Ultra Vires


The Unexpected Loneliness of the Law Firm

“I don’t think I’ve actually spoken to anyone today”

This isn’t why I came to law school.

I never intended to come to law school. Both my parents were engineers. I studied engineering in undergrad. I worked several engineering jobs prior to law school. In retrospect, I made a reckless decision to leave engineering and study law, and I’m incredibly fortunate that it worked out.

I came to law school because I liked lawyers.

(I feel that I should pause, at this point, to let the laughter subside).

There were other reasons—reasons more amenable to personal statements and cover letters—but, in large part, I chose law school—and U of T specifically—for the peer group.

In my limited interaction with lawyers prior to law school, they had always been intelligent, conscientious, and friendly. They were engaging. They were intellectually curious and conversant on a range of topics—none of which, I might add, were remotely legal in nature. But, more than any of that, they believed in enacting concrete change, in fairness, in justice. These, I thought, are the type of people with whom I would like to surround myself.

I don’t think I’ve actually spoken to anyone today. 

Let me contrast two jobs that I had prior to law school:

At the first job, I was continually engaged and thinking critically. I was able to apply the things I had learned in my degree and was frequently assigned interesting and novel problems. However, I was the youngest person at the company by easily fifteen years and had little in common with my colleagues. I worked alone in an office and had limited interactions with anyone else working there. The interactions we did have involved my struggling to relate to retirement planning or how difficult it was to raise teenage kids.

At the second job, I did essentially manual labour in noisy, cramped conditions. Worse, my work demanded incredible fine-motor skills—imagine playing Operation except every mistake costs hundreds of dollars. I was, perhaps, singularly unsuited for this position (as anyone who has seen my handwriting can attest).

Despite this, I enjoyed the second job far more than the first. My colleagues were much closer in age and more engaging to talk with. At lunch, we would sit at one long table (there is an interesting backstory here which I suspect the editors will cut for space*) that could fit the entire company—forty-odd people—and discuss sports, politics, science, you name it. There was some child-rearing and retirement talk, sure, but I never felt isolated from conversations as I had at the first company. It wasn’t a perfect job by any means, but I learned that the peer group was the most important factor (to me) when choosing a workplace.

It’s a shame because I really like the people who work here.

During the recruit, I struggled to differentiate between firms. Although I did the Vancouver recruit, I think this is a common experience. Prior to OCIs, I found it especially difficult to distinguish full-service firms, in particular,  as they all operate in roughly (read: all) the same practice areas and are frustratingly opaque from the outside. 

At my very first OCI, the interviewer gave me the single piece best of advice I got in the whole process: Just go with your gut. Pick the firm with the people you like to be around. Simple as that. As nebulous and unhelpful a descriptor as “culture” is, the interviewer told me, at the end of the day, it’s the only useful differentiator. At OCIs treat the interviewer(s) as a microcosm of the firm culture. These are the people they chose to represent the firm. Judge them accordingly, and at in-firms talk to everyone you can.

Accordingly, my goal at in-firms was to meet as many people as possible. It was exhausting but the only good means of assessing where I wanted to work. Everywhere I went and everyone I spoke to, I was taken with how collegial everyone was. They all spoke of how much they liked working with each other; cases they had been partnered on or clients they swapped stories about. I met many lovely people, shook countless hands, and tried to listen to my gut. My gut didn’t cooperate (too many canapés in too short a time period, I guess).

After the final day (Vancouver sends out offers the morning of “Day Four” instead of the evening of “Day Three” as in Toronto) I flew back to Toronto without a finalized internal ranking. I hadn’t told any firms “first choice.” My gut was silent. My sleep that night was uneasy. So many canapés.

When I got the calls, the next morning, I still didn’t have an answer. I asked for more time and called my parents. My dad gave me the answer: which person did you like the best, of anyone you met? Go work with them. 

I knew who he meant, even if he didn’t. I immediately called the firm back and accepted the offer.

Would anyone notice if I just went home?

Of the many things I misunderstood about firm life, misinterpreting the phrase “I work with so-and-so” was the one I expected the least.

In engineering, group projects were the default. Teams were multidisciplinary, by necessity, and virtually no task could be completed without collaborating with others. Meetings, both formal and informal, were frequent, and while you would still work on some tasks alone, you would always come together as a group afterwards. I anticipated that when lawyers said they worked with someone, they meant something similar to the above, just on a smaller scale. This was not what I found.

“I work with so-and-so” is more accurately translated as “so-and-so will assign you tasks. They will likely be assigned via email. You may not ever meet in person. Unless you need to ask clarifying questions, there will likely be no further communication beyond their thanks and acknowledgment of the received work product.”

I had my own office, which I originally thought was excellent. I had a view of both harbour and mountains (obligatory mention of mountains for any article about Vancouver). The downside of having your own office is that only you are in it. The vast majority of my days were spent alone, in my office, working by myself. The best times were when I was on a big file and we would have all the lawyers set up in a conference room or office and discuss our arguments, theories, etc. There was less of this than I would have liked. Some lawyers made a particular point of coming to my office regularly to check-in and chat, to whom I am eternally grateful. My mentor would similarly regularly check-in. I can only hope the other students were as fortunate. But the recruit didn’t prepare me for just how little I would see other lawyers on a day to day basis. 

Where does everyone eat lunch?

Our lunchroom, as with most of the lunchrooms at firms I’ve seen, had many small tables that would seat four people scattered about. It could seat maybe fifty people at full capacity. Our office, for reference, had roughly two-hundred total employees of whom around eighty were lawyers.

At no point did I see more than a solitary lawyer eating in the lunchroom. It was uncommon to see more than one non-lawyer at a table. They might as well have been eating in their office.

On day one, we were told never to eat lunch at our desks. Eat in the lunchroom and meet other lawyers, we were told. As students, we managed to eat together early in the summer, but this quickly fell apart as our respective work-loads mounted. Despite being told not to, we ate more and more of our lunches at our desks. I was particularly bad for this, perhaps because I almost always brought lunch while most people bought lunches and would eat them out of the office.

I thought back to the one big table and wondered if we would eat lunch together if the lunchroom hadn’t been set up in a way that seemed designed to have people eat alone.

Something is missing.

I did all of the outside-of-work firm events. The Vancouver Bar Association runs a softball league during the summer and I joined in enthusiastically. I (more apprehensively) joined the firm’s Dragon Boat Team. I joined the firm’s slack-line yoga stand-up paddleboard club (that last one might be a joke). The firm hosted barbeques and we would go out for drinks or food with some of the associates and articling students. Outside of work, when I actually got to spend time with my co-workers, they were exactly the lovely, engaging, friendly people I had met during in-firms. The problem was that I didn’t get to see them all that much at work. I didn’t see much of anyone at work.

Perhaps this is simply part of my working in Vancouver. After two years, here, almost my entire social circle is in Toronto. Few of my old friends remain in Vancouver and those that do struggle to relate to legal life. There is a distance with them there that there isn’t with law students. Plus, with frictionless digital communication, I was constantly connected to friends not in Vancouver (whether back in Toronto or elsewhere). I suspect my fellow summer students (most of whom weren’t UBC students) felt the same way. There was no overwhelming push to become fast friends in the way there was at the start of law school. We were friends, but we didn’t bond in the same way as I had with my friends at law school.

Then again, would it have been any different in Toronto? I routinely left the office before my friends in Toronto and that’s even accounting for a 3-hour time change. I was never required to work weekends, something that was, while perhaps not routine, definitely expected of Toronto summer students. I didn’t have work email on my phone—when I left work on Fridays I was incommunicado until Monday morning. Where would I have found the time even if we were in the same city?

I never expected to feel lonely.

All of this comes with massive caveats. I have no idea if my experience generalizes to life at a firm beyond the summer. I have no idea if my experience externalizes to other firms, or even to other students within my firm. This was simply one summer’s observation. I had no clients to talk to. I never was up in court arguing so I didn’t form any interfirm relationships (my only exposure to other firms was the occasional service of documents).

The recruit gave me a very skewed sense of what working at a law firm would be like. In retrospect, there is no reason why the recruit would properly reflect firm life, but, still, I was caught off-guard when I found myself lonely at work. Not all the time, but definitely more than I expected.

The bottom line is I chose to study law to work with lawyers. I chose where to work based on whom I wanted to work with. I work at a firm with wonderful people. I just wish I got to work with them more often. 

*Editor’s note: The backstory is not, in fact, interesting and was cut for space.

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