Doing Law Differently

I’ve been thinking about legal career paths since last week’s release of Do Law Differently, Futures for Young Lawyers. The guide, published by the Canadian Bar Association’s Legal Futures Initiative, includes Jordan Furlong’s thought-provoking analysis of the current state of the profession and commentary from a number of Canadian “new law pioneers” about the skills and competencies that lawyers will need to make the most of the opportunities ahead.

My Slaw colleague Nate Russell gave his take on this guide here yesterday. When you read it (and you should), you’ll note he’s rather less enthusiastic about the publication, or perhaps the future of the legal profession itself, than I am.

When I was in law school in the early 1990s, I recall there being more or less two paths laid out for students. The first was the most commonly travelled, and led from law school to articling to Call to the Bar to working as an Associate in a firm, then buying into partnership and ultimately, just might culminate in a judicial appointment. The primary alternative led from law school to graduate studies, possibly with a brief gap year or year of clerking en route and then to an academic post somewhere.

That’s an over-simplification, of course, but is pretty consistent with the paths my classmates and I travelled, at least in the early years. Some detoured to government and advisory positions, or corporate in-house positions and at least a few struck out on their own. Jobs for young lawyers were scarce in the mid-90s and many of us just took whatever we could find, even if it wasn’t on one of the well-established paths.

As a lawyer whose career has taken “the road less travelled” I’m sometimes asked to speak about my career path and will soon be doing so again, in support of the Manitoba launch events for Do Law Differently. That’s why this guide has me thinking about the circuitous journey I’ve taken to where I am today.

In my early years of practice, working on an “eat what you kill” basis in very small firms, I was often envious of my salaried friends working as associates in larger firms under the mentorship and guidance of skilled senior counsel. I know I often suffered the lack of experienced counsel to guide and direct me in my client work. And while I had more free time than they did, my economic circumstances didn’t always allow me to exploit that “perk.”

As I moved out of private practice and into more financially stable positions that might today be described as #altlegal, I began to truly appreciate the benefits of taking a less traditional path. Forty-hour workweeks (or even 35!) were unheard of in large firms but standard on my new route. Vacation time meant a complete break from work and left me refreshed upon return to duties. Overtime hours, if required, meant time off in lieu of pay. Imagine that in a law firm!

I know now that I was spoiled by those experiences and that there’s no going back to always on call and trying to scrabble out another billable hour in the day. But I also know that there are interesting and challenging alternatives to Door #1 and that sometimes you need to cut your own path (or doorway, to continue the analogy) to get where you want to go.

I learned along the way that I needed skills other than those I’d learned in law school or in practice. I enrolled in a project management course long before it was trendy to do so. I took courses on how to read financial statements. I developed skills in plain language communications and worked with professionals and service providers outside my legal profession circles.

Through it all, I kept up my ties to the legal profession because it is important to me that I remain a lawyer. Although the work I’ve done in the past 18 years often hasn’t required it, I maintained an active practising certificate. I attended CPD programs. I got more involved in the CBA, both locally and nationally.

I’m not sure if my experience is typical, but I think it safe to say that new law, or #altlegal isn’t about leaving the law behind. Rather, it’s about doing law differently from the norm, in a way that meets your own individual needs and feeds your priorities. It recognizes that we’re not all the same and need not all travel the same path, though we may have started out along the same route. On this path, I’ve managed to craft a work and volunteer life that allows me to nurture my passions and interests while still earning a living.

Dan Pinnington sometimes refers in his risk management presentations to the 2/3 Rule for work. Essentially, it is this: your work should meet two of the following three criteria:

  1. You’re getting paid
  2. The work is challenging and interesting
  3. You’re working with people you enjoy.

I can honestly say that what I do today meets 3/3 on this scale, but I’d add a 4th criterion to this list:

  1. Your work aligns with your values and priorities.

For me, success is defined by checking off all four. I think that when you read the advice from the New Law Pioneers in Do Law Differently, you’ll get a sense that many of them would likely check off all these boxes.

There are most certainly alternatives to the traditional path in law and if the futurists are right, you’re quite likely going to need to think about them sooner rather than later. If you’re looking for some inspiration, you’d do well to start with this guide. It’s not just for young lawyers, I assure you.




  1. Daniel Tucker-Simmons

    Excellent article Karyn. Thanks so much for the inspiration!

  2. Thanks for the plug, Karen.
    I must be giving off the impression I hold more traditional views than is really the case!
    I am also of the #altlegal set (to borrow a moniker coined by my pal Joshua Lennon) and it’s uncanny how similar our career paths are, Karen.
    After 5 years of small firm litigation, I took a diversion. Inspired by my years in Internet startups in the late ’90s and early 2000s, I wanted to be a bridge builder again, and champion projects that improved access to justice. Becoming Courthouse Libraries BC first Liaison Lawyer allowed me to lift my head above the trenches. The opportunities that has opened up are countless.
    Day-to-day practice was time intensive, and while the constant learning required of civil litigators was stimulating and challenging —and while I loved live advocacy — the conventional business of law did not inspire me. Working in a traditional associate role actually gave me critical doubts about the business. I felt then, and feel even more strongly now, that a better model for delivering clients results could come along. When I first started reading and corresponding with Jordan Furlong about five years ago, it always struck me that he was on to something. Law was heading for hard disruption, and frankly I always smelled the opportunity. I still feel very enthusiastic about my own place in the legal profession and in the new systems that are emerging. I feel protective about public interest issues and the integrity of the profession—and in that sense I am not wholly mercenary when it comes to my entrepreneurial leanings. But am I cowed by Furlong’s portents? No. I’m emboldened.
    So what is it that I am questioning in the Do Law Differently report?
    It’s where the report, obviously written for new lawyers, says that the future is “not only going to be different — it’s also going to be better.”
    I think it was someone in that Dolly Parton movie “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” who said “Don’t piss on my boots and tell me it’s raining!”
    While there will be lawyers and #altlegal professionals who will seize advantage during the pending disruption and who will secure dominance (along with big accounting firms, AI companies, etc.) in the new legal market, it is not in keeping with the report’s basic warnings to conclude that it’s all going to be better.
    (And if you read the context of that “it’s also going to be better” it really implies that this means better for the reader of the report… which is currently I think only downloadable to CBA members, am I right?)
    It’s not a case of a rising tide carrying all ships. We’re talking about a category five cyclone, and yes… some smart or lucky lawyer is going to make a killing on salvage.
    I think Jordan more or less confirms this more cynical view in his comment to my original post from Tuesday: “There’s no rule of nature that says lawyers must be among those providers. If we want to serve this market, we’d better figure out in a hurry what it wants and skill up to provide it.”

  3. Nate,
    Re: “the future is “not only going to be different — it’s also going to be better.””
    I will admit that sentence caught my eye too. I can’t help but think Jordan may have got caught up in last fall’s “sunny ways” as he wrote it! (Just kidding Jordan!)

    I do believe that the future for newly called lawyers will be better if they are prepared for it than if they are not and I think that’s what this report will help with. There are already a multitude of opportunities out there for lawyers outside of the traditional path. You and I are both good examples of this, as are the 29 lawyers profiled in #DLD. An articling student in my office (@gtheule) tweeted about the report (in response to my post): Inspiring, reassuring, and where I want to head – this should be mandatory reading for my about-to-be-called cohort

    I can’t help but think he’s not alone in this view. I think there is great comfort in having a sense that the future doesn’t have to be dark and scary if you’re but willing to prepare yourself for it.