Young women in suit atop wide stairs looking out over at sunny city skyline

Building Your Ideal Legal Career: Pillars of success on your terms

  • September 06, 2022
  • Michael Speers

“I wish I was at this session when I started my legal career.”

Moderator Antoine Collins may have said these words at the start of the “Tips for Building the Legal Career You Envision” morning session at the Career Building Bootcamp on Aug. 18 in Toronto, but they are no doubt thoughts shared by many, if not most, experienced lawyers.

Focused on helping law students and young lawyers find their personal and unique paths, the discussion was led by three trailblazers who have their sights clearly set on the direction they want their careers to go – Anna Alizadeh, of WeirFoulds LLP; Justine Johnston, of Baker & McKenzie LLP; and Richa Sandill, of Don Valley Community Legal Services.

Photo of panelists Anna Alizadeh, of WeirFoulds LLP; Justine Johnston, of Baker & McKenzie LLP; and Richa Sandill, of Don Valley Community Legal Services“We all want to find somewhere that aligns with that reason you went to law school in the first place,” Sandill said. “I do social justice work; I knew it was what I wanted to do. So, finding that fit is key to your overall job satisfaction.”

“There’s this idea of fit that everyone promotes – to work on Bay Street, do corporate, become a partner, etc. What I’ve learned is it really is about trying as many things that you can,” Alizadeh said. “If something doesn’t work, change it.”

The inaugural Career Building Bootcamp was a two-day OBA Institute Series event. The program emphasized that while it’s never too late to think about what you want out of your professional life, the best time to plan is certainly at the beginning. While never a straightforward journey, attendees heard that getting your path started in the direction you want it to go increases the chances your career will be successful and rewarding.

Discovering what is right for each individual is a critical part of that. To this end, the three lawyers outlined the five pillars lawyers should be aware of when beginning their careers.

Finding your fit is the foundation. This involves recognizing that law is ultimately a customer service profession with different structures and expectations depending on one’s practice areas.

“You need to be honest with yourself,” Sandill said. “You know yourself – the particular person you are and the values you have. Don’t give up on those values. Being honest with myself has been key for me.”

All three women recommended that attendees to do their research, ask questions to determine if a potential employer shares their values, and reach out to other lawyers.

Another pillar is developing your skills, which they admitted can be difficult when learning law.

“Figure out what it means to be a successful lawyer in your place of work,” Johnston said.

“Being a lawyer isn’t just writing factums, doing research, etc. There’s also the people side to this career,” said Sandill. “How do you manage different clients, negotiate, get clients the result they want? Learning that part of the job comes from mentorship, learning on the job, and trusting your instincts. Don’t be too proud to ask questions as a young lawyer.”

Alizadeh agreed, saying that developing communications skills is a great asset. She added that proper communication and client management can make or break your practice. She suggested that, since young lawyers don’t always get a lot of face-to-face time with clients, they should ask to sit in on meetings to see how partners interact and deal with difficult conversations.

These lessons can also help with the third pillar – building a client roster.

“Law is a business. You have to bring in clients to get paid and pay support staff, and that’s challenging,” said Alizadeh. “And it can be terrifying. So, do some writing, take part in panel discussions, get involved in community programs. Get your name out there and establish yourself as an expert.”

Johnston said it was important for young lawyers in bigger firms to remember that, when starting out, your clients are the associates and partners you’re working with.

“Build those relationships and provide good service to the lawyers you’re working with,” she said. “Work with a variety of people, figure out their style and your style and how to bring those together.”

Nurturing these skills and relationships, as well as emphasizing the final two pillars – defining your own version of success and finding your own path – is how you can deliver top-notch service, meet expectations, and get the credit for the work you do.

Remembering these pillars and how to incorporate them will help a young lawyer point themselves in the direction they want to go.

About the author

Michael Speers is OBA's Media and Communications Specialist and he leads the OBA's regular series of Media Training for Lawyers sessions and one-on-one coaching.