Eyes Wide Open

  • December 01, 2014
  • Tony Wilson

BarTalk Nothing Official By Tony Wilson

A few survival tips for students and young lawyers

One of the things I like to do in that “other” job I have is to meet young articling students for their “Bencher Interview.” I see around 30 students a year from a variety of law firms. I try to break the ice and tell them what I’d once been told about why we do Bencher interviews. Apparently, they were to elicit an answer to Joe McCarthy’s infamous question: “Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the communist party.

Tony WilsonThe “Red Scare” reference doesn’t get the laughs I might have expected, but then again, I grew up in the cold war before “communism” became another word for “capitalism.”

I talk about what the Law Society does as the regulator of the profession, the importance of protecting the public interest, credentials and discipline, hearing panels, ethics, the importance of civility and integrity, and maintaining an impeccable reputation. And of course, whether they’re having more fun than a barrel of monkeys.

The most interesting question I get asked is: “How do I get from ‘here’ (articling) to ‘there’ (making a reasonable living practising law after articling)?” So here are a few random thoughts, in no particular order:

  1. There are good years for getting kept on and bad ones, and it usually has to do with the market for lawyers at the time. The graduating class one and two years ahead of mine had “crop failure” because of the recession of the early 80s, but everyone inevitably got jobs. If the job market is bad, don’t give up. Don’t lose heart. It’ll pick up.
  2. There’s no doubt that long hours of hard work is essential. That (like it or not) was the Faustian bargain we made with our future selves when we decided to become lawyers. Is work life balance important? Yes, but it’s way more important when you have kids. You never get their “growing up” years back. Ever.
  3. Excellent communication skills are essential. “Upspeak,” “Like,” “You-know” and dropping your “g’s” are career limiting moves. Follow Grammarly.com on Facebook for humorous reminders about grammar and diction.
  4. You may have to inevitably practice in one of BC’s faster growing communities, rather than downtown Vancouver. Langley, Surrey, Abbotsford, Maple Ridge or Dawson Creek. There are many BC communities that need lawyers, and you might get more court time in “The Burbs” than you ever would in downtown Vancouver. So go where the jobs are. Besides, the housing may be cheaper and the commute easier than in Vancouver.
  5. Develop a niche area. I was lucky. My friend and mentor of more than 25 years, Len Polsky, hired me to be his “junior” in 1988. I worked with him for 10 years at two different firms, and learned everything I could from him about franchise law. So if you can find a mentor and a niche, like I did, you won the lottery. But there are still niches to be found. Rebeka Breder, in my office, is a leading practitioner of Animal Law. Bonnie Czegledi, in Toronto, is a world-renowned art lawyer with a practice that includes returning art stolen by the Nazi’s to the families of the original owners. She turned her passion into a legal practice. Maybe you can too.
  6. Try to be indispensable. If you’re not necessarily missed, you’re not necessarily needed.
  7. Never turn down a speaking or writing opportunity. In fact, seek them out. Make sure your articles go online and are cross-linked, shared, re-posted and tweeted up the ying-yang to give you improved SEO. Like they say, the best place to hide a dead body is on the second page of Google. So be on the first page.
  8. Finally, try to develop your own client base. It may take you time, but a “book of business” gives you the freedom to stay at your firm, and the freedom to leave it.

The views expressed herein are strictly those of Tony Wilson’s spam and do not reflect the opinions of the Law Society of British Columbia, CBABC, or their respective members.