(This was originally published in the OBA's Sole, Small Firm and General Practice Section's Newsletter)
I did not meet a “real-life” lawyer until I went to law school. I had no lawyers in my family. I was the first to go to university. I learned about lawyers from the usual places, like Perry Mason (re-runs, I’m not that old), Matlock (I watched these live, I am that old) Law & Order, and Ally McBeal. I didn’t know the difference between a solicitor and barrister, I thought all lawyers were litigators and went to court. I had no idea what it was like to practice law. I did not understand what the different areas of law entailed in real-life, other than the substantive law I learned in class. I was very naïve. Now, imagine my surprise when I was told that I better choose my articling position wisely because that would determine the type of law I would practice for the rest of my career. Looking back now, it is a silly thing to tell a law student, but many are still being given this advice.
Through my part-time role as Regional Alumni Advisor to the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law, I provide career coaching and advice to lawyers in their first ten years of practice. Due to the pandemic, and a less than robust market for legal jobs, many new lawyers have reached out for advice on job hunting. These lawyers were either not hired back after articling or were let go due to COVID after working at the same firm for several years. Some of these lawyers, for a variety of reasons, are wanting to change practice areas. Some chose an area of law that they later learned did not suit their personality. Some thought they would love to argue in court, only to realize they suffer from debilitating anxiety. Others didn’t have a choice and were happy just to find an articling position or lawyer position in any area of law. Now they want to find a job in a practice area better suited to their interests and skill set.
Unfortunately, it is these lawyers who are struggling the most with finding new jobs. Even though they explain in their cover letters why they wish to change practice areas, many hiring lawyers and law firms will not respond or give them an interview. If they do respond, it is with concerns that they will not be “committed” to this new practice area or they question whether the lawyer is “really interested” in this new area of law. Or some hiring firms will not give them a chance because even though the lawyer may have 3-5 years of post-call experience it is not experience in the firm’s specific practice area.
Some well-intentioned lawyers are giving these new lawyers the advice to not even try to switch practice areas because “no one will hire them” and they should “just stick with what they know."
We need to stop doing this.
Imagine your whole legal career being determined by the articling or first year position you just happened to find? Or, what if you discover that your personality and your strengths are not matched with the practice you thought you would love? It should not be the end of the line. Imagine being stuck in a practice that you hate, just because of the outdated idea that a lawyer cannot switch practice areas?
I see a unique opportunity for solo and small firm lawyers to assist these lawyers. We can give these lawyers a chance. If you are hiring a new associate, do not automatically count out lawyers with experience outside of your practice area. I understand most firms want to hire someone with some experience in the firm’s area of law, but a lot can be learned quickly, and many skills are transferrable. For example, all lawyers have clients. Client management, file management, meeting deadlines, organizational skills, communication skills, etc. are all skills lawyers learn and can be transferred between practice areas. Legal research skills are applicable across the board. Courtroom skills are transferrable as well. A criminal lawyer would be on her feet a lot more than a civil litigator at a large firm and can easily transfer those skills from a criminal practice to a civil litigation practice. There’s some overlap between a family law practice and an estate litigation practice. And a corporate litigator may know more about drafting contracts than you might think.
If we cannot assist lawyers looking to transition practice areas by offering them a job, we can at least be a sounding board or mentor. If they decide to start their own firms in a new practice area, solo and small firm lawyers can assist by being that “go-to” person if a question comes up. Or you can introduce them to your network of lawyers in that practice area, let them know about the best resources, or CLE programs, or organizations for them to join to get up to speed.
We can also give encouragement to other lawyers who are trying to make this transition. We should not be telling them to not bother to try. This is how we lose great lawyers from the practice of law. We can all take small steps to assist those who are struggling to switch practice areas. The first thing is to be a little more open minded.
Have you switched practice areas? What worked for you?
My last blog post on my career conundrum prompted several readers to comment on the post and send me thoughtful emails and DMs about their own experiences. I am glad it resonated so much with everyone. Reading the feedback, and in speaking with others, I noticed a theme: some people are very much in control of their careers and make active choices, while others are letting their careers happen to them.
I used to be the latter, sitting in the passenger seat watching the scenery go by, not sure where I was headed. Now I am trying my best to be the former, a driver focused on a career destination of my choice. The reason? Twice, I have been blindsided in my career. I was letting my career control me, instead of the other way around. I do not want that to happen again.
I started at a large firm without much of a career plan. Well, my plan was to keep my head down, work all the time, do great work, and be rewarded. Unfortunately, being a lawyer is not the same as being a law student. Working hard does not directly translate into an A+ career. I was not actively in control of my career; I was letting my career unfold around me as I focused only on my files.
After working like this for several years, during the seven months that I was away on my second maternity leave, my firm took over another firm, bringing on over a hundred new lawyers, new office space, and lots of new expenses. Shortly following my return, many lawyers were “let go”. I was one of them. While the firm emphasized that the decision had nothing to do with my legal skills and I was a great lawyer (hint: I was a seventh year associate without a book of business and had just taken two maternity leaves in three years), it was still a massive blow to my ego and self-esteem. I quickly realized my loyalty to my firm and hours of hard work were no guarantee that my job would be there forever.
CAREER LESSON ONE: Law is a business. Firms are in the business of making money. Economic downturns happen. Pandemics happen. Firms implode. Partnerships crumble. While these events are beyond your control, there are lots of things within your control that you can do to protect yourself.
Any time I speak to new lawyers I always remind them that their job is never guaranteed. While I do not want them to be constantly on edge and thinking negative thoughts, they should at least have an outline of a career plan in the back of their minds. This career plan should involve answers to “What if?” scenarios.
What I should have been doing since day one as a lawyer was laying the groundwork, making connections, keeping an eye on the legal market and other job opportunities, and building my own personal brand, so I had something to fall back on, or people to reach out to, when my job disappeared. These connections, and a growing network, also help build a book of business, something of value to your firm. This is not an onerous undertaking for new lawyers. It’s as simple as getting to know lawyers outside of your firm and letting them get to know you, volunteering with at least one legal organization, writing an article or two, attending a few networking events, setting up a social media presence, being active on LinkedIn, etc. You don’t have to do all of this, (working around the clock as a new lawyer takes up a lot of time) but pick one or two things to do and dedicate a few minutes each week to your career plan. This way, you won’t be starting from scratch in case one of the “What if?” scenarios happen.
This leads to the second career lesson I learned. When I lost my job, I panicked. Instead of taking time to focus and plan and figure out what would be the best job for me and my personality, interests, and skills, I jumped at the first job offer that happened to come my way. Once again, I was not in control of my career. I was letting my career happen to me. I was blindsided when I realized I made the wrong decision. I was not at all a good fit for the new job. Even though I knew early on that I had made a mistake, it took me another 6 months before I had the courage to admit it, take control, and quit. I kept waiting for the job to get better or for me to develop the skills to get used to the new job, or ideally for a new job to just come along and land in my lap with absolutely no effort on my part (ha!). Eventually I quit without another job lined up, but this time I took the lessons I learned and created a career that I love.
CAREER LESSON TWO: It sucks to be stuck in a job you hate. No matter how much you hope it will change, it likely won’t. Plan, prepare, and find a new job that you love. While it would be great if the “perfect” job just appeared in our in-box, often we need to work to find it. Passively waiting for your ideal job to come along could result in a lifelong career that was just ‘meh’ and missed opportunities you failed to find.
My career moves were thrust upon me in the past. I now make all my decisions with a lot more purpose and drive. I’ve also matured enough to know that money and prestige are wonderful but are not enough to make me happy. I know what makes me happy and each career decision must reflect that. No job is perfect, but it is possible to find one that is a good fit for you. This may take a little help, a legal career coach or consultant, speaking with friends and family, taking the time to get to know your own strengths and weaknesses, but you will get there.
No matter what age or stage you are at in your legal career, it is never too late to start being in control.
Life’s too short not to be.
Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash
I first came to the realization that I might have made a poor career choice during a casual chat with my colleagues at a social event. It was the usual Thursday night litigation drinks held in one of the boardrooms on the 43rd floor at my former firm. I do not recall what we were discussing, but at some point, I said, “I just really hate conflict”. Another associate turned to me with a quizzical look on his face, “You hate conflict? Aren’t you a litigator?”
It may sound obvious, but that was really the first time I put two and two together. I was able to recognize the source of the prickly-icky feeling that I had about being a litigator. I hated conflict but I was in a conflict-filled job.
The thing was though, for the most part, I enjoyed being a litigator. There were so many aspects that I found exciting and invigorating. I loved trying to find the perfect case to support my client’s position. I loved analyzing the law and crafting a strong argument. I loved starting with a blank screen and finishing with a well-written and persuasive factum. I loved the feeling of making an amazing argument in court. All these things gave me little adrenaline highs (still do).
But there were aspects of my job that kept me up at night.
Contentious correspondence with opposing counsel caused me so much anxiety. The ‘gamespersonship’, the tactical maneuvering, the surprise strategic motion when I thought we were on track to settle, the “gotcha” new case handed over the morning of the court appearance…all made my heart pound. I could not breathe. Panic would set in. Every time I received a snarky email or even one that was just sternly worded, I would want to vomit. I would cry over opposing counsel being aggressive in settlement negotiations (after I left the room, thankfully) because the conflict it created made me so sad. I just wanted to scream: “Life’s too short! Let’s all get along. Let’s figure this out together. Why must we fight?!”
My mentors and other lawyers told me I was “too sensitive”. I have been told this my whole life. I am so sick of hearing those words. My grade school teachers, professors, ex-boyfriends, friends, employers, partners at firms, opposing counsel: “You are too sensitive, Erin. Toughen up, grow a thick skin, and you will be fine”. For too long I was ashamed of my sensitivity and tried my best to hide my emotions. But that is so hard to do when you feel everything. When I walk into a room I just sense what others are feeling and absorb those feelings as my own. When you are in a high-conflict situation those feelings are intense. And I feel every single one of them.
I know exactly where my dislike of conflict and my sensitivity comes from. I learned from an early age to walk on eggshells, to not rock the boat, to not cause any conflict that might set someone off. Figuring out a person’s mood, sensing if they were ready to blow, and keeping the peace, were all important if I did not want to get hurt, both physically and emotionally. Between my DNA and my childhood circumstances I am wired the way I am.
When I told my mother that I was going to law school, she told me I was “too nice to be a lawyer”. At the time it annoyed me a little, but looking back now I realize she knew the true me. The real Erin was a highly sensitive person who might not fare well in the conflict filled world of litigation. Mothers know best.
In my seventh year of practice, when I switched from corporate commercial litigation to estate litigation, things only got worse. I know, I know. Clearly there would be more conflict and emotions in estate litigation, but I am always one who is up for a challenge. I thought I could just put mind over matter and force myself to just “deal with it”. I thought I could beat my sensitivity.
I lasted 7 months.
The conflict and the anger and the sadness in estate litigation were too much. I absorbed them like a sponge and took those feelings home with me every night. My days were filled with brothers and sisters intensely hating each other; aggressive counsel (some bordering on sharp practice); angry correspondence; clients either crying on the phone to me or swearing at me. I felt like I had this constant orb of anxiety around my body 24/7. On my way to work I would hope to be hit by a car. Not injured badly, just enough that I would have to go to the hospital and not work for a few days. Things were not good. Eventually, I learned I was pregnant, and my obstetrician told me that the stress I was under was affecting my health. It was only then that I gave myself permission to admit defeat. I was never going to “toughen up”. I was never going to build that emotional protective shell around me. I was never going to grow that thick skin.
And that was okay.
I quit the next day. I have not been a “regular” litigator since.
I started my own practice as a freelance lawyer. I support litigators behind the scenes doing all the work that I love to do, drafting pleadings and factums, conducting legal research, writing legal opinions, etc. I never have to deal with opposing counsel. I never have to deal with emotional and distraught clients. It is the perfect practice for me.
But some days I feel like a quitter.
I see lawyers my age winning prestigious litigation awards and on the cover of newspapers working on headline grabbing cases. I went to law school to take on these cases and to help people. I went to law school to be a real litigator and I am not. Should I have stuck it out? Could I have learned to deal with conflict? I know I was really good at my job. I know I am an excellent litigator. Should I have toughened up and become less sensitive?
Is it possible to be a litigator who hates conflict? Is there a secret I never learned?
I have no answers. I will just go on with my day being my sensitive self, feeling all the feels, and doing my best behind the scenes to resolve as much conflict in this world that I can.
I was inspired to write this post by an article I recently read on how to exit an insulting job interview gracefully, called “Why Don’t More People Walk Out of Bad Job Interviews?” I started thinking, how can we avoid bad interviews in the first place? Interviews are a necessary part of finding and filling legal positions. What can we do as both interviewees and interviewers to improve the job finding process, especially in the current legal market?
Interviewing for any job is very stressful, but particularly so for new law grads. Many have massive law school debt and the market is still pretty bleak. I meet with a lot of new unemployed lawyers or lawyers that are in-between jobs. Anecdotally, I've witnessed that the average time for a new lawyer to find a law job is between 6-12 months. That’s a long time. These lawyers feel like their lives are on hold. They also sometimes get excited about a job and after months of waiting and follow-up interviews find out the position went to someone else. They start the job-hunting process over again. With these added pressures lawyers are going into interviews already super stressed.
And, being the interviewer can be equally stressful. Especially if this is the lawyer’s first time hiring an associate or law student. They will be spending a lot of time, energy, resources, and money on this individual, what if they choose the wrong candidate? Also, the associate or student will be working under the lawyer’s firm name and a brand the lawyer probably spent a long-time building. Can they trust the candidate to represent their firm?
I half-jokingly tell people I have my own law practice because I’m just really bad at interviews. I’ve had a few good ones, but I have also had some that were extremely embarrassing.
For example, in law school, during a full day of on-campus interviews I developed this nervous tick of licking my lips. Every. Few. Seconds. I. Would. Stop. To. Lick. My. Lips. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t stop! I probably looked like a lizard.
Then, later in my career, I once ended an interview with: “Thank you for this, I love talking about myself!!” What?!? “I love talking about myself?” Where did that come from? Who says that? I was mortified.
I’ve also had interviewers behave poorly. I was once interviewed by a panel of three people and the lead interviewer began by holding up the written component of the application, saying: “You do know that if you worked here I would have re-written this entire thing.” Another member of the panel would snort and roll her eyes every time I gave an answer. When they gave me a “situational” question involving a “big, burly client” I referred to the client with a male pronoun. The lead interviewer held up her hand and said: “I didn’t say the client was a HE, gender stereotype much?” The two women looked at each other, laughed, and started writing furiously in their notes. I was so confused by their behaviour. The third interviewer seemed just as puzzled and he kept giving me sympathetic looks. I knew I had absolutely no desire to work for these toxic people. I should have exited gracefully by thanking them for their time and telling them I didn’t think it was the right fit. Instead I sat there politely listening to their snorts and put-downs for a full hour trying to answer their questions to the best of my ability. I was holding back tears by the end. To this day I’m not sure if it was an interview technique to weed out people who couldn’t handle hostility or whether they genuinely thought I was completely useless.
Besides abolishing interviews altogether (is that possible?) what can we do as both interviewees and interviewers to avoid negative interview experiences and improve the process of finding a job? Although I am not an expert (as evidenced above), for what it's worth, here are my thoughts:
Do you have any tips for improving law job interviews?
Starting your own legal practice, or business, can be overwhelming and terrifying. Some lawyers who branch out on their own are able to bring clients (or a full practice) with them from an old firm. Most of us are not that lucky. I started my own freelance lawyer practice, Cowling Legal Freelance, in 2013 from scratch. Through this I have learned several important lessons about building a legal practice and business. One of those lessons: Always say “Yes”...... until it is time to say “No”.
WHEN TO SAY YES
Unless you are independently wealthy, starting a legal practice with little or no clients means you have to say “yes” to files that show up, even if they may not excite you. Often people refer to this as practicing “Door Law” – your practice consists of whatever comes in the door. If you have a mortgage to pay and mouths to feed, saying "yes" is necessary. Obviously, you should only take on files that you are competent to handle, but use this as an opportunity to try new things and expand your skills. This is actually an exciting time! You may take on a file in an area that you never thought you would be interested in and discover you love it.
I learned lots by saying "yes" in the early years of my own practice. One firm asked if I would do a flat fee project. I had never done one before as a freelance lawyer, but I said "yes" anyway. I quickly learned that I had severely underestimated and undervalued my time - a mistake I never made again. But, I now know how to flat fee out projects better and have a new service to offer my clients. I never would have learned this if I said "no".
In the beginning I also said "yes" to things that took me well outside of my comfort zone or were a lot of hard work for little or no monetary reward. But, those opportunities turned into more opportunities and helped build my practice. For example, I answered "yes" when asked to write articles for legal publications and lawyer associations. Even though they didn't pay, and it takes a lot of time and hard work to write an article, it was a great way to get my name out there without having to pay advertising fees (low on clients, means low on cash). It was the same with volunteering for legal organizations. Saying "yes" to help organize a CLE event (not easy work), led to me being asked (and saying "yes") to speaking at a different legal event. A few lawyers saw me speak and sent work my way. Meeting the Dean of the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law over Twitter (through tweeting some of those time-consuming articles I wrote) and saying "yes" to having coffee with him, eventually led to my part-time position as Regional Alumni Advisor. This are just some examples.
It can be scary stepping into new situations and trying new things – but just saying "yes" can open up so many opportunities and, in turn, build your practice. Saying "yes" meant I was trying new things, meeting new people and going to new places. It was so much fun saying "yes"....until it was time to.....
What is the downside to learning to say "yes" to everything? You get good at it. You get into a habit of automatically saying "yes".
You want to have a coffee to pick my brain and expect me to travel 40 minutes to you in the middle of the day? Volunteer hours of my time in an area of law I am not really interested in?
Write an article for a publication that has readers who would never use my services? Decrease my billable rate and put up with your abusive emails because you promise me lots of work?
It really sounds silly to say "yes" to these suggestions, but once you get used to saying "yes" to build your practice, it can be hard to shake the habit. It makes sense to say "yes" when you start out because you have more time (all you have is time, when you have no clients!) but that changes once your practice is up and running and time becomes a precious commodity. Sometimes, even though you now have a steady flow of work coming in the door, you have files that excite you, and you've built a solid brand, as a business owner you still can't help but worry that the files will stop coming. Or, the writing opportunities will dry up. Or, the speaking opportunities will disappear. So you keep saying "yes" to everything even though you should be saying "no" to some things.
Last December I felt the beginning of burnout creeping into my life. I had the constant feeling like I was holding my breath all day, waking up panicking at 3 a.m. convinced I missed a deadline, stress-eating (chips for breakfast? Why not?), I was irritable, cranky, tired…I knew something had to change. I was doing too much. So I decided 2019 was "My Year of Saying No”. Not with the intention of saying “no” to everything, but just to be more strategic with my use of "yes". The response to "My Year of Saying No" has been great. Most people have understood and respected my decision. Often it's not a straight out no (although sometimes it is, especially with difficult clients), but more of a "not right now". I ask that they check in again next year or I make a note to follow up when it is a better time for me to consider the opportunity. It hasn't been easy, but life is much more manageable.
For those of you who are like me, and find it hard to say "no", here are some things to consider:
Is that client questioning your hourly rate at the beginning of the relationship? Is she not respecting your time and calling you 15 times a day before she has even signed your retainer? These are red flags of a difficult client. It is okay to say “no” to clients like this.
If someone wants to have a coffee with you to "pick your brain", it's okay to ask them to come to you. It's okay to limit it to 15-30 minutes. It's okay to even say "Sorry, I am tied up for the next little while, can you check in with me in a month or two?"
You've been asked to write an article. Is it for a publication that your clients or referral sources read? Is it on a topic that interests you? Or, will it be a pain to write? Will you have time to write it during your workday? Or, will you spend your family time or "me-time" writing it? It's okay to say "no" if the publication is not a good fit, or suggest another topic, or ask if it can be published in the next issue if the timing does not work.
If you are asked to speak at a conference, is it paid? Who is the audience? Will it benefit your practice? Will they cover expenses (travel, etc.)? Do you have to write a lengthy paper? It can be flattering to be asked to speak, but if there are only a few "pros" and lots of "cons" it might just be a waste of your time and energy.
Building your practice, or keeping your practice busy, is an on-going endeavour and it can never stop. So, it is good to keep taking on clients, keep writing, keep speaking, keep networking, etc. BUT once your practice grows and your time shrinks, you must be more selective in what you say "yes" to...Otherwise burnout may be around the corner.
I’ve made a mistake. A mistake that I know I should not make, I never intended to make, and I swore I would never make, but I did: the summer is over, and I didn’t take nearly enough time off.
I know there are more serious mistakes for a lawyer to make (the Law Society isn’t knocking on my door, demanding the revocation of my licence to practice law), however, this seemingly small mistake is having repercussions – a rippling effect - on my job and life.
How I Messed Up
I had the best of intentions to unplug this summer. In the past, I would work extra long days on Monday to Thursday so I could take Fridays off in July and August and enjoy the warm weather. This year I found myself saying, “Sure I can schedule that call/meeting on Friday, no problem”. Or, thinking to myself, “I’ll just pop into the office Friday morning and take the afternoon off”, only to look up and see that it was 6pm.
No worries, I thought, there’s plenty of summer left.
In July we loaded our three kids into the car and drove to remote Maine for a relaxing seven-day long vacation (I know, I know, “relaxing vacation” and “three kids” don’t normally go together). On our arrival, I found it so peaceful…almost too peaceful. My phone was not making any noises. I wasn’t receiving any emails. I mean none. No OBA emails. No Law Society emails. No “Let me do an SEO audit on your website” emails. What was going on?!
I looked at the service bars on my phone…. ack…. No cell phone reception! This might sound ideal to some, but as a sole practitioner and sole owner of a business (Flex Legal), and usually the first point of client contact, I started to panic. I quickly logged on to the WiFi at the rental home and sure enough - “ding, ding, ding” - the emails started rolling in. And, of course, something was up with one of our clients. There was a miscommunication between the lawyer client and a freelance lawyer. Both were looking to me to assist. By the time the issue was resolved it was three days into my vacation. On the seventh day I was finally starting to unwind, and . . . it was time to go home.
But, no worries, there was still plenty of summer left, it was only August.
On my return to the office I did not feel relaxed. I did not feel rejuvenated. I felt lethargic. I would go to the office with a long to-do list and I would barely get through a few items. Normally I am energised to get to the office in the morning, but 8 hours would go by and I wondered, what did I do all day? Anything? Instead of recognizing that I needed a break, I pushed through, I stayed at my computer all day, everyday. I didn’t get anything done, I told myself, how could I justify taking a day, or days off, now?!
And then August was over.(*)
We are now well into September (almost October!) which happens to be my busiest time of year. There is always an uptick in business for Flex in the fall and I teach at the University of Toronto. My calendar is full of conferences, networking events, volunteer meetings. My window of opportunity to take a proper break is closing.
Take That Vacation, it will Make you a Better Lawyer!
I’m not giving you any earth-shattering information. We all know that taking a real vacation makes us less stressed, more focused, and in return, better lawyers, better employees, and better bosses. Even though I love my job, I still need a break from it. I need to unplug and unwind. I need to think about something other than the law. When I do, I return to my practice with more energy and commitment.
When I worked for someone else, I always took all my allotted vacation. I felt I was working hard and I rightly deserved the time off. Now that I have my own practice and business and can, in theory, take as much vacation time that I want, I take even less. I need to change that.
So, here is what I have learned, and what may help to ensure that you and I take our important vacations:
p.s. VACATION ALERT: I will be out of the office starting on July 6, 2020 and will return to the office on July 27, 2020. I will not be checking email during that time 😊.
(*) I did convince myself to sneak off to an afternoon ball game one day in August (photo below), which was quite lovely, but it was not an uninterrupted break. Next time I will leave my phone at home!
Photo by chen zo on Unsplash
Erin C. Cowling is a freelance litigator, researcher & writer at Cowling Legal Freelance and President and Founder of Flex Legal Network Inc., a network of freelance lawyers.