My legal career began at the worst-possible time. It was 2009, and the global recession was in full throttle, wreaking havoc on the job market. Yet, despite that bad timing, I landed a great articling job at the Ontario Securities Commission, and, the following year, I was hired back on a short-term contract. Near the end of that contract, I saw that a Bay Street firm was looking to hire a junior securities litigator. I jumped at the opportunity, and, before I knew it, I had a job offer. The future looked bright.
Or so I thought. As it turned out, it was difficult to integrate into the new firm as a lateral hire. Without the benefit of an articling experience, I struggled to produce good work and navigate the politics of the workplace. The firm was supportive and patient, but, even at my best, my work life was rocky. I never felt like I truly belonged.
I was right to worry. One afternoon, in my fifth year at the firm, a partner unexpectedly called me into her office. I was being let go. It felt like someone had punched me in the chest and blown all the air out of my lungs, but I still managed to ask one question: “Why?”
I was given a brisk explanation: the executive committee had determined I’d never make partner, so it was time to say goodbye. I was told to go home and come back the next day to write transfer memos for all of my files. After that, I was not to return.
That was a brutal day. I had to go home, where my wife and I had a two-year-old baby, and face the reality that I was out of a job. The next day, I found out that the firm had gone through a rough year, and I wasn’t the only associate who had been let go as a result. But that didn’t make things any less difficult.
The next few years were not easy. But I did bounce back. Today, I have a great job, and I finally feel like I have control over my career. My story is a common one. I’m not the first lawyer to stare down a major setback, and I certainly won’t be the last. To help you navigate the twists and turns of your career path, here are a few pieces of wisdom that I want to pass along.
1. If you feel off-balance at work, it may be time to move on. I’m not suggesting you run at the first sign of trouble; in this profession, speed bumps are common. But if the writing is on the wall, don’t ignore the truth.
2. Don’t let your loyalty to others dictate your career choices. This one is hard. Throughout your career, people will go to bat for you. If you land a big-firm job because a senior partner vouched for you before the hiring committee, you’ll naturally develop a strong connection with that person. That’s a good thing.
But first and foremost, do what is best for you. If you’re unhappy somewhere or a great opportunity knocks, don’t let your loyalties prevent you from making the appropriate decision. The people who truly support you will understand.
3. Accept that your career may not go as planned. Let’s be honest. You might not land your first choice articling position. And even if you do secure your dream job, you might realize, after a few years, that you hate the work. It’s also possible that you’ll spend a decade at a firm you love, working hard, but fail to make partner. None of these scenarios would be much fun. But I personally know lawyers who have encountered these setbacks and landed comfortably on their feet. In fact, some of them are thankful in the end.
There you have it. I hope that you find this advice helpful as you embark on your legal career. And remember this: even if things don’t go your way, you will survive. Best of luck.