There’s a Path for Everyone
Guest Contribution by Tiana Knight
Law students are taught throughout their three years that law is a very one-dimensional path. For example, attend law school, join a big law firm, work to make partner at that law firm. There is limited emphasis on the myriad of different opportunities open to law students, along with how different each lawyer’s career can be. There is absolutely nothing wrong with deciding to work at a big law firm and following the path set out above – for some it is the absolute correct path, and it will make them very happy. But others want and need something different.
I entered law school with my guide dog, Cachemire, in 2014. We attended classes, volunteered with the PBLA Human Rights Project, and head-ached about what came next along with the rest of our classmates. I graduated law school in 2017 and joined a new firm for articling. This articling position quickly fell apart and the other articling student and I were told that the firm was breaking up and that our principal was joining another law firm where there would be no room for us. Devastated and confused, we both got jobs as servers at nearby restaurants and began cold-calling and networking. Through a lot of hard work, a whole lot of luck, and the generosity of my new principal, I ended up with composite articles and split my remaining articles with JSS Barristers, Calgary Legal Guidance, and BLG. The experience was varied and wonderful, but I walked out of articling still really not sure what I wanted to do with my career.
One of my now business partners, James Molloy, had a dream of starting a firm and asked Sarah Patrick and me to take the leap with him. It was a really tough decision. I was scared about joining a firm and ending up with no work-life balance. I was worried about not being experienced enough to strike out on my own and about not having enough business experience to build a successful firm. But what finally sold me was realizing that I’d be going into business with two incredible people who shared my values and my vision for a law practice. We’ve built our firm with an emphasis on client communication and an emphasis on our own mental health. We mainly practice in the areas of family and criminal law, and the material can be heavy and hard to manage some days. What gets me through those tough days is the support that I have from my partners and from our staff. Building such a supportive team has really made all the hard work worthwhile.
We have learned a lot about law, and even more importantly, about accounting, running a business and figuring out how to keep the lights on. We’re over three years in and loving every minute.
It hasn’t been easy, both for professional reasons and personal ones. I’ve navigated the profession as a blind lawyer. Part of that experience has been amazing. The Judiciary and the members of the profession as a whole have been welcoming and supportive. But it’s not always been sunshine and roses. I’ve even been followed all the way to security by someone telling me that “only lawyers can go through that line”.
I’ve walked every floor of the courthouse, memorizing which elevator will open on which side and which direction to turn for which courtrooms. I’ve gone early to appearances to ensure that I knew where the proper counsel table was, where the podium was set up, how to get to the door, and what direction to face to speak to the witness box. I’ve FaceTimed friends and family when I’ve found random notices tacked up on the courtroom doors to figure out just what they said and where to go.
In early 2019 I lost my guide dog, and best friend of 11 years, and had to traverse the same path with my cane – not my mobility tool of choice – and that added a whole new level of stress. Before the world went online, I had to beg clerks to email me forms so that I wasn’t stuck with a blank form and no way to fill it out while awkwardly sitting in the court room, feeling too guilty to ask another lawyer to help me.
I’ve had to learn, very quickly, to be confident in myself and not to apologize for my differences as a lawyer. Everything, including court forms going online, has truly made things a lot easier for me and I’m incredibly thankful for that.
I received my second guide dog, Loulou, in late 2019 and that has made a huge difference for me as well. She has been an excellent addition to our firm.
What I want people to know is that no lawyer is the same. We need to truly accept each other’s differences, and part of that starts by accepting our own differences. I had to learn to make it clear what I needed to allow me to be successful and not to be afraid of what other people may be thinking and that’s truly been the toughest part.
Although it’s still a work in progress and I’m sure that I will always have moments of self-doubt, learning to accept these differences has made me a happier person and I truly believe that the confidence it has given me has allowed me to become a better advocate for my clients.
Do I think that everybody should start their own firm? No, not at all. It’s a lot of work and a lot of responsibility. But I do want all students to know that not every articling experience looks the same, not every law career looks the same, and that’s alright. That’s why the legal profession is so great, there’s a spot for everybody, it’s just up to each of us to explore those options and figure out what’s right for you as an individual.