Try anything once

One of my more vivid law school memories is a first-year public law class with Sheila McIntyre at Queen’s in 1990. Prof. McIntyre, while teaching the core subject matter with her usual brilliance, was also giving many of us our first exposure to feminist legal criticisms and status-quo-challenging legal theory. The discomfort among many students was palpable, and the in-class mutterings became increasingly audible during the first several weeks.

“Look,” she finally said one day (approximately), “this is the only time you’ll ever be exposed to these viewpoints. You’ll be finished this class by Christmas, and then you can take whatever courses you want, graduate, practise law for the rest of your life, and never think about these things again. But at least listen to them now.” After all, she added, “It’s only one term.” She was, of course, completely correct.

These days, when I talk to law students, I hear many of them talk about wanting to follow “alternative careers.” While they’re often no more specific than that, I think what they’re expressing is a resistance to the so-called “big-firm career” — the one with incredibly long hours, loads of corporate work, and very little social value or responsibility. I have a couple of thoughts on that.

First, what some students might think of as “alternative careers” — public-sector work, in-house counsel, small-city or small-firm lawyering — are actually mainstream legal careers in Canada. Only a small percentage of practitioners work in national mega-firms.

The second point is that even if the stereotypes of big-firm jobs were true — and given many large firms’ remarkable commitment to pro bono work and community causes, you should doubt it — you might still consider spending part of your early career there, either for summer work, articles, or even a few associate years.

I articled at a Bay Street firm, an experience I like to call “mutually unsatisfying” — the firm didn’t ask me back, and when the initial rejection shock passed, I figured out I’d be happier elsewhere anyway. Some people like that type of career, others don’t. But the first-hand exposure to big-firm legal culture was invaluable to my career, and on balance, I’d do it again.

Bottom line: expose yourself to as many legal career options as possible, even the ones you think you’ll hate. You’ll have a fuller and deeper appreciation of the legal profession for it. And after all, it’s only one year.

 This post originally appeared as the editorial in the 2005 law student issue of National magazine.