Monday, November 13, 2017

Career Satisfaction

I consider it a distinction to be a member in good standing of the Law Society of Upper Canada.  This is important to me because I spent a good deal of my life devoted to the study and practice of law (basically from the age of 21 years in 1970 when I commenced my graduate studies at Dalhousie Law School until I retired in 2014, a total of about 44 years, 39 of which were actively engaged in the practice of law after Articles and my Call to the Bar at Osgoode Hall in 1975). Parenthetically I regret the change of the name of the Law Society of Upper Canada to the Law Society of Ontario, a name which I consider insipid though I acknowledge my objection has about as much strength as the preservation of Confederate statues in the United States of America.  The only other point I wish to make is that maintaining one's membership in the Law Society is not automatic upon retirement (assuming one no longer wishes to pay the Professional Errors & Omissions insurance premium) unless you are over 65 years when you retire.

Though I doubt my status as member of the Law Society has anything to do with it (except that it is for that reason only I get notices from the Law Society), I continue to subscribe to free webcasts emanating from Osgoode Hall. My interest in the webcasts is an accession to my need for intellectual stimulation and the topics naturally fit with what was the focus of my life. I also have a moderate didactic strain in my blood which propels me into these educational environments. Once I lectured for the Law Society ("The Axiomatic Practice of Law for the Sole Practitioner"). Though a small contribution it amounts to an illustration of my earnestness. The webcasts (and related seminars) I attended this past summer portrayed to the changing face of articling in the legal profession.  While the topic wasn't academic it nonetheless afforded me a keen insight into the practical side of working as a lawyer; namely, the difficulty of qualifying for the right to work as a lawyer which is naturally rather significant to a law student.

Late this afternoon - after I returned from bicycling on the beach and swimming in the pool - I watched a webcast directed mostly to women in the legal profession concerning what was globabally entitled "career satisfaction". Though much of the conversation addressed the conflict between trying to be a lawyer and a mother, some of it was just about "going out on your own" and "being your own boss" - matters which were obviously at one time important to me because at the age of 28 years I too jumped from the security of a law firm to start my own law practice. Listening to the very entertaining accounts of the various panelists reminded me that those stories are unique and that the event of starting one's own business likely says a lot about the person who did it.

This reminiscence like any other of that remote distance is contaminated with fogginess. No doubt some of the recollections I would prefer to forget. After I had been Called to the Bar in 1975 I worked for about one year in the law firm where I had previously articled on Sparks Street, Ottawa (a job I secured through a friend of my mother who was politically connected to one of the partners who later became the President of the Liberal Party of Ontario). Though I had the distinction of appearing in both the Federal Court of Canada and the Supreme Court of Canada during that limited period of employment I became disenchanted with the firm management because they subsequently hired a junior lawyer at $13,000 per annum when they were paying me $12,500.  In retrospect I doubt any of the partners knew of the difference. Rather than complain I pondered the alternative of just leaving the scene. Though I contacted other local firms I never went so far as to meet with any one of them.  Instead I heard through our Counsel that his son-in-law in a nearby Ottawa Valley town had just taken over the practice of an 84 year old retiring lawyer and was looking for someone to plug the hole.  With the approbation of my so-called Principal (who was overworked and eating pills by the handful and who not long afterwards died of a heart attack) I applied for the job and got it.  But within less than two years I was disgruntled once again with my employers who worked up the street in a separate office and who had not answered my request for a meeting "to discuss business" (which I considered sufficient code for a desire to seek partnership admission).  So I began making preparations to start my own practice.

To be perfectly honest my undertaking was considerably easier than it would have been in most circumstances because I was already in the office of the old retired lawyer and I had been handling his former clients for almost two years. In many ways the perception was that I had taken over the old lawyer's business. I offered to pay my employers the same price they had paid for the old lawyer's practice initially. Technically however my employers were only selling me the telephone number, the lease and the shabby contents of the old office (which aside from a pot bellied oil stove and a Gestetner machine included dusty volumes of the Dominion Law Reports and Halsbury's Laws of England 1932). To my thinking that was all that mattered.  It was irrelevant that I didn't actually own the "files" since the distinction was lost on the public in any event. Though I imagine the lease (locale) and the telephone number were of paramount importance it is quite possible too that my professional reputation had advanced sufficiently to warrant this upstart enterprise.  In fact one client in particular - a prominent businessman of means, position and influence - made it clear that if I were on my own he would support me.  He was good to his word and became my best client for the next forty years. I am forever indebted to him.

As for the decision to start my own business it wasn't a simple matter.  There were few people with whom I could usefully discuss the topic (especially as secrecy largely surrounded the exploit).  Most of my colleagues were young and in the yolk of employment themselves so they had no experience in the prospect.  My parents - even though they weighed in upon the treachery of cutting oneself loose from a steady income - were in no position to enlighten me.  The only senior lawyers I knew were my employers and the other regulars in the County but there was no one to whom I was close.  The practical business side of the operation - hiring a secretary and setting up accounts at the bank and with legal stationers - was relatively painless. It all suddenly came to fruition when out of the blue the senior partner asked me to join him for lunch and offered me a partnership.  It was then I told him what was in the works, to which he replied after a momentary stunned silence, "You're miles ahead of us" to which I replied, "No, just trying to catch up".

I am grateful that there was never any acrimony surrounding the consummation of the transaction.  For all I know it may even have been desirable from the point of view of my employers that I had overcome the nicety of potential "conflict" existing between their clients and mine.  It is for example not uncommon in large law firms particularly that so-called "opposing" lawyers representing different clients and interests work in the same firm. Sometimes the conflict can begin as innocuously as a domestic real estate transaction but even they can become annoyingly contentious. To overcome this difficulty lawyers have reputedly tried to create what are poetically described as "Chinese Fire Walls" within the same firm though I doubt anyone ever fully accepts their efficacy.  Thus in a small town especially it is not always a bad idea to have independent firms.  At the time we were the only two shows in town.

In keeping with the theme of today's Law Society webcast I feel compelled to record the serendipity of what transpired at the end of my own law career.  I was fortunate to negotiate a sale of my practice to the first female lawyer in the County.  I say fortunate for several reasons.  One, she was the next most senior lawyer in town (the number of lawyers had increased over the years to about six in total); two, her office was within steps of my office (which made it convenient for my former clients); three, she and her staff enjoy a stellar reputation to which I and members of my immediate family are personally privy as a result of subsequent retainers for estate administration and planning; and four, she is directly or indirectly the successor to every law firm of every lawyer within living memory in town.  I considered this latter distinction the jewel in the crown of local entrepreneurs.

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