Do As I Suggest, Not As I Did
Let's face it. You have it a lot harder than I did. There is no way I would have gotten into law school at the University of Toronto with my undergrad marks and lack of any real community involvement and volunteer activities if I was applying today. Not even close. Most of the resumes I see from young students and lawyers are very impressive, not just their marks but in everything else they achieved outside of the classroom.
Volunteerism is undoubtedly more top of mind than it was when I was a student. Our schools are much more active in encouraging volunteerism. Many parents who want to see their children succeed understand the need for them to build a resume from a relatively young age. There are more opportunities to get involved in the community today than back in my day.
It is extremely important to take advantage of those opportunities. If you want to get off to a running start in your legal career, it helps to demonstrate a desire to give back and a community service mindset. When are you going to find the time? From working as hard as you possibly can to get the marks necessary to get into law school (or to pass the bar; or to succeed in your articles), to doing everything possible to support your financial needs, to spending time with your family and friends, etc., no one really has any "extra" time available for volunteer activities.
Welcome to a career in law, where time is all we have to offer, and there isn't enough of it in a day to do what needs to be done! I do not say that as a complaint, just an observation. There are probably much easier ways to earn a living. But none where you get to make such a difference in people's lives every day. It's a lot of work, but it's worth it.
Regardless of whether you believe you have the time to volunteer, it's necessary to stand out from the crowd. And it doesn't really take that much time. A couple of hours a week of volunteer activity should allow you to get involved in some exciting activities, show that you are a well-rounded individual, have lots to talk about during the interview process, make some connections that could last the rest of your career, and foster a lifetime commitment to giving back.
Aim for both breadth and depth. Try a few different things to see what interests you. Don't just focus on the law. Show that there's more to your personality and interests than just the law. But once you find something that you enjoy, stick with it. Try to take on a leadership role, if possible. Demonstrating loyalty, commitment, passion, and leadership will carry you far.
The opportunities are endless. Help fight the effects of poverty by volunteering at a local food bank, or the Lawyers Feed the Hungry program. Help support young people in your community by getting involved in local youth sports organizations. Get involved in grassroots advocacy organizations. Find something that interests you, that ignites your passion, and it will not be too difficult to find the time in your busy week to give back.
I didn't have to do any of that to find a great articling job and begin my career in law. I hope I've made up for that fact over the years through my volunteer activities in the legal and brain injury communities, amongst others. While it wasn't necessary 30 years ago, today, volunteering is key to standing out in the sea of bright young people looking for a career in law.
Know Your Audience
You've done everything necessary to set yourself up for success. You've studied hard. You've volunteered and have a great resume. Now, it's time to do some articling or job interviews. How do you get the job you want?
I don't need to tell you that the job market is hyper competitive these days. There are many other students and young lawyers with impressive resumes. Yes, you've made the cut and have an interview, but you can bet that the others you are competing against also have impressive CVs. How do you stand out from your high-caliber competition? Start with knowing your audience.
At Howie, Sacks & Henry (HSH), we have hosted many "pre-law" student groups from various universities over the years. These undergrad students have expressed a strong interest in a legal career and have taken the time out of their studies to spend a full day or two in Toronto touring various law firms.
I first ask every group, "How many of you googled me and my firm before you came here today?" The percentage is always tiny. This is a missed opportunity to make an impression on someone who could potentially assist with their legal career and who has already shown an interest in supporting their profession by taking the time to host such a group.
The one or two students who did their homework inevitably approach me after such a session to talk about an interesting case Howie, Sacks & Henry handled, an article I wrote, or my interest in cycling. Those are the students I remember. They are the ones I connect with on LinkedIn, and I offer to help in the future should they need it. In fact, the (surprisingly few) students who sent me a "thank you" email following our last student group session got invitations to the HSH 20th Anniversary Party and the chance to connect with hundreds of lawyers who might also be able to help them. Giving that little bit of extra and personalized effort certainly pays off.
We just went through a process at Howie, Sacks & Henry to hire a young lawyer. My partners and I posted the job listing on LinkedIn and asked people to email me their CVs and cover letter. We received dozens of applications. Some just sent us links to their resume on LinkedIn. I didn't even bother to look at those– if they can't follow the simple instruction (to email me the CV and cover letter), they didn't make the cut.
Most did send the requested materials to us, and we read every single one carefully. Did the cover letter mention they were interested in practicing personal injury law? Did they say why they were specifically interested in a position at HSH? Or were they generic cover letters that could have been sent to any law firm as part of any application? If they didn't take the time to genuinely express an interest in our firm, and our area of the law, those applicants also didn't make the cut.
Those who did have interviews were a very impressive group on paper. I was surprised that a few of them had never spent any real time on our website and knew very little, if anything, about the two partners doing the interviews (whose names had been shared in advance). You can bet that I researched all of the applicants who we interviewed – google searches, social media reviews, etc. .
Most law firms want to find a candidate they believe is a good fit and who will stick around for a while. Those candidates who do the extra work to focus their application and the interview process toward the specific firm and legal area are much more likely to convince the interviewers that they are a great, long-term fit for the firm.
And of course, always follow up with a personalized "thank you" note after any interview or meeting.
On Being Passionate, Genuine, And The Best You Can Be
This is it! You've done the hard work to build a great resume, and you've been through the grinding interview process to land the job you want. What's next? While "fake it 'till you make it" might be the mantra of the tech industry, that won't cut it for a career in law. Clients, colleagues, opposing lawyers, judges, etc., will know if you're serious, committed, knowledgeable and genuinely enjoying what you do.
Passion and purpose have a gravitational pull. Clients want to be served by someone who genuinely cares about them. Other lawyers like being around someone who enjoys their area of law. Judges can tell if you're going through the motions or really believe what you're saying. Whether you're drafting a document, working on a transaction, or representing someone going through a difficult time doesn't matter. It will be a long and unfulfilling career if you're not passionate about what you do.
Don't get me wrong. Some days are more difficult than others. Not every task, or client, will motivate you to jump out of bed in the morning, raring to go. But in general, you need to do something you enjoy to achieve true success. How do you get there? By being the best you can be in your area of the law.
How can you be passionate if you're uncertain? How can you be genuine if you don't know what you're talking about? How can you inspire confidence in others if you don't have confidence in yourself? There is no shortcut to a successful career in law. You need to put in the time, become a sponge, and resolve to be the best lawyer you can be in your area of practice. Read everything – case law, books, articles, blogs, LinkedIn posts, and anything else you can get your hands on. Ask questions – of your friends, your mentors, opposing counsel, and anyone else you trust. Attend in person whenever possible – the office, a courtroom, a discovery or mediation, a CLE program, a social event, and any other place where you can surround yourself with others in your field. Resolve to learn every day. Resolve to put in the time necessary to become an expert. Resolve to be the very best lawyer that you can be.
Even if the lawyers around you are not doing these things and not striving to be the very best, your career is your responsibility. This profession is way more fun, and you get more out of it, when you know what you're doing. That may sound trite, but you'd be surprised…
Find Something You Love To Do, Find People Who You Love To Do It With, And Everything Else Will Take Care Of Itself
Finally, after all that hard work, your career is off and running. But things are going differently than you want them to go. The firm doesn't provide any mentoring. The area of law isn’t interesting or challenging. The culture of the firm doesn't fit with your personality. What to do?
With few exceptions, the first answer should not be "quit and find a new job." While you may get there, you owe it to yourself to improve the situation. Communication is the key to attempting to resolve most issues. Find the person in the firm who you believe is most amenable and ask for more mentoring. Suggest a monthly lunch meeting, away from the office, to talk about the practice. You may find a great mentor who didn't know you were interested in learning about their experiences.
Get out to some CLE programs and meet other lawyers. You may discover a new niche area of the law that is interesting and provides new opportunities. Talk to other like-minded firm members and see if you can develop some ideas or activities to improve the culture. Whatever the issue is, jumping around from firm to firm will usually not solve the problem. Communication and effort may turn things around. It's worth a try.
But sometimes, a change is necessary. The key to being happy with your legal career is passion and people. Having discussed passion and how to foster your legal knowledge and expertise, let's talk about people. It would be best if you surrounded yourself with some good ones. That doesn't mean you will agree with everything other members of the firm have to say. It doesn't mean you need to socialize with all your coworkers outside the office. Different viewpoints and personalities are a positive, not a negative. But respect is necessary. Communication is essential.
A commitment to a shared goal is critical. Get to know those around you. Understand their goals and desires. Talk about how you're going to get there. Deal with disagreements in a mature, open, and respectful manner. You're likely in the right place if you can get on the same page in this respect. If not, you owe it to yourself to make a change.
Sadly, too many lawyers will tell you that they don't like their job. They stay in those positions for money, perceived lack of alternatives, inertia, etc. But the reality is that most of them had a choice. They could have worked to become more knowledgeable in, or more passionate about, their area of the law. They could have found a better fit for their personality. My advice – don't settle. Work hard to make your current job as good as it can be. And if it's not good enough, look for a better opportunity that is more in keeping with your interests, goals, and personality.
If you find something you enjoy doing and you find people whom you want to do it with, your career will be a success. You will work harder. You will attract more clients. You will likely achieve greater financial success. And you will be happier. Why would you settle for less?
Walking the Walk
Advice is easy to give, but not as easy to follow. The advice I have offered requires a lot of time and effort to execute. What did I do to follow my own advice?
I started volunteering early in my career with an OHIP funded brain injury service provider, PHABIS. I was on the Board for over a decade. Through PHABIS, I got involved in the Provincial umbrella organization for all similar service providers, where I eventually served as Chair. Those roles led directly to the Ontario Brain Injury Association (OBIA) asking me to become a founding Board member of the Brain Injury Society of Toronto. I was later honoured with the Professional Award from OBIA.
I also had a desire to give back within the legal community. I started by getting involved on the Executive of the Ontario Bar Association Insurance Law Section, and a sub-committee of the Ontario Case Management Steering Committee. I later ran for the Board of Directors of the Ontario Trial Lawyers Association (OTLA), and lost! Undeterred, I ran again a few years later, this time successfully. I worked my way up from Member at Large, to the Executive and Chair of committees, to eventually becoming President of OTLA.
I was involved in the Ride to Conquer Cancer for a decade. I played in lawyer bands on the charity music circuit for years. I helped to arrange fundraisers to support the brain injury community. The list goes on! If it sounds like a lot of work, and a lot of time, that’s because it was. But it was also a lot of fun, with a lot of great people.
None of that would have been possible without a lot of assistance and support, and a bit of good luck. It took a lot of effort, but I have gained far more from these experiences than I invested. The people I met, the expertise I developed, and the professional reputation I hope that I’ve earned have been worth exponentially more than I put into these endeavours. Almost 30 years later, I still feel passionate about what I do, and beyond grateful for the assistance of the amazing people I have been surrounded by during my career.
I believe that I have walked the walk. If you’ve read this far, I believe that you have the ability and desire to do the same. If you also walk the walk, you’ve got a great career ahead of you.
HSH Is Committed To Your Passion And Purpose
At HSH, we are passionate about fostering the growth and success of young lawyers who share our commitment to advocacy and positively impacting clients' lives. We believe in the power of mentorship, collaboration, and continuous learning. If you are a young lawyer seeking guidance and you want to connect with experienced personal injury lawyers, I invite you to reach out to me, or any of my colleagues. At HSH, you’ll find a supportive network of like-minded individuals dedicated to being the best lawyers we can be, and making a difference in the legal profession and in the lives of our clients.