I recently moved houses. (Yes, we are those “COVID made me move” people.)
While I was packing up over a decade’s worth of ‘stuff’, I found a performance review from my third year of practice shoved in the bottom of an old banker’s box. Reading the comments made me think about how much I have grown as a lawyer, especially when it comes to receiving negative feedback.
For some context, the following are direct quotes from reviews from the partners I worked with that year (edited for confidentiality) discussing my written advocacy skills:
“Erin’s written work product was clear, direct, and concise.”
“Very solid writing skills. Precise and clear.”
“Erin has very strong drafting skills. Her writing is point first and persuasive.”
“Erin consistently produces first rate written work product. It is clear, user friendly and responsive to the issues it is intended to address.”
“I did not think Erin’s written work was at the expected level. I was disappointed with the draft facta (sic) in the ‘XYZ’ matter and they required substantial re-working.”
I didn’t remember the first four reviews, but that final one has stuck with me for 12 years. Especially the word “disappointed”. As a recovering people pleaser, I hate disappointing anyone, especially someone who is relying on me to do a good job.
I also remember my reaction when I first read that review. I remember avoiding the partner in the halls. I was angry. I was hurt. I thought it was unfair. I was in a bad mood. It didn’t matter that the rest of my review was glowing. That final comment was the only one that counted.
It took me a long time to learn how to handle this type of feedback and criticism of my work.
It took me even longer to realize that negative feedback can be a good thing.
Over the years I have relied on a few tips that have helped me when receiving negative feedback. These tips work for lawyers of all ages and stages because as we progress in our career, partners may no longer be critiquing our work, but management, opposing counsel, judges, and our clients are:
1. Don’t rush to respond. Take a breather.
Our first instinct will be to be defensive. I remember wanting to explain to the partner why his criticism was unwarranted, why I decided to draft the documents the way I did, why he was wrong. I felt the need to explain away the criticism.
Folks, this is not helpful. It wasn’t until I was on the other end of providing feedback that I truly understood how unproductive this defensive behaviour can be.
I remember one articling student. Whenever I politely provided feedback or suggestions on how to improve his work, he immediately pushed back with an excuse: “Well so-and-so does it this way” or “You should have told me you wanted it done this way” or “I’m only an articling student”. I was trying to mentor him and help him improve his legal practice, but he wanted none of it. He never listened to the specific feedback; instead, because he did not hear the glowing review he expected, he pushed back. Eventually I just stopped working with him.
When a more senior lawyer, or a client, gives you negative feedback, fight the urge to speak. You will be defensive. We are only human. Take a breather. Maybe ask for time to respond if you need to. And listen. Truly listen to what they are saying. Try to understand the root of the criticism. Is it a fact (you missed a deadline)? Or an opinion (I don’t like how you wrote this)? If it’s a fact, immediately own up to the mistake or accept the criticism. If it is an opinion, see the next tip.
2. Ask questions to understand the feedback.
If the feedback is not a fact, but an opinion, ask questions to understand. If we do not understand the negative feedback, we cannot act on it. What parts of the Statement of Claim need improvement? How could it be improved? What parts of the document did they like? etc.
3. Don’t avoid the person or hold a grudge: You are only hurting yourself.
Yes, it is uncomfortable knowing that someone didn’t like your work. But if you avoid that partner or client, you are only hurting yourself. You will be missing out not only on opportunities to work with, and learn from, that person again, but you will also miss out on showing that you listened to their feedback and used it to improve.
4. Remember that not all criticism may be warranted.
Sometimes the criticism is unwarranted. Consider where the criticism is coming from. Did your work product really fall below expected standards or does this partner always rewrite everyone’s work, no matter what? Does ego play a part? Or more importantly, is the criticism directed at you because of your gender, race or sexual orientation?
This is why asking questions is so important. By digging into the criticism, it will be easier to see the intent behind it.
5. Understand the Positive Side to Receiving Negative Feedback
Remember that proper feedback comes from an intent to help. That partner or client wants to let you know what went wrong so you won’t do it again. Often, we don’t see our own shortcomings. Be grateful that someone has taken the time to provide that feedback to you and that you now have an opportunity to be an even better lawyer than you already are.
So, back to my negative review.
Why did that partner write that comment?
Maybe I wrote some crappy factums.
Maybe I was working several long hours, for several days and I was too tired to produce stellar work.
Maybe I forgot to use active voice.
Maybe I missed some case law.
Maybe the partner had a particular way he liked factums to be written and I failed to follow his preference.
Or, maybe I just suck at writing.
But I will never know.
Instead of asking questions to understand the feedback better and to learn how to improve my legal writing, I ignored the partner. I missed an opportunity. Don’t be me.
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.
It was a lovely surprise to learn last week that I was nominated for the Canadian Lawyer Magazine Top 25 Most Influential Lawyers 2020 award under the "Changemakers" category.
Anyone and everyone can vote at this link HERE.
You will also see some of the lawyers featured in past Women Leading in Law profiles nominated as well including Vivene Salmon, Kyla Lee , Meg Chinelo Egbunonu, Atrisha Lewis, and Charlene Theodore.
Voting is open until JUNE 5th!
This blog post was not supposed to be about pandemics or self-isolation or quarantines or our uncertain times. I had prepared a draft post about freelance lawyering. But I cannot ignore how our lives have shifted. Every time my fingers touched the keyboard, I wanted to write about our new normal, and, in particular, a lesson I have learned. A lesson from a troll. Not an online troll that attacks people on social media, but an actual troll.
Thanks to Disney+, our family was able to watch Frozen II at home earlier than anticipated. I won’t spoil the movie, but something happens, and everyone is scared, and not sure what to do. The Troll King (a.k.a. Grand Pabbie) has special powers and can normally “see” things. However, this time, he cannot see the future. This, of course, freaks people out, but the troll is calm and says:
“When one can see no future…all one can do is the next right thing.”
This has been my new mantra for the last week or so. Right now, I am sure many are feeling like me, unsure of what the future holds for us, our families, our businesses. As a self-employed freelance lawyer and owner of a small business, Flex Legal, I obviously need clients to give me work (in my case lawyers and law firm clients). If I don’t get work, I don’t get paid. I’ve already noticed a severe drop off in projects coming in to Flex Legal. I also know many people who have recently started their own law firms or sole practices. They may be regretting not having the steady paycheques or partnership draws right now. It is easy to panic and start imagining what the future will look like. If you are anything like me, you may be picturing the worst. But instead of dwelling on the future I cannot see, I’ve decided to listen to a cartoon troll and do “the next right thing”.
What is the “next right thing” you can do? What is in your control right now? We can take this situation hour-by-hour or day-by-day and take small steps as we make our way to the future that we cannot see. Some of the small steps I have been taking:
Set a schedule: This helps our family do the “next right” thing throughout the day. We know when we will wake-up, have lunch, go to bed etc., just like we did pre-pandemic.
Take small steps to adjust to the new normal: I am fortunate as I do not have to adjust to working remotely. I’ve been working remotely for seven years now. However, not everyone is used to being away from their colleagues and friends. It can be isolating. Give yourself time to settle in and take small steps to find what works for you. What is the “next right thing” to make it better? Don’t like where you set up your home office? Try moving it to another room. Don’t like what you are wearing? Change into something more comfortable. Don’t like the schedule you set for yourself? Modify it.
Listen to a Favourite Song: Music has helped me a lot. I grew up in a house that listened to country music (ugh) and the day I left home I swore I would abandon it for life (and did). It’s funny how I’ve been drawn back to listen to some of the songs of my childhood, and how they have been comforting. Make a playlist of your favourite comforting songs. Have a dance party in your kitchen. No one is watching!
Take breaks: Your workday is not the same as it used to be. Yesterday I didn’t feel very productive but felt I needed to keep working as it wasn’t the “end of the day” yet. This was silly. So, the “next right thing” for me was to leave my desk and read a non-law book. I played on the computer with my daughter. I did a little laundry (full disclosure: I love doing laundry, so this was a fun break for me – yes, I am weird). Now today I feel much more productive. Take breaks from work, breaks from the kids, breaks from your spouse and do the “next right thing” for you.
If you have kids, don’t be too hard on yourself or them: We can’t teach our kids full-time, work full-time, maintain our relationships with friends and family, and stay sane at the same time as being isolated in our homes. It’s impossible. Let them watch TV, let them be on the computer more. Find the “next right thing” that works for your kids (not the kids of the parents on Pinterest or Facebook or Twitter) to help them through this.
Avoid too much social media and news: I check twice a day: once in the morning and once around dinnertime. It is easy to get sucked in. Don’t check your investments either (if you are fortunate enough to have some) and don’t dwell on the what-ifs. These small steps in monitoring what we are reading and watching can help keep us sane.
Focus on the good, but don’t ignore the bad: We are all feeling some discomfort over this situation. The Harvard Business Review posted a great article explaining that this discomfort is really grief. Grief is a process. We cannot just ignore it and pretend everything is wonderful. But also, take some time to seek out some of the good. Look at all the amazing ways the courts have promptly modernized their processes over night. Look at all the helpers out there stepping in and stepping up for the vulnerable. If my paid work does dry up, I know I can tackle other things I have been putting off, articles I wanted to write, updating websites, my 2020 Business Plan, etc. These are all small steps I can focus on that will help me take this one day at a time.
Like the Troll King, I have no idea what the future will hold. All I know is I can do “the next right thing”. What is the next right thing for you?
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
The two questions I am asked on a regular basis are: “How do you do it?” and “How do you do it all?”
The first question is often from people who want advice from me on how to start their own “thing”, whether it’s their own law practice, freelance law practice, or side-hustle business.
The second question, “How do you do it all?”, is often followed by “Three kids, running a business, lawyering, teaching, blogging, when you do find the time?”
Both of these questions make me uncomfortable. The fact that people are asking me these questions makes me think I am projecting this fake Instagram image that I am succeeding at all of this and it is easy for me.
So, this blog post is dedicated to these two questions and dispelling some common myths that I hear.
HOW DO YOU DO IT?
A little over a year after I started my solo freelance lawyer business, I was having coffee with an acquaintance and she said to me, “Your business is going so well. You are so lucky! It is not normally that way. What luck you have!” (For some context, this individual had started a few different businesses that never really got off the ground.) I didn’t know how to respond, so I sort of just stared at her and muttered a non-committal answer. But inside my head I was thinking, “Luck? Really was that all this was? Luck?”
That night at 3 am, lying in bed wide awake (you know, when my brain decides it’s a good time to work through some problems), I thought about her comment and why it annoyed me. Sure, okay, I concluded, there was some luck involved. I cannot deny that I certainly have the inherent advantages associated with being born into the life of an able-bodied white woman (more context, my coffee companion was also an able-bodied white woman). But I also knew that it most certainly wasn’t all luck. I worked really hard to get my business to where it was. The comment annoyed me as it diminished my efforts and placed my success out of my control. It was something that just happened to me and not something I made happen.
And this is myth number one that I want to dispel: Successful businesses or law firms don’t “just happen”. You cannot hang up a shingle and “Voila!” you have a successful law practice. I meet with lawyers all the time who want advice on how to start a freelance or solo practice. When I follow up a few months or a year later to see how things are going, some are disappointed that their practice is not as successful as they thought it would be. I ask them what they have done to grow their business. Often, they tell me they put up a website, printed business cards, and had a few coffees. That’s it!?!
You need to hustle! I went to two or three networking events a week (still do). I emailed everyone I knew. I set up as many coffees and lunches as I could. I spent hours writing and re-writing blog posts and articles for legal publications. I built my social media presence. I volunteered hours of my time with different organizations to build my profile. This was not luck. This was hard work. A website and some business cards may be “hard work” to some. Not to me. I’ve been financially independent since I turned 18. I paid for undergrad and law school by working several different summer and part time jobs. I know what it is like to have to work hard or not reach my goals.
I guess my point is, you can have great ideas and a great passion for a new business or law practice but if you don’t put in the hours of work it will likely go nowhere. You may love the idea of freelancing or being your own boss (and it is pretty awesome!) but it is not all rainbows and sunshine. I fully agree with the saying that successful businesses are 1% idea and 99% execution. And sometimes even with all of that hard work a business will still fail. But with just an idea and no execution it will fail every time. Remember this when you see those “overnight success” companies or law firms. Likely “overnight” involved years of frustration, no money, hard work, and even failure.
So how do you do it? Yes, you need a little luck, but you also need a lot of hard work.
HOW DO YOU DO IT ALL?
“Three kids? Wow, how do you do it all?”
My response: “The same way my husband does it.”
But no one ever asks my husband (who runs his own firm, sits on a board, coaches baseball, etc.) “Wow, three kids, how do you do it all?”
I have this funny belief that both parents should parent their children. I don’t believe that children “need” their mothers more than their fathers or that somehow, just because our bodies birthed these kids that we are somehow better at parenting than men.
So, to dispel myth number two – I am not doing it all because I don’t believe I should be doing it all. I have a perfectly capable partner, we have neighbours, we have grandparents, we have paid help, we have friends. I am fortunate and privileged to have a “village” and I take advantage of that.
People always assume I started my own business so I can stay home with my kids and not because I might have had a great business idea and some entrepreneurial drive. How many people think this of men who start their own businesses? Do they automatically assume men become entrepreneurs so they can care for their kids?
I understand the nature of my practice (freelance lawyering) and my business (a freelance lawyer company, Flex Legal) might suggest to some that I only work part time in my pajamas from home, but I work full time or more and have had an office since my first year in business. Some weeks I work more hours than I did when I was on Bay Street. However, as an entrepreneur, I can choose when I work those full time hours and I purposefully chose an office close to my house so I can see my kids who come home from school for lunch several days a week. But I am not the one who walks the kids to school every morning (that’s my husband) and we have a caregiver who picks them up everyday.
So, I want to dispel the myth that I am parenting my kids full time and running a business full time and doing everything else full time. I am not. I don’t know how anyone could. I have time to do everything I am doing because I have a lot of help (and coffee, lots of coffee 😉). And even with all of this help, I still screw up sometimes.
Bottom line: It is not easy. I am not doing it all . . . . I am just doing my best.
This month in Ontario, lawyers and paralegals will vote for the next set of “Benchers” at the Law Society of Ontario (LSO). For those unfamiliar with the term, Benchers are the board of directors at the LSO, the regulatory body that governs lawyers and paralegals in Ontario. Bencher terms are for four years. Eligible voters can vote for up to 20 lawyers in the Toronto region and 20 lawyers outside of Toronto. There is a common misconception that Benchers represent lawyers, much like a member of parliament represents their constituents. Benchers actually represent the interests of the public and regulate the profession. Still confused? Precedent Magazine published a helpful article: What do Benchers at the Law Society of Ontario Actually Do?
For this election my Twitter and LinkedIn feeds are filled with #BencherElection2019 posts, conversations, podcasts, endorsements, etc. Looking at this level of engagement, one might think that every lawyer in Ontario is super keen to vote and discuss the pressing issues facing our profession. Unfortunately, this is likely far from the truth. Social media platforms, and especially Twitter, can be massive echo chambers. While lawyers on social media appear to be engaged in the election, the historical data on voter turnout suggests that the majority of lawyers are really apathetic.
Large Firm Lawyers Vote (Sole Practitioners, Not So Much)
The LSO published a comprehensive report on voter turnout, covering election results from 1987 to 2015. Generally, turnout has decreased with every election. 10,287 of the 18,369 eligible voters (or 56%) voted in the 1987 election. Fast forward to 2015. Despite the technological advancement of online voting and a relatively robust #BencherElection engagement on Twitter, 2015 had the lowest percentage of voter turnout in the years documented. Of the 47,396 eligible voters (notice the significant increase in the number of lawyers in Ontario) only 16,040 (or 33.84%) voted.
Interestingly, in private practice, the voting-lawyers are from firms of between 76-100 lawyers (over 77% voted in the last election) and firms of over 100 lawyers (over 50% voted). Could this be due to the constant pressure from management to vote for the lawyers who are running from those firms? Hmm.
Sole practitioners, who make up the largest category of lawyers in private practice, had the lowest voter turnout for private practice lawyers with only 36.35%. In 2015, only 24.55% of the over 23,000 lawyers not in private practice (lawyers employed in government, corporations, academia) voted.
Also, consistently every year, a slightly higher percentage of lawyers who identify as male vote than lawyers who identify as female. In the last election 35.66% of all male lawyers voted, while only 31.23% of female lawyers voted.
Why You Should Vote (and Encourage Others to as Well)
These statistics tell me that most lawyers do not prioritize the Bencher election. Understandably, many lawyers would prefer to spend time on other aspects of their lives rather than taking the time to research the issues, research the candidates, sit down at a computer, and vote. The problem is that there are several important issues that the LSO (and the newly elected Benchers) will be grappling with, and these issues affect not only the legal profession as a whole, but you as an individual lawyer.
I will not discuss the issues in detail here but a few examples: improving access to justice, ensuring lawyers are competent to practice and providing remedial or disciplinary measure for those who are not, the licensing process, entity-based regulation, diversity & inclusion initiatives, the cost of legal education, alternative business structures, etc.
In the past, Benchers have made some important (and sometimes controversial) decisions: changing the name from Law Society of Upper Canada to Law Society of Ontario; introducing the Law Practice Program to assist with the articling crisis; deciding not to accredit Trinity Western University; implementing the Statement of Principles requirement; approving the recent public awareness campaign; etc. If you are interested, the minutes and transcripts from Convocation tell you how the incumbent Benchers who are running again voted on past issues (just click on the year on the left-hand side). As an example, these are the Minutes from December 1, 2017 which involved a vote on Mr. Groia’s “conscientious objector” motion regarding the Statement of Principles.
All lawyers and paralegals should care about who will be making the decisions about each of these issues.
Want to Vote and Don’t Have the Time to Research all those Lawyers?
“What do you mean there are 128 lawyers running? I don’t have the time to research all of them!” I know many of you are thinking this and it is a valid observation. I have a few suggestions for you:
First, several people and organizations want to make this easier for you and have compiled the information you need for the election in one place. For example, Colin Lachance has organized and published the website LSOBencher.com where the candidates can submit their profile and their positions on the current issues. The Ontario Bar Association has made a website profiling its members who are running. The Law Times also has a website listing the candidates. Sean Robichaud has a podcast featuring some of the candidates. Or you can follow #BencherElection2019 on Twitter. These are just some of the places you can go to get the information you need.
Does that still sound like a lot of work? Another option is to seek out a lawyer you trust (and who has the time and interest to do the research) and ask for their recommendations (thanks, Morgan Sim for this suggestion).
Or, there is my approach. I really dislike receiving emails and flyers from candidates. Not only do they fill my inbox and recycling container, I do not think it is fair to those candidates who cannot cover the expense for such advertising. Not all candidates can pay for the email list or can afford to have fliers printed and mailed out. For the last two Bencher elections I have made sure not to check off the box on our annual reports allowing Benchers to email me. Instead, I only look at one thing: The Voting Guide provided by the LSO. Each candidate gets one page and one page only to convince me why I should vote for them. I see it as a level playing field for all candidates. I’m not saying my approach is perfect, but as a rather busy person who wants to vote, this is the best use of my time. (Hint: the Voting Guide is searchable if there was a particular issue that interested you, for example, the Statement of Principles.)
No excuses this year. Get out and vote. Encourage other lawyers to do the same. You will receive an email from the LSO in the second week of April with a link and explanation on how to vote. Keep an eye out for it and vote by April 30, 2019. Whatever approach you take, I just ask that you take a few minutes to vote and tell all the lawyers in your network to vote as well!
I am happy to unveil a new series I have started for 2019 focused on improving equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) in the legal profession (I don't have a witty title for this series yet, so all suggestions welcomed!)
The idea for this series surfaced last year when I attended a women lawyers conference where the conversation quickly turned to criticizing and calling out law firms for not doing enough to make a positive change. The conversation went on for quite some time with example after example of all that is wrong with law firms. Unfortunately, no one talked about possible solutions. While I am not saying that this criticism was unwarranted, I do believe it is easier to sit back and critique than it is to be out there trying to make the changes that need to happen. . . And I know some firms are putting in some effort.
So with my new series, I wanted to reach out to law firms and find out what they are doing to advance EDI in their firms. Are they doing anything? What is working? What isn't? What is the end-goal? How do they measure "success"? The posts will include a set of five questions that each firm will answer. My simple goal is to start a conversation, find out what is happening in this area in law firms across Canada, and perhaps we can all learn from each other.
For my first post, I sat down with Lisa Munro, the Managing Partner of Lerners LLP to discuss the EDI initiatives at her firm:
1. ALMOST ALL LAW FIRMS HAVE AN EDI POLICY OR COMMITMENT ON THEIR WEBSITE. WHAT DOES EDI MEAN TO YOUR FIRM AND IS IMPROVING EDI A PRIORITY?
Improving equality, diversity, and inclusion is definitely a priority for Lerners.
A lot of firms, Lerners included, have historically been very lawyer-centric, the idea being that the lawyers are the economic drivers of the firm. While you can’t argue with this fact, focusing most efforts on the lawyers means that we are leaving behind the rest of the team. I think that one of the things that diversity and inclusion committees have done for law firms has been to put the focus on the culture of a firm and on all the people that play a part in serving our clients. We are now realizing that it can’t just be all about the lawyers and ensuring that the lawyers are happy and professionally fulfilled.
So at Lerners we place a lot of emphasis on the inclusion part of EDI which means, do people feel like they are a part of the firm? Do they feel like they are valued for their contributions? Do they feel like their voices are heard? Do they feel that if they have concerns or complaints there is a place for them to go to address them? Do they feel that their colleagues listen to them? Do they have opportunities for professional advancement? All of those things go far beyond the equality and diversity issues that many of us are now talking about.
I constituted our firm’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee in late 2017, and started with a survey. I think a lot of firms start there. As a result of the feedback we received from that survey, I placed as much emphasis on inclusion as I did on equality and diversity issues. We learned that some people felt isolated in the group. And so, our task was, what do we do to make people feel that they belong at this firm?
A lot of the initiatives that we have tackled as a Committee have tried to draw people in and get them to participate, get to know one another, and work together. That part is very important for us.
If we focus on equality and diversity, our history has been very much that Lerners is a place where women thrive and have voices and have opportunities for leadership. I am very proud of that. We’ve had that reputation for a very long time, mostly because of our two strong senior partners, one of whom is Janet Stewart, still with the firm. She was our managing partner in both offices for many years at a time when there were very few women managing firms. She was someone who had a practice and she was well respected. People listened to her. She had influence.
Janet was also supported by our senior partner in Toronto, Earl Cherniak. He and Janet were a formidable team. Because of the respect that Earl had for Janet and the respect that Earl had for women in the firm in the general, I know that I always took for granted the fact that women would have the same opportunities as men because that was my personal experience. When I started to hear what was going from friends at other firms, even during our articling year, it was a bit of a surprise to me. I now think that I and my colleagues at Lerners have been somewhat sheltered. We achieved gender parity within our partnership a few years ago; it does fluctuate, but I am pretty happy with that.
I do think that where we need to turn our focus now is on some of the other areas of diversity and inclusion, including on retaining and promoting racialized lawyers and staff members. I am happy with where we are in the junior lawyer ranks, which says to me that maybe we are doing well on the recruitment side. But the question is, can we retain a diverse group lawyers through to equity partnership? What could we be doing differently to achieve that objective? I know that there are a lot of firms looking at their recruitment and promotion processes. We are doing the same.
But among our junior lawyers in particular, I am pretty happy with where we are. What we have to do is make sure they stay fulfilled and challenged, and that they see opportunities for advancement. That is our next challenge as a firm.
2. WHAT STEPS (OR INITIATIVES) HAS YOUR FIRM TAKEN TO ADDRESS AND IMPROVE EDI?
When I started the Diversity and Inclusion Committee in September, 2017, I had never been on a committee like this. I said that I would Chair it. I don’t think I appreciated what a big bite I was taking. We started with my vision, because when you start something like that, you have to do some planning initially and then float the plan out there and see if you get traction. Luckily, I did and we had many enthusiastic contributors within a short period of time.
Initially, I sent a firm wide email, advising that I was starting the Committee, and asked: “Who wants to be involved?” There is always early trepidation because people are not sure what the time commitment will be, what it involves, etc. But I had an intrepid group of about eight people who agreed to work with me on this journey. I was really pleased that we had broad representation within the firm, among both lawyers and staff members. I brought an initial outline of a plan to the group and then we worked together to generate ideas, plan monthly initiatives, and carry them forward. It was exciting to see that we had many more ideas than we could use in a single year. I have since talked to people at other firms where the work of the committee is really a management-led process. That may very well be necessary in firms larger than ours, but we were able to get participation and leadership from everyone on the Committee. We sit around a table with legal assistants, law clerks, partners, our administrative team, human resources, and marketing discussing, “What do you think we should do?” Everybody was an equal contributor and I saw people taking on leadership opportunities that had not previously existed.
The Committee has generated so much enthusiasm that when I solicited interest a few months ago for people to sit on the Committee in 2019, I received over 30 positive responses. I was a bit overwhelmed by that; a 30-person committee can be unwieldy, but when I considered our inclusion mandate I knew I couldn’t say no to anybody. I am now in the process of trying to create something in which everybody feels engaged and interested. While that will be a challenge, the message I got was that people see value in the work of the Committee and wanted to be a part of it.
We decided in our first year that our theme was going to be very modest: “making Lerners a better place to work”. We always thought that Lerners was a good place to work, but there are always ways to improve. Every initiative that we took was in furtherance of that objective.
We came up with various monthly initiatives through internal focus groups without looking at what other firms were doing. Nothing we did was revolutionary, but we created what we thought would work for us.
We had, for example, an anti-harassment training session that was mandatory for everyone at the firm and received very positive feedback about it. I think most people expected the training to focus on sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace. We wanted our training to be broader than that – it also dealt with how to deal with differences that come up in the workplace, the more subtle things like treating everyone in the firm with respect and looking at things from the perspective of someone who might come from a different cultural or ethnic background. We had “case studies” that presented challenging sets of facts that we discussed as a group.
The idea of engendering a culture of respect also became our theme for a strategic planning process that we undertook at the same time. Respect is one of our firm core values and we rolled out the strategic plan on the basis that it was critical to achieving success. That idea really arose out of our diversity and inclusion initiatives.
Like many firms, we also organized unconscious bias training for all members of the firm. We were looked at the issue primarily from the perspective of our recruitment process and it has changed the way we talk about recruiting now. We used to hear people saying things like, “I really think this candidate would fit in well in the group”. And now because of the unconscious bias training, we are saying to ourselves and to each other, “Am I supporting recruitment of somebody because they are like me?”
We also created a Lerners Diversity Award, which was given out at our end-of-year party. I sent an email to everyone in the firm, asking for nominations of those who advanced the objectives of equality, diversity, and inclusion at Lerners in 2018. I received lots of responses and, interestingly enough, there were very clear winners. One person in each office stood out to our colleagues among everybody who did a lot of work.
Other initiatives that we undertook last year included working with a community charity group on International Women’s Day. Members of the firm were asked to bring in clothes suitable for work to support an organization that donates clothes to women who are looking for a jobs. We had a great response.
We also had a speaker come in and talk about Indigenous law and we had a great turnout for that.
I was blessed with having a committee whose members were very enthusiastic and rolled up their sleeves and were willing to put in a lot of time and effort to make these initiatives successful.
3. WHICH INITIATIVE HAS BEEN THE MOST SUCCESSFUL? AND WHY?
Interesting enough, our most successful event last year was the one that was the easiest one to organize and the least costly: it was a potluck. Last summer we had a “Celebrating Our Diversity Through Food” potluck. Anybody who wanted to participate contributed food for a buffet lunch. We had all contributions set up in a board room. The contributors put up little signs describing the food they had made and brought. The event really brought people together and overwhelmingly I heard from members of the firm that it was their favourite event. We learned that when you get creative, you can make a lot of headway without spending a lot of money.
4. WHICH INITIATIVE WAS THE LEAST SUCCESSFUL (WHAT’S NOT WORKING)? AND WHY?
The initiatives I found to be less successful were those in which we brought in speakers. And that is not because our speakers weren’t good; they were excellent. But people really enjoyed the months in which the initiative involved interaction and engagement with each other. People preferred the sessions in which we would have a case study or a problem to talk about, as opposed to having somebody come in and talk. I was surprised by that because we as lawyers tend to think that having a lecture is a great way to learn something. But really if your objective is to bring people together, having something interactive makes the most sense.
5. WHAT DO YOU HOPE TO ACHIEVE THROUGH YOUR EDI-FOCUSED ACTIONS? AND HOW DO YOU MEASURE PROGRESS?
I struggle with how to measure our progress. I know that in 2019, the Law Society of Ontario will be requiring firms to provide statistical data, which will be published and will allow firms some way to measure progress. I think that will be useful. And I do think we have to measure success. But I feel like a lot of what we are doing that works is more intangible than that because it is helping to create a sense of belonging. I want to really carry forward the idea of respect in the workplace into 2019. If I hear that something has gone on or a conversation that has taken place that shouldn’t have, my role as managing partner is to address that. And I think every partner and every lawyer needs to set an example.
Right now, I am measuring success by the fact that I am finding people getting together and enjoying one another’s company and contributing. I see clear leaders emerging from among the staff and more junior lawyers. Some volunteers on the Committee told me that they had never volunteered for a single firm committee before. Also because of our Committee and I our initiatives, I know more of our staff members. So those things are my way to measure success at the moment. Long term, that won’t be good enough. But right now, I am taking these little victories as they come.
Thank you Lisa for this interview and for participating in this series. Sign up to have these profiles sent directly to your email address and stay tuned for the next post soon!
The Women Leading in Law series will also return. Keep sending in suggestions for amazing women lawyers to be profiled.
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.