Former Supreme Court Judge Ian Binnie on how to succeed in law

By: September 20, 2016

It's actually simple: follow your dreams

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When aging members of the profession like me offer advice to young lawyers, the message is generally the same. Work hard. Don’t grumble. And focus on practising law. Otherwise, you’ll lose your place on the greasy pole.

But most of this advice is of no use at all. It’s better to keep in mind why you went to law school in the first place (whether you set out to make a difference, serve the public or make bags of money) and trust your own instincts about the way forward.

I have in mind the example of Hugh Verrier, the chairman of White & Case LLP, a top international firm. He graduated from law school, at the University of Ottawa, with more interest in seeing the world than spending nights in law libraries. So when White & Case, where he got his first law-firm job, offered him an opportunity at its Moscow office, he grabbed it, despite the conventional wisdom that it would be a career-limiting move. Russia is too far, he was warned, from the firm’s centres of power. But Verrier followed his own drumbeat, and after happily drifting for years around the firm’s foreign outposts, he landed in New York, perched atop the greasy pole.

Contrast that with the stories of Justices Yves Pratte and Louis-Philippe de Grandpré. In the 1970s, these high-ranking Quebeckers were appointed directly to the Supreme Court of Canada. I imagine that both men saw such an appointment as the pinnacle of their legal careers — only to find out they didn’t like the job at all. Both apparently resigned from the court after a few years of malaise. And so, as they say, be careful what you wish for.

More advice: nobody really cares about your career except you. Employers look, rightly, to fulfilling their own needs. You are useful to them insofar as you help them meet those needs. If your job doesn’t permit you to achieve your career goals, whatever they are, walk away. If you don’t, you have only yourself to blame.

Wayne Gretzky famously said: “Skate to where the puck is going, not where it’s been.” The practice of law is moving in an unsustainable direction, largely because it has become too focused on the top one percent of people and corporations. Self-represented litigants fend for themselves daily in all levels of court.

If lawyers can’t or won’t supply the service, the legal system will find ways to deal with disputes without resorting to lawyers. PayPal and eBay rely on online-dispute resolution systems to resolve 90 percent of the 60 million user conflicts that occur each year. Online dispute resolution is also a reality in British Columbia for small claims court. Keep this in mind as you plan your career.

Finally, nobody will be a success if they don’t like their work, especially if it’s in a disagreeable environment. The law offers terrific opportunities for a fulfilling career if you follow your own instincts, chart your own path and keep your independence so you’re able to walk away from an intolerable situation. Above all, if you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, stop doing it.

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