By Ted Flett
The life of a sole practitioner caught my interest during the first year of my litigation practice on Bay Street. As I came across a range of opposing and co-counsel, many were self-employed, driven, confident, relaxed and they impressed me.
As much as I valued the learning and experience that came with working at a firm, I began to crave going solo and its perceived benefits: winning my own clients, shaping my own practice and specializing in areas of law that I love, such as employment, wills and defamation.
I grew restless, biding my time.
But one question nagged at me as I reassessed my partner-track ambitions: Was I ready to go on my own?
The question and doubt lurked like an ugly troll that kept reappearing while I researched, strategized and drafted. “Puh-lease,” the critter would scoff. “You are not ready for this.”
My mindset made it harder to silence him because the grind of law school and articling hardly provides a confidence-boosting springboard for this sort of endeavour. My self-esteem took a beating as I struggled to read more, know more, impress more and be liked.
But, as I applied my skills and education during my first year of practice, my confidence sprouted. I came to realize just how much I know.
Case in point: In preparations for my first set of discoveries, I was terrified by the assignment, certain I would sabotage my client’s position or neglect a key line of questioning based on a seminal fact that I had missed. But as my preparations for the litigation milestone proceeded, my need to act displaced my fear. I reviewed, highlighted and sticky-tabbed every document. I consulted old discovery transcripts. I read Rule 31 over and over again. I consulted mentors.
Lo and behold, in preparation for those dreaded discoveries, I came to the realization that I was inching my way closer to becoming the model, diligent lawyer that the profession reveres. The things I did not know motivated me to learn everything I possibly could, muzzling the troll as I persevered.
“Can I actually do this?” I asked myself about solo life, newly invigorated by my eureka moment. As my confidence multiplied and as the playing field with the troll evened in my mind, I grew excited. “I think I can do this.”
And the troll piped down.
That I carry a toolkit of practical legal skills would come as no surprise to University of New Brunswick president Eddy Campbell. He often boasts that his law school graduates, like me, are “practice ready,” based on feedback he receives from law firms.
The school credits two important factors that have helped UNB Law alumni earn this practice-ready reputation. One is the core curriculum, loaded with required foundation courses. The second is a collection of enhanced internship programs with the Court of Appeal, attorney general and public interest groups. Other schools are upping their practical game, too.
As I questioned my preparedness for solo life, I discovered that somewhere between the endless reading in Ludlow Hall, the slog of articling and the firestorm of the first year of practice, I had built the foundation for a successful legal practice.
I am not an anomaly. Others have jumped into solo practice this early in the game.
Real estate lawyer Martin Wu did it. So did employment lawyer Chris Achkar. And immigration lawyer Lou Janssen Dangzalan is doing it now. And they are all succeeding. In fact, by their measure, I am moving at a snail’s pace by waiting until my second year to go solo. They each took the plunge in a matter of mere weeks or months after bar call.
Energized by a diverse network of contacts to leverage and equipped with the experience of articling at a small firm where he had a hand in the administration, Dangzalan hung his solo shingle this summer. The ink on his licence was barely dry.
Dangzalan says he, too, has learned to manage the occasional reservations of early solo practice.
“A little bit of doubt helps me to do due diligence at every step of the way,” he says, confiding that he often consults with mentors and sometimes double and triple checks a piece of work to silence any voices of uncertainty. “It’s spinning something negative into something more productive for the firm.” And it’s working for him. Three months in, Dangzalan says he is already in the black.
The junior sole practitioner is not a mere blip on the legal landscape. The Law Society of Ontario reports that 8,936 lawyers were licensed between Jan. 1, 2015 and Oct. 31, 2018. Of those bar calls, 859 — more than 10 per cent — are already sole practitioners.
Indicators show that a steady stream of future early sole practitioners may be incubating.
“We definitely see a lot of entrepreneurial students,” says Chira Perla, assistant dean of career services at the University of British Columbia’s law school.
“A number of our students each year will have owned or been a part of a business — small or large — prior to coming to law school.”
Perla is observing a related shift in the post-graduate aspirations of her students. An increasing number of UBC law students seeking articles — more than 60 per cent — are bypassing Big Law and articling instead with smaller employers. So, Perla’s programs no longer focus solely on landing that once-coveted articling gig on Georgia Street, but they now also include panel discussions with sole practitioners.
I am easing into my new identity as a junior sole practitioner. Along with my peers, I feel uniquely positioned to provide access to justice for clients, a competitive edge within the legal marketplace and a distinct voice within the profession.
Three months in, as I juggle research, billing, marketing, client questions, networking and scheduling, I am energized and optimistic. And the troll has gone back to living under the bridge. Most of the time, anyway.
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