Top 5 Reminders from My First 5 Years of Practice

  • March 28, 2024
  • Keagan Davis-Burns

This June will mark five years for me as a lawyer. I’m not going to sugar coat it. The past five years have been some of my most challenging mentally. The learning curve was steep. I gave up personal plans again and again to work weekends and evenings. My friendships and relationships suffered. I constantly questioned whether I should have chosen a different profession.

Fortunately, however, these challenges made me reflect on what I needed to change in my career so that these lows didn’t keep happening. Below are five things I have learned in my first five years of practice that I want to celebrate, and put forward in case they may help you too:

1. Make the change.

The traditional legal path of joining one firm and practice area, becoming partner after X number of years, and staying until retirement is simply not the norm anymore. While it can be intimidating, if you aren’t happy with where you are or in your area of practice, you can make a change.

I completed my articles and my first year of practice at a predominantly family law firm. I absolutely loved the firm and the people I worked with, but I just wasn’t keen on family law. I had always been interested in employment law, but I knew nothing about the area and, unfortunately, would have to leave my firm and colleagues if I wanted to try this practice area. To make it more difficult, several people that I confided in told me not to do it. I “hadn’t given family law enough of a chance” and it “would be too hard to make the switch”.

But was I willing to spend 40+ years practicing an area of law I didn’t like? No way. And it turned out to be the best decision for me.

The legal profession is stressful and often demands a lot of your time. So, if something isn’t working, and you have the ability to change your circumstances, do it.

2. Set boundaries.

With your clients, your colleagues, and yourself. I, for example, have learned to set expectations with clients and colleagues regarding when they can expect to hear from me (not after certain hours nor on weekends, subject to specific exceptions). I express when I am at capacity and cannot take on more work. If I have weekend plans that are important to me, that Monday deadline is going to have to be pushed back.

Truth be told, this is still the thing with which I struggle the most. As a young lawyer looking to prove yourself and establish job security, it is hard to put yourself before the work. But burn out is all too real in this profession, and we can’t serve our clients to the best of our abilities if we ourselves are not at our best.

3. Find your outlet.

Building on point 2 above, a way to help set boundaries for yourself is finding the time to devote to something other than work. I’m not saying go out and find a whole new hobby. But try to set aside some time for you.

This is much easier said than done, but so worth it. The studies show that making time for yourself can lead to significant physical and mental health benefits. For me, sometimes it is as simple as turning my brain off completely and catching up on my favourite reality TV show for an hour. But if you don’t prioritize your me-time, soon all of your time will be work-time.

4. You will never know all the law.

I didn’t truly appreciate this until my fifth year of practice. I admired more senior lawyers for seemingly knowing the answer to every client inquiry immediately. In contrast, I constantly second guessed my own competence every time I encountered a question to which I didn’t know how to respond.

However, knowledge comes with experience. Of course there are going to be questions to which I don’t have the answer as a fifth-year call. But my competence lies in knowing how to find the answer.

Further, even those partners I admire so much do not always have the answer. This is an extremely humbling profession – we will never have all the answers. As stressful as that can be, the upside is that we are always learning.

5. Find your people.

We all understand the importance of having a mentor.

What I want to emphasize with this point is to find your people that help make the day go by. The people that you can rant to about a difficult file. The people you can lean on when you’re questioning yourself. The people that join in your mental health break as you walk to and from a coffee shop.

Your colleagues may just “get you” more than anyone outside our profession has or ever will.

The gist of all of this: It takes time to find your place, your confidence, and your voice in this profession, but it will come.

About the author

Keagan Davis-Burns is an associate in the employment law group at Cunningham, Swan, Carty, Little & Bonham LLP in Kingston, Ontario. Keagan serves as this year's Chair of the Young Lawyers Division East Region Executive.

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