What a career on Bay Street is really like

By: September 20, 2016

We asked 6 associates to reveal all

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All over the country, law students thrill to what a career at a top Bay Street firm promises: cutting-edge legal work and good money. But cautionary rumours — of all-consuming hours, sky-high stress, glass ceilings — abound. So what’s the truth? We asked six top associates on Bay Street to address the gossip head-on.

Claire Webster

Claire Webster
Third-year associate
Bennett Jones LLP

What are the hours? And please, be real.

“Let’s not sugarcoat it: the hours can be pretty rough,” says Anas Youssef, a sixth-year associate at Stikeman Elliott LLP. “On some days, at 6 o’clock, instead of leaving, I grab dinner and head back to the office for another six hours. But the pendulum can swing in the other direction. On slow days, partners have come into my office around noon and told me to go home.”

Apart from those extremes, most of his workdays go from 9 to 6, with a day or two each week running a couple hours longer — a timetable in line with that of most Bay Street associates. On average, marathon days can total between one to three months of an associate’s year, during a trial, when a le explodes or at the tail end of a corporate transaction. “If a deal is closing,” says Max Muñoz, a fourth-year associate at Gowling WLG, “you may work 72 hours within a four-day window.”

Max Muñoz

Max Muñoz
Fourth-year associate
Gowling WLG

So is it possible to have a predictable personal life?

“Man, it’s tough,” says Muñoz. “The fact is, we’re at the mercy of our clients.” So if clients have questions — or, say, get slapped with a lawsuit — they expect their lawyers to be on-call. This makes it nearly impossible to foresee when a time-consuming crisis will hit.

But most Bay Streeters build predictability into that chaos. Take Claire Webster, a third-year associate at Bennett Jones LLP. From Monday to Thursday, she rarely makes social plans, having learned that those are the days when a disaster is most likely to strike. “After a year at the firm, it became too much of a hassle to try to keep those plans,” she explains. So she packs her personal life into weekends. It may sound harsh, but this is predictability. “I have predictably decided not to do anything social on those four days.” And she’s happy.

Jennifer Wasylyk

Jennifer Wasylyk
Sixth-year associate
Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP

Over at Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP, Jennifer Wasylyk has a different system. Every night, the sixth-year associate tries her best to be home to put her two-year-old daughter to bed. (She succeeds about four nights a week.) To do so, she’ll go offline and out-of-reach between 7 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. “Afterwards, I often log back on to work,” says Wasylyk. “But my colleagues know that hour-and-a-half is my time. Other people leave at 5 p.m. to pick up their kids from daycare, so they’re offline for a couple hours earlier in the day. Everyone has to find a system that works for them and their family.”

Is it true that every Bay Street associate is super stressed?

Not every associate, of course, but this is one of the law’s foremost problems — at least, that’s what 94 percent of legal professionals said in a study the Canadian Bar Association published a few years back. But, on Bay Street, the root of stress isn’t the hours or the job’s tendency to gobble up personal time.

Anas Youssef

Anas Youssef
Sixth-year associate
Stikeman Elliott LLP

One of the main culprits is the faulty belief that face time matters, a notion that too many hard-charging associates glom onto. “The people most susceptible to stress and burnout are those who always compare themselves to others,” says Webster. Such associates often stay late every night aiming to make a splash. But that strategy is awed. Partners notice first-rate work, she says, not which associates are languishing in their office until midnight.

Those who worry incessantly about how they stack up against their colleagues make another stress-triggering blunder: they take on too much work in the hope that they’ll stand out. This is a terrible idea. “The goal, day-to-day, isn’t even to be working at full capacity,” says Webster. “You should be about 70-percent busy, because when fires happen you’ll need that 30-percent buffer. If you don’t, you’ll be in real trouble.”

Another driver of anxiety is the fact that rookie associates are, to be blunt, clueless. “We all want to succeed and prove that we’re good lawyers — but, at first, we know almost nothing,” says Caroline Samara, a third-year associate at McMillan LLP. “The first day as a lawyer is absolutely terrifying.”

But it shouldn’t be. “No one expects you to know everything,” says Youssef. “You’re supposed to get confused and ask questions.” And both partners and colleagues want to help. “You will often feel thrown in the deep end,” says Brian Kolenda, a sixth-year associate at Lenczner Slaght LLP. “Here’s what I did: I reached out to associates a few years above me or a partner leading the file. People really do have an open-door policy.”

Caroline Samara

Caroline Samara
Third-year associate
McMillan LLP

How bad are things for lawyers who aren’t, well, white men?

First, a bit of good news: the era of agrant racism and sexism is over. “This happens very rarely or, when it does, firms have a zero-tolerance policy,” says Webster. “This has been a huge stride forward.”

One problem, however, persists: unconscious bias. A popular term from social science, it describes how people tend to unknowingly favour and make connections with those who are like them. And since most private-practice partners are men (about 80 percent in Ontario) and white (close to 93 percent in the Greater Toronto Area), it’s far more difficult for women and racialized associates to befriend the firm’s top brass.

Brian Kolenda

Brian Kolenda
Sixth-year associate
Lenczner Slaght Royce Smith Griffin LLP

This gives the firm’s junior white men a competitive edge, explains Webster. “When people are sitting around a table making decisions” — on, say, who to promote — “they’re more likely to stick up for someone they know personally.”

Throughout Bay Street, firms are alive to this problem, but there’s no quick fix. “You can’t just tell people that in their spare time they need to hang out with people they don’t want to,” says Webster. “It’s a sticky issue.”

The long-term solution? Talk about it, so that over time the culture shifts. “If you feel like you’re not getting the right opportunities because of your skin colour or your gender, bring this up to your mentor or department head,” says Muñoz, who’s Hispanic. “Firms care about this. Don’t keep it a secret.”

What if I get a job on Bay Street and I end up hating it?

“Hey, the world is your oyster,” says Muñoz. And it won’t be the first time someone started a career off on the wrong foot. “If you find yourself asking if it’s worth it, explore that feeling. If you’re being honest with yourself, you’ll know the answer.”

To leave Bay Street is not to become a failure. “It shouldn’t feel shameful to find out you don’t want to work on Bay Street,” says Samara. “That should be empowering. You can now find something you want to do. Why would you spend any hours of the day doing something you don’t like?”