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Law is a marathon, not a sprint

Speaker's Corner

Law students often hear the same piece of advice: Article at a Bay Street firm and work there for a year or two or three.

Get experience under your belt and establish pedigree. Make good money and pay off your debt.

Once you have done that, you can do whatever you want.

I believe this advice is flawed and whether or not students should pursue articles on Bay Street must be looked at in a more nuanced way.

Coming into law school and in my first year of law school, I wanted to become a criminal lawyer.

When I began to get ready for my second year of law school and read the OCI materials, I realized that criminal law articles were less well paid than the Bay Street articles by approximately $30,000.

I started to feel overwhelming pressure to compete with the students that were doing the Bay Street process.

My thinking at the time was so short term and I was so enmeshed in the hyper-competitive atmosphere of law school that I think I decided to do the Bay Street process simply because I could not bear the perceived indignity of making less money while articling than my fellow students.

Though this sounds funny to me now, I am quite certain this thought resonates with many law students given our disposition toward super type-A behaviour.

But my path in law ultimately showed me the silliness and wrongness of my decision-making based on my competitive nature and short-term thinking.

I articled in 2008-2009 at a Bay Street firm and was called to the bar in 2009.

I opened my own criminal law firm in 2011 and was lucky enough to go out on my own at the same time as a group of talented criminal lawyers, several of whom were called to the bar the same year as me.

Focusing on the lawyers that were called the same year I was, it was obvious that their articling experience in criminal law had helped them and that they were ahead of me on the curve of criminal practice.

I had to build my practice more slowly than they did and, by the end of our first year as criminal lawyers, it seemed to me very likely that they had more than made up the $30,000 pay advantage that I had had over them during our articling year. 

In other words, my experience in law caused me to see the flaw in my decision-making as a law student.

Having seen the bigger picture, it is my contention that there are two categories of people that should work on Bay Street — those that want to work on Bay Street because they are interested in practice areas in which the Bay Street firms specialize and those that do not know what they want to do and articling on Bay Street gives them an articling experience that is universally respected.

But the advice to work on Bay Street is flawed for people that have decided that they are interested in criminal, family, immigration, plaintiff-side personal injury, landlord-tenant or any of the other areas that are part of the vast domain that we refer to as “law” that are not, for the most part, practised on Bay Street by the firms that recruit during on-campus interviews.

The students that choose to work on Bay Street despite it not being their area of interest are depriving themselves of a valuable experience that should form part of the foundation for a career in their chosen field.

There is another important reason to question the advice to work on Bay Street for a few years while paying off debt: Areas of law such as criminal, family and immigration are the most conducive areas of law in which to become a sole practitioner or start a small law firm.

The best time to learn the skills to become a sole practitioner or small-firm lawyer and be in a position to take the risk that such a lawyer takes is when you are young, have not developed a particular lifestyle that relies on a Bay Street salary and do not have children.

I often wonder how many Bay Street lawyers there are that received the above advice intending to spend a short time on Bay Street but found themselves with children or with a particular lifestyle that made any sort of career change or risk-taking seem daunting or impossible and are still there many years later.

My guess is that there are many, although this is not the sort of thing that one discusses in polite company.

If the combination of a hyper-competitive environment and crushing student debt causes students to article and work on Bay Street despite the firm not practising in their area of interest, it is a problem that the legal community should try to solve.

Part of the solution is to encourage law students to make long-term decisions in the hyper-competitive cauldron of law school.

I understand that this is not easy, but it is vital to making decisions that will ultimately make law students healthy and successful lawyers.

Fast forward about 12 years from when I did the OCI process and I can say that I love practising criminal defence. 

I want to go back and tell my 24-year-old self the following: Do not concern yourself with what other law students are doing and what they are earning while articling because it has nothing to do with you.

You are best suited to practise criminal law and, because that is where you are best suited, that is what you will be most successful at and where you will, over time, make the most money.

Snap out of your habit of making decisions based on short-term thinking and your competitive nature. You have a long career ahead of you. Law is a marathon, not a sprint.

Ryan Handlarski is a criminal lawyer practising in Toronto and surrounding areas since 2009. He can be reached at ryan@rhcriminaldefence.com or 416-837-4500.

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