to double every day, and she was scared that she was missing things. She was terrified to disappoint and even more terrified that she would mess something up or forget to do something important.

Most of the time she felt like she didn’t know what she was doing – and wasting a senior lawyer’s time to ask for help was not an option.

Earlier that morning JD had received an urgent email from a partner she worked for asking why she hadn’t yet sent over the application materials she was supposed to have prepared for a certain file. She was caught off guard. She had no idea what application the partner was referring to. In fact, she had no idea what file the partner was referring to. Panic set in.

She searched her office. She searched her emails. She looked the file up on the network. The file was completely unfamiliar to her. She searched her mind again and again. No luck. She had no recollection of talking to the partner about the file and no idea what application she was supposed to have prepared.

She finally got up the courage to send a reply email asking what application the partner was referring to. When she didn’t immediately get a response, she tried to focus on the million and one other tasks she had on her plate, hoping against hope that the partner would respond saying “Oh sorry about that, sent the email to the wrong person.”

Half an hour went by, then an hour. No response. She didn’t know what to do.

She was scared. It was completely possible she had forgotten. She was so overwhelmed.

Her fears were right, she thought, she had forgotten something important. She would be fired. She was incompetent. Her life was over.

JD stared at the mounds of paper on her desk and the boxes of documents creating a fortress all around her and fought back tears. How could she ever do all of this? No wonder she was missing things! Why did she feel so alone?

She decided she needed to go to the bathroom to 'get her shit together'. She needed to take a minute, compose herself, and come back in a better head space so she could start tackling her to-do list.

She had just cleared her head to a point where she didn’t have to actively fight back the tears, when she returned to her office to find those two new files sitting on her chair.

She took a deep breath, told herself it was ok, and took a closer look at the file that said “Urgent” – it was that file. The one she was supposed to have prepared the application on. She was just getting it now! She hadn’t forgotten. She really had never seen it before.

She checked her email. There was no response from the partner. No missed calls. No apology. No acknowledgement that she was just receiving the file today. No acceptance of responsibility whatsoever. Just that one sticky note message - “Urgent”.

Anger. Frustration. Betrayal. Helplessness. Emotions swirled in her gut.

Just then, one of the other articling students walked in and asked if she wanted to grab a coffee.

JD looked up and tried to respond but all that came were the tears.

The emotions she had been holding in for weeks could no longer be restrained. She explained the situation to the other student through her tears and they hugged. The other student understood. The advice she got was to go and speak with the partner that was the head of the student committee about how overwhelmed she was feeling.

After making a second attempt that day to compose herself, that’s exactly what she did. She explained how overwhelmed she was feeling, how exhausted she was, and how afraid she was that she was going to mess something up, and the response she got was not all that helpful. Not that the partner didn’t understand or try to help. He did. And he really did care. The problem was that he understood it all too well. He told JD that even at his level (he had recently made partner) he often feels overwhelmed, and he usually ends up working too much. He advised JD to go and talk to the individual partners she worked for and ask to be given less work if she felt she really had too much on her plate.

Deep down JD knew this was the answer she would get. It’s the answer we get all too often – a little sympathy, an “I’m in the same boat”, and a “that’s just the way it is”.

She sighed, thanked him for listening, and got up and left feeling just as helpless as she had when she had entered, and even more disheartened at the thought that it didn’t really get much better, even in partnership.

Over the next couple days JD did take his advice and went to speak to a few of the partners she worked for. She got a few deadlines pushed back and although nothing was taken off her plate completely, by the time the head of the student committee dropped by her office to check in a few days later, she was feeling a little more in control of things.  Her working hours weren’t any shorter but at least she felt like she didn’t have to increase her hours in order to survive. Her life was somewhat manageable.

And then JD learned something she wasn’t expecting. The head of the student committee was saying that he was glad she was feeling better because it would not be good for her future if she wasn’t able to manage her workload. He told JD that he had heard from one of the partners she worked for that she “was always too busy” and that she “didn’t do his work”.

When JD asked what he was talking about she found out it was that same partner, the one that had left those files on her chair.

And she had to ask - what was the work the partner was saying she “didn’t do”? You guessed it. It was that file - the one with the “Urgent” sticky note on it.  The partner had been going around telling the committee of people that were to decide whether she had a future in this firm that she just “didn’t do his work” without even talking to her about it first. And on top of that everything he had said about her had turned out to be completely untrue. The reason she hadn’t done his work was because she hadn’t been asked to do it yet.

Luckily JD was able to explain to the head of the student committee what had really happened, but she still felt defeated. It made her worry about what else was being said about her behind closed doors; what else was being blamed on her without her knowledge.

“I knew articling wouldn’t be easy, but this I never imagined,” she said. “I mean, we’re all lawyers, why can’t we just communicate with each other – to our faces?”

This was her career, her reputation, and at that moment she felt completely powerless to create it and preserve it.  

We all have rough days, and I`m sure each of you has had an experience like JD`s where you`ve felt powerless or taken advantage of or like you had no control your own future or reputation. If you do have a story you`d like to share please get in contact with me, you never know the effect you could have on someone else`s day, just by making them feel like they are not alone.

We are all in this together.

Danielle

How to get out of and bounce back from a nightmare

JD once… …had a passion for the law and becoming a lawyer.

…felt excitement at the thought of what the future would bring.

…had a vision of help those who were disadvantaged, discriminated   against, or otherwise unable to help themselves.

…had a dream of upholding the rule of law and basic human rights.

…believed that being a lawyer would give her an opportunity to live that dream. 

She worked hard at making her vision a reality. And somewhere between the hard work and the making a difference she lost her way.

“After law school, reality hit,” she said. “The jobs we had dreamed of were non-existent.”

The dream of helping others and righting wrongs became a struggle to survive in a cut throat profession. She watched talented classmates, unable to find jobs, take positions in retail.

Ultimately, when she was offered a job, she felt she had to accept it, even though it was not in line with any of her dreams, goals, or important values.

nightmare

“I had to take whatever work I could find,” she told me, “and what I found ended up being a nightmare.”

She woke up every day to a job where there was no mentorship, support, or assistance. She managed a heavy caseload of family and criminal law matters, with approximately 40 of her cases going to trial in her first year of practice.

And she did it all without help. The sole practitioner who had hired her was not familiar with those areas of law. His practice was completely unrelated. It turned out, he had hired her because his clients often had problems that required the assistance of a criminal or a family lawyer, and, as he didn’t provide those services, it was convenient to have a young lawyer who could provide them for meager pay.

“Day in and day out I had to figure out how to fight battles I knew nothing about,” she confided.

There were no other lawyers in the office. There was no support staff. There were no precedents for the types of files she was running. She was forced to take every client that came in the door. She was overloaded with work and running low on sleep. She would find herself struggling in court and forced to ask for help from senior counsel who had, moments earlier, commented on how her legs looked in her suit skirt.

“The profession was unkind,” she said. “I cried a lot. I drank a lot.” She paused. “I found hot yoga and it saved my life.” She smiled, but her tone was serious.

After living the nightmare for just over a year she left. Not just her job but the profession. The flame for the law that shone so brightly had flickered in her year of struggle, dimed, and ultimately burned out.

So she got out. But when she took a step back and looked within, instead of finding that all traces of her old passions had been destroyed, she found the embers were still there.

“I knew it was time for a change,” she said. “I knew I needed to leave the profession for a bit, so I could come back stronger and full of the passion I had upon entering law school.”

After a period of rest and some self reflection the spark reignited.

refresh

“I started to remember why I once thought the law was so interesting and why it could be such a powerful tool,” she said. “The law is ever changing and evolving. This is what makes our profession exciting. It gives you a career long opportunity to learn. The changing nature of the law keeps you on your toes.  It challenges you. I’m excited to start practicing again, and I hope that I am better prepared to face the challenges the profession throws my way.”

JD’s words inspired me. Although her struggles were heartbreaking our conversation filled me with a sense of hope. Hope for all of us who have got caught up. Hope that we can all step back from the busyness and find our way back to what is true and meaningful to us.

If you know that you loved the law at one time but you can’t remember why anymore...

If you once set out on a path to carry out your vision of making a difference but somewhere in the busyness the path changed direction and the meaning was lost….

If you find yourself thinking…

“This isn’t what I signed up for...”

“I thought it would be different…”

Maybe its not time to give up.

Maybe you just need some rest and a dose of self reflection. Maybe you, like JD, will find that your flame for the law still burns somewhere inside. Maybe you only need to get back in touch with it.

I hope that you will take some time. I hope that you find once again what it is that motivates you to get out of bed each morning, and that you grab it with both hands and go back out there and make the difference you always dreamed of making.

Check out the awesome tips below from JD herself, on how she overcame the challenges she was faced with and rediscovered her love and passion for our dear profession of law.

Tips from JD

Overcoming Challenges 

  1. When you don’t know what you’re doing, pick up the phone. As I mentioned, I didn’t have a supervising lawyer helping me with my cases. The phone became my best friend. I called former professors, law school friends, and lawyers I had interned with. These people were able to provide practice tips and strategies that helped me in my practice.
  2. Network. This is an arduous word that puts fear into the hearts of law students and lawyers alike. I prefer to think of networking as making friends and acquaintances. During my year of practice, reaching out to lawyers, and introducing myself at every given opportunity helped me to meet lawyers that were able to provide me with the knowledge I needed in my practice.  Networking can be      indispensible to your practice, especially if you do not have a good support system at your office. It’s good to think of networking as lawyers helping lawyers.
  3. Find a good support system. Connect with friends and/or family often. Lawyers tend to be in their heads a lot, and tend to carry their clients burdens. Find someone to talk to, even if it is a professional. A neutral observer is able to put things into perspective for you when you are overwhelmed.
  4. Try to live a balanced life. Being a lawyer it not just a job title to most; it is who you are as a person. But only immersing yourself in the law, without any outside interests, makes for a square individual. Take up hobbies and interests. Take time for recreation. Interests outside of the office make for a well-rounded individual, who is less likely to burn out.     
  5. Exercise. Enjoy the fresh air as much as you can. The last few months before I quit, I started doing a lot of hot yoga. I am certain that daily yoga got me through the toughest of times.
  6. Take a lunch break. This is something I never did. I always felt      guilty if I took any breaks. Taking a break in the middle of the day, in my opinion, makes you more productive, and will help you combat the possibility of daily burnout.

Bouncing Back

  1. If at all possible, take some time to rest. This is hard, because      once you are in the middle of a case, you can’t simply stop. Taking a rest from the profession can be timed with looking for a new job or career path. If taking an extended rest period is not possible, make sure you take your vacation time. This will at least give your body and mind some time to rejuvenate.
  2. Every so often, sit down and reflect on your passions. Refocus your thoughts. Ask yourself why you decided to become a lawyer. Is your current practice reflective of your passion? Does your current position give you some sort of personal satisfaction, other than a pay check? If you’ve veered so far from your passions, and you feel stuck, start talking to practitioners in the areas of the law you are really passionate about. Ask them about their career path. If you can’t practice in the area you are passionate about, make sure you still keep informed about the area. Sign up for that section with the CBA. Do some volunteer work in the area. Ask a senior lawyer if you can do some volunteer work for them, or go to court with them when you have time.
  3. Mentorship. Your local bar associations should have mentorship programs. If not, you can ask your law school for suggestions, or you can turn to an experienced lawyer you have met during your practice. Having a mentor is akin to having a good support system. Your mentor has faced the challenges you are facing, and knowing that gives you the assurance that you are not alone in this battle, and that you will come through it. Hearing about your mentors success may help reignite your passion to succeed in the profession. A guiding hand might be just the thing you need in order to bounce back.
Fishing for Articles? Cast a Wide Net...

When I spoke with JD he was looking for an articling position; he had been looking for seven months. He had returned home after graduating from law school overseas, had become qualified to practice in B.C., had built up a resume full of amazing experiences, and was currently spending his time working in a non-law related job, volunteering, and doing everything in his power to get articles. I knew that getting articles could be pretty tough, but seven months is a long time to be looking for a job, especially after years of university specifically geared towards working in the legal profession. I also knew that this type of experience is more common than it should be, and I was curious about his process.

So I asked him what he’d tried.

And the answer was… everything.

Really, I mean everything.

JD talked to the career advisory board at his law school. He personalized all cover letters. He got reference letters and transcripts and made neatly packaged applications. He reached out to any contacts he thought might be able to put in a good word. He endured the stress of applying to the big firms downtown, diligently following the rules of the application game. And when the one interview he got from that whole process didn’t pan out, he cast a wider net.

JD was not picky; in fact he wasn’t selective at all. He branched out in geography to the greater Vancouver area: New Westminster, Burnaby, and even as far as Pit Meadows. He applied to large firms, mid size firms, small firms, and sole practitioners. He applied to corporate firms and litigations firms. He applied to family law firms and criminal law firms. He applied to general practice firms. He even applied to tax law firms despite not having had a chance to take a course in tax law. He talked to everyone. He applied to all firms that were recommended. He googled and spent hours scanning firm websites. He applied to all that were hiring. He applied to all that had contact information on their website regardless of whether they were hiring. He followed up unanswered applications with emails and calls. He started cold calling. He even put out an ad in the classified section.

For the first four months JD made finding articles his full time job. And even now, hundreds of hours later, after JD’s financial situation has forced him to get a non-law related job, he still spends two days worth of free time per week devoted to the search.

And what did hundreds of hours and 100 + applications get him? About 5 interviews, a bunch of “no responses”, and a whole lot of the word “sorry”. Sorry, we don’t hire students. Sorry, we just hired a student. Sorry, not right now, try back in a few months.

Was JD frustrated? Of course. He wants to be a lawyer. He’s spent years gaining education and experiences to prepare him to become a lawyer. And now he’s spent seven months trying to overcome the last hurdle only to be turned away with a “sorry”.

“The worst thing,” JD said, “is having a law degree, and not being able to find a job… Knowing what I am capable of, if someone would just give me a shot to prove it.”

What inspired me the most was that JD was still in good spirits. He had talked with people who had told him they’d looked for over a year before finding articles, but he hadn’t lost hope. He was able to stand back from the day to day frustrations and see a number of ways in which the whole experience may actually be a long term net positive… He was meeting a lot of people in the legal community. It was forcing him to expand his perspective. He was getting exposed to different sizes of firms and areas of practice that he might not otherwise have considered. It was allowing him time to help others through meaningful volunteer work, which he would not likely have had time for during articles or as a young lawyer.  He was learning how to read the signs and becoming a master interviewer…

But ultimately, JD wasn’t getting to do the thing that he’s known he’s wanted to do since high school.  Become a lawyer and practice law.

So what was JD going to try next? Fine tune his application process? Hone his interview skills? Apply some of the well-meaning (and sometimes contradictory) advice about what he should say or do differently? Probably yes to all of the above.

And the answer is really, that he is going to continue to do everything.

He’s going to continue to cast a really wide net…and then cast it again…and then cast it again.

Buy a can of Comet, just in case…

“What I would do”, JD said, “is keep a can of Comet in my drawer, and when I really can’t take it anymore, I could just grab it and…”, JD lifted her hand and made a motion of shaking Comet into her face while making whimpering noises. The others at the table laughed.

“Wow, now that’s creative”, one of them said.

The group of articling students were out for lunch on a Friday. They were just finishing their meal, and enjoying the last of each other’s company before gluing themselves back in front of their computer screens.

The topic of conversation had ranged from comparing work hours, to complaining about work, to joking about creative ways to do themselves in. A typical lunch.

The seriousness of the problem entered their consciousness briefly when one of them brought up the news story about the articling student in Toronto who it appeared (although it was being kept very quiet) had gone so far as to actually take her own life. The story was heartbreaking. They each mumbled something about how awful it was that that could actually happen.

But it was too close home. They couldn’t allow themselves to dwell on it for fear that the reality of their situations would be too much for them too.

Somebody mentioned the weather. It was a snowstorm outside.

And they went back to laughing.

 

Defining success

Dear legal profession, Am I really superhuman? You’ve made me believe that I am. I didn’t know I had it in me. I’m so grateful for your guidance and enlightenment. You always push me to give my best. You made me realise that I can in fact work more hours in a day, a week, a year, than most people on the planet. I know that I am resilient.  You’ve shown me that.

I know we don’t like to speak of it. We wouldn’t want to give the recipe away. But just between you and me, we both know the method to my madness success.

It starts out with a solid four hours of sleep. I take those four hours and mix in 5 cups of black coffee (while staring diligently at my computer screen); 15 hours of slouching before a computer screen; a lunchtime salad; an afternoon chocolate bar; six minutes of healthy screaming, stomping, throwing, or uncontrollable sobbing; one large takeout dinner; two or three glasses of wine (to quiet the helpful reminders of “What about this?” and “You still have to do that!”); one thirty second email to my mom (to apologize for not returning her call and to promise to call soon); a quick glance at my running shoes with a half-hearted promise of “tomorrow”; a midnight snack; one hour of bedtime heart palpitations beating to the tune of the tomorrow’s to-do list; and four hours of to-do list filled dreams (waking once to helpfully respond to an urgent 3:00 a.m. email), before grudgingly eagerly jumping awake to the sound of my alarm to face the next exhausting exciting day.

You expect more from me than I offered, more than I knew I even had to offer. And some days it is more than I can offer. I slip up. I miss something. I fail. I beat myself up… But I work harder. I promise that it wont happen again. And sometimes I succeed. I get a compliment. I get a thank you. I win. And it makes me proud that I can bring it.

But something I’ve been wondering lately is: Why do you define success in this way? Why do I define success in this way? (I don’t think I always did) Could it be possible that we are wrong? That we are missing something fundamental? That we need to…change?

Yours truly,

JD

Billing 60 hours a week? That’s something that sucks.

I recently spoke with an articling student about my blog and my crusade to eliminate the crazy amounts of stress in the lives of lawyers, or, as a new friend so aptly put it, to work on “destressing and reinvigorating our manic brothers and sisters”.  After explaining the whole idea, the articling student, whom I would never and could never identify by real name, firm, or even gender, said, “Why don’t you write about billing 60 hours a week? That’s something that sucks.”  Strangely enough, I agreed. So I decided to create this “rants” section in my blog, the idea being that it will be a safe place for all of us to voice the frustrations we feel and the challenges that we face. (In order to prevent any possible identification of my sources, I will only refer to the people I speak with as John Doe or Jane Doe ("JD").)

So I listened.

6 hours Sunday, 12 hours Monday, 14 hours Tuesday, 12 hours Wednesday. A total of 44 hours billed and Thursday had not yet begun.  “I just want to tell the incoming students to run”, JD said. “That life is hell. That they will steal your soul.”

Instead JD will probably end up telling them something like ‘I work hard but I’m learning a lot. The work is interesting and the people are great. I love the challenge.'  And that’s what gets me. The pretending. The schmoozing. The networking with fake smiles and enthusiasm. The false eagerness to take on more.  All the while our insides are crying “No! Just stop. Just walk. You don’t need this. You don’t deserve to be treated this way.”

But the investment we’ve made in this profession through our years of university, blatantly reflected in our bank statements and student loans balances, prevent us from seriously contemplating standing up for ourselves as an option.

When asked if JD would do it again, JD sighed and said, “Yeah, I would. That’s the worst part. Even knowing all of this, I would. I want to be a lawyer. I have no choice.”