In 1991, when I received a letter from Osgoode Hall Law School offering me a place in its first-year class, I literally jumped up and down on my bed and screamed at the top of my much younger lungs. The impossible had happened. I was accepted into my preferred law school and, to me, that meant my proverbial ticket was written.
I was sure that I was on a fast track to a steady, challenging, lucrative and fulfilling career.
Then the last 27 years happened, confirming the wisdom of John Lennon, who said that “life is what happens when you’re making other plans.”
While my journey has ended up in an ideal place, I could not have imagined the circuitousness of it.
Flash forward a couple of decades and substitute a millennial aspiring lawyer for that now aging gen-X’er and watch the challenges multiply.
Young lawyers today face many of the same challenges and still many more I couldn’t have conceived.
For instance, from my anecdotal observations of therapy clients, at least here in Ontario, many more law students are failing the bar exams, sometimes multiple times, which is a recent and highly distressing phenomenon for the individual.
There are many potential reasons for this state of affairs, but whatever the reason, this is a particularly daunting and stressful obstacle at the beginning of an aspiring legal career.
The good news is that those who persist almost always prevail.
Debt loads today are exponentially higher than when I graduated.
As a result, the pressure to get an articling job or “hireback” becomes not just about having a solid start to your career but about digging your way out of a financial crater.
This pressure leads many to jobs they wouldn’t or shouldn’t otherwise accept. The hireback continues to represent the Holy Grail of early law practice.
It is viewed as an ultimate good.
This, despite the repeated trying articling ordeals I hear about from students in my practice.
These are stories of verbal abuse, sexual harassment, racism and inhumane workloads.
Students and young lawyers are uniquely vulnerable to maltreatment by superiors.
The power imbalance is wide and the feeling that one must endure this treatment to reach one’s goals no matter how personally damaging is powerful.
I had a client tell me that she’d never want to work at a firm and a few minutes later tell me that she’s hoping for a hireback there. Pressure trumps prudence and personal care.
In other situations, articling students or new lawyers work in perfectly lovely, constructive workplaces, but they discover through their time on the job that the area of law or the venue (small private practice, government, Bay St., etc.) is not consistent with who they are.
This is a tough one because, sometimes, the difficulty they experience may simply be the inevitable fear they experience as individuals new to law practice, aware of how much they don’t know, fearing looking foolish or making irretrievable mistakes due to inexperience (that fear abates, but it takes a while).
But, more often, their instincts tell them something’s not right and when a paycheque and a steady job are at stake, it’s challenging to turn down a solid offer.
Ultimately, working where you don’t fit, for whatever reason, has a short shelf life, at least for someone who makes a priority of mental health.
Conversely, if the work you’re doing is fascinating, challenging and fulfilling, you’re well on your way to a long, satisfying career. This point is an essential one. If I have one mental health tip above all others, it’s to be yourself.
Do you fully.
That can be difficult, and it’s OK if you don’t find your sweet spot in the profession right out of the gate, but to borrow and tweak a famous Martin Luther King Jr. saying: “A legal career is long, but it bends toward fulfilment.”
An Ontario-specific comment feels necessary.
In this jurisdiction, articling is not the only option for students seeking a work placement required by the Law Society of Ontario before one is eligible to be called.
The Law Practice Program was created as an alternative for students who have difficulty finding suitable articles or for those who simply prefer the comprehensive, structured and intensive learning offered through the LPP.
But by virtue of its newness and the sensitivity law students have to any type of stigma, including that which they hear about the LPP being a second-tier experience — which couldn’t be further from the truth — distress ensues.
The LPP has developed a stellar reputation and its record for post-program job attainment by its students is outstanding.
I allude to this not to tout the program but to eliminate one stressor that I see over and over again in my therapy practice.
I see students panicking at their inability to find articles, and I think, you live in an era in which that stress is no longer co-operative or necessary.
One way or another, you’re getting called to the bar, so relax and enjoy the ride.
One other repeated observation is the young person on a rough road, feeling particularly ashamed because they assume they are the only one in their cohort in a difficult spot.
But since they usually hide their distress and don’t talk to anyone about it, they remain under the tragically erroneous misconception that they’re failures, unable to cope and clearly inferior to the perceived superstars with whom they went to law school.
Simply put, it’s a fallacy.
Everyone’s journey is unique. Despite the urge to compare yourself to your colleague in terms of perceived success, don’t. It’s a fool’s errand.
Your journey is yours uniquely. Nurture it.
Get good mentorship, either in your firm or outside.
Make sure you take vacations, move your body, eat well and keep alcohol and other substance use under control.
Have boundaries with clients so that you don’t own their cases as your own. Help them, but don’t be them.
Learn to say no, even to employers, as difficult as that might be. Givers need to set limits, because takers never do.
Be civil, even when opposing counsel isn’t.
It’ll serve you well.
I wish I’d known many of these things when I was coming up.
It’s an exciting journey filled with anticipation and promise that is well served by self-compassion and constructive feedback and knowledge sharing by those who’ve been there.
After everything, I still miss being young and in law.
Doron Gold is a registered social worker who is also a former practising lawyer. He works with lawyers and law students in his role as a staff clinician and presenter with the Member Assistance Program as well as with members of the general public in his private psychotherapy practice. He’s available at dorongold.com.