• The Moot Times UCalgary Law

The Dream v. The Reality

Guest Contribution from Justin O’Connell


Congratulations! You achieved your goal of attending law school. Along with 130 of your peers, your three-year journey begins. Your aspirations of what area of law you practice (or using your law degree to open other doors) will change several times during your education. Most want to practice the perceived exciting areas of the law, criminal, human rights, or the very topical environment. Does anyone enter law school with the goal of being a constitutional expert? No!


I will be the first of many to tell you this, upon your graduation, you will know way more law than I do. However, you will have no idea how to work a file or how to manage a client. Being a lawyer is about helping people achieve their goals. It should never be just a job; it should be your profession. Your reputation is everything. Be courteous. Be ethical. Be effective.


I assumed that after law school I would article and practice at a large firm. I’d make the proverbial “big bucks,” some day be offered a partnership, and I would sail off into the horizon. Well, none of that happened. Although I am getting close to the sailing part.


Of your first-year class, approximately 60- 70% will attain articles and start working at a mid- to large- size firm. They will never have to balance a trust account, go to a storage facility, fix their computer, order office supplies, or fill out the annual forms required by your regulator, the Law Society. They will have peeps do that and much more for them. They will work on existing files and one day be expected to bring billable work into their firm and not just have it handed to them. They will need to produce, and if they fail, they will not last. In my world, I have and do all of the above. The greatest gift of self or small practice is AUTONOMY. I decide who my clients are, I choose what matters I will engage, and I reap the rewards of those choices. Do not get me wrong; it is not all sunshine and smiles. There are long days, weeks, and months, no paid vacation, and any benefits I receive I pay for, and I have to ensure the office runs in a smooth and efficient manner. But, oh, the joy of autonomy! No wonder there are so many self-employed entrepreneurs in our Province.


So, what happens to the rest of your class upon graduation? They will eventually finish articles and be called to the Bar. But there is no guarantee the firm you articled with will offer you employment. You will be told there simply isn’t the work (or the money) at the small firm to take you on. This is not the end, and do not despair. Many of you, like me, will start your own practice from the ground up. How do you do that? Where do you start? Most importantly, how do you attract business?


As a sole practitioner, I consider myself a businessperson whose primary function is to provide legal services. In my experience, many lawyers who find themselves in trouble with their regulators are in that position because they can not manage their practice. Their incompetence or wilful blindness in running an office leads to their downfall. I will admit that I am a bit of a dinosaur, now in my 26th year of practice, and as a result, I am very senior counsel. I often joke that I have survived 26 years, but I am proud to be a member of the Law Society (LSA).


There is no textbook on how to practice law (that I am aware of), and law school does not teach practical courses on how to operate a law office. The LSA will ensure that you set up the proper bank accounts, but they do not help with the day-to-day business acumen required to succeed. The LSA does have a mentor program. It is voluntary, and the seasoned vets help the new lawyers. I have mentored several young lawyers. Like any program, you usually get out of it what you put into it. I highly recommend this resource.


Capital is key to every new business. It may be your family’s capital, or it may be your line of credit. Make sure you have some capital/credit available as you are going to need it. The requirement for chattels is necessary for work, even if you have a modern virtual office. I first shared office space (common in the legal world) with three other lawyers. With my monthly rent expense, I was provided with a desk and chair. I then went shopping for a new computer, and the necessary supplies, hung my sign on the door (you do not need a city business license) and was ready to commence my career.


Wait! Something was missing; I had no clients. The most necessary element to being successful, and I had nil. How would I market my new business? How would I stand out?

Before social media took over the world and websites were a still new phenomenon, I signed up for legal aid. I quickly realized this was not for me. It was mostly criminal defense work, which did not interest me, and after I received a call at 3:00 AM from the remand centre, I (and more importantly, my wife) was done with that.


I offered my services to other lawyers to act as an agent on court applications, to be available when a colleague had a conflict and would have to refer a client out or to do research on a file. It was not glamorous, but it generated some revenue and was beneficial to my growth. With effective and timely results, slowly, my network of colleagues multiplied.


I became active in my community. This could be your physical, religious, or personal community. Volunteer your time to a cause that you believe in, and use the communication skills that law school will teach you to grow your network. The larger your network, the more opportunities will present themselves. A satisfied client will be your best referral source. It will take time but nurture each client relationship.


I worked the pavement hard and conducted presentations to applicable audiences, such as estate planning for seniors and the legal process of buying and selling real estate. From these small venues, I received enough feedback to begin to attract larger commercial clients. I made myself available as much as possible. You must put in the time; there is no way around it.


You will be the reason people come to you for legal services. Just like we go to any service provider because we like the product or the service. Price is important, but never undervalue yourself. A key error new lawyers make is not believing in themselves. Bill reasonably and fairly.

The delivery of legal services is evolving, and with Covid, it has gone through a drastic change in delivery method. Use the available technology to your advantage, but never underestimate the human touch and the power of building relationships. There are many paths to being successful, and your individual circumstances and personality will dictate the trajectory of your career. Use your best characteristics to your advantage. I wish you all the best!

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