Ultra Vires


What should you look for in a career?

Some of you will think this article makes an obvious point. You have thought about your career goals for years, researched the implications of each legal specialization, and decided you want to be an international tax lawyer. Your name is Robert Santia.  

But the truth is that many of us are not always conscious about where we are heading. I know I wasn’t. Before and during law school, I worked hard to get good grades and build up my resume, spending relatively little time to consider where it all was leading.

I came to law school in large part because I thought it was a way for me to keep my doors open. I had an interest in public policy and social justice but I was also interested in business… and international affairs… and basically every other practice area. I could take classes here for 10 years without exhausting the courses that interest me. Before coming to law school, I scanned the course list and looked at some of the fascinating and diverse things that U of T law grads are doing, and I thought, “Wow, I can pursue all of my interests!”

You can’t keep all those doors open. Don’t kid yourself. Sure, everyone has to take the same courses in first year, but in 1L you will begin to form an identity in law school through the extra-curricular organizations and activities you join. The upper-year classes you take in 2L, and your 1L summer placement will further narrow your focus. And once you decide where you will article, even if you decide to work in a full-service firm as I have, your career path will begin to solidify.

There are certain points in life that cry out for you to take stock of where you have been and where you want to go. That is not to say that re-examination is not possible or important at other times as well; people routinely quit their jobs in order to move their career in a new direction. But it’s hard. Your life has a momentum pushing you to continue on your current path. Your friends and colleagues are probably in the same industry as you or at least share your core beliefs, and your existing work experience and education is lining you up for a certain career.

The first two years of law school up until you accept an articling offer provide a special opportunity to shift the direction of your life and career. Your personal story can always be changed, but the beginning of law school is an easier time to pull it in a new direction (if you decide that is what you want to do). Mashed together in that 1L class are future criminal attorneys, business executives, journalists and politicians. And at the beginning it is very tough to tell what field each student will choose.

Considering what path you want to take can be a daunting proposition, and it is easy to push it aside and work on your contracts paper instead. The best advice I received during 1L was by a guy named Daniel Debow who said that you should think of deciding on your career path as an extra class. I ignored that advice for the most part – narrowing my career preferences fell somewhere in between beating Zain in tennis and trying to watch every Owen Wilson movie (both unfulfilled ambitions at this point) – but I wish I had taken it more seriously from the beginning.

The good news is that, as with most of life’s problems, lots of smart people have struggled with this question before and written books on the subject. Daniel Pink (who is an ex-lawyer) says that the keys to intrinsically motivating work are autonomy, mastery and purpose. You should seek out work environments that allow you to have some measure of self-direction, let you improve at something that’s important and give you a sense that you are serving a meaningful purpose beyond yourself.

It’s also reassuring to know that you have access to a huge network of U of T alumni, many of whom are engaged in fulfilling work and will be more than willing to talk to you about it. Everyone who goes to this school has an immense amount of talent; we are told that on day one. It would be great if we spent a little more time deciding how to use it.

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