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Law is not a tournament

Speaker's Corner

My favourite metaphor that I have ever heard to describe the law student experience from before law school to landing a job at a firm is from Peter Thiel, founder of eBay and one of the first investors in Facebook, famous for giving Mark Zuckerberg a cheque for US$500,000 and, according to legend, saying (in somewhat different words), “Don’t mess it up.” Thiel attended Stanford for his undergraduate degree and law school and landed one of those plum, highly coveted jobs at a Wall Street law firm that would have fulfilled his parents’ dreams. After 11 months, he quit.

When Thiel explains his reasoning for his decision to quit, he talked about his life up to that point being like a tournament. He had gone to high school and excelled and got into Princeton, winning phase one of the tournament. He excelled during his undergraduate degree and got into Princeton Law School, winning another phase of the tournament, and then he excelled at Princeton and got a job at a Wall Street firm, advancing again in the tournament. But when he looked around at the people in his firm and could begin to approximate what his future would look like, he realized something that changed his life forever: The tournament that had dominated his life for so many years never ends. The Wall Street firm was just another phase of the tournament where he would have to try to compete, advance and eliminate yet more people. “Who would want to spend life this way?” he thought, so he quit.

Other lawyers he knew who were so psychologically imprisoned by the tournament and the need to advance in it asked him how he did it. The question reveals more about the questioner and Thiel being right in his assessment of the law world as a tournament that never ends than it does about reality. He walked out the door, of course.

What did Thiel do after leaving the law world? Putting aside specifics about what he did and how successful he became, the most important thing to keep in mind is that he did something new. He did something that no one had tried before. The story of eBay is a fascinating story in that it started with the trading of pez dispensers in an online community, something almost impossibly niche to imagine that it would ever develop into a profitable business. From the experience of how the business developed from a new, niche idea, Thiel developed a theory that the term “technology” should not be thought of as being necessarily to do with the ability to computer program or other technical ability but rather simply just the courage to try something new. Defined this way, absolutely everyone has technological ability.

A lot of lawyers and law students feel unfulfilled because of a system that encourages people within it to copy something that has worked in the past. The trajectory of graduating law school, getting a job at a firm and trying to work your way up to become a partner is tried and true, they think. But the emphasis on following traditional career paths and the systems in place in law school that influence students to compete with each other for jobs within traditional career paths, such as on-campus interviews and law firm recruiting, ignores another possibility that smart and creative students should be aware of and considering — the ability to create your own path within law. This possibility is very important for law students and young lawyers because not all lawyers want to leave the law world like Thiel, but many do want to escape the tournament that never ends.

There is a category of young and entrepreneurial lawyers that law students should be taking note of because they chose to do something that had not been tried before. Glenford Jameson became a food lawyer. Camille Labchuk became an animal lawyer. Jack Lloyd and Caryma Sa’d became cannabis lawyers. Aaron Grinhaus became a corporate lawyer with an emphasis on crypto-currency legal issues. These areas of law did not exist even 10 years ago. These lawyers are thriving, precisely because they resisted the systems that are in place in law school that encouraged them to copy what others had done and opted instead for the opportunity and adventure of the clear blue sea.

There are other young lawyers that are creating things that are new while still maintaining more of a traditional legal practice. Sean Robichaud started a legal podcast (that I love). Annamaria Enenajor and Stephanie DiGiuseppe started Cannabis Amnesty, an advocacy organization devoted to pressuring the government to purge the records of Canadians with criminal records for possession of marijuana (long overdue). Gerald Chan and Nader Hasan wrote a book on digital privacy.

If you are a law student who is reading this article and are feeling sick of the tournament and do not like the idea of a tournament that never ends, firstly, you are not alone. More importantly, there is another option other than to leave law altogether. Go west young man or woman, metaphorically speaking, and try something new. There were areas of law that did not exist 10 years ago that are now providing interesting and fulfilling careers for young lawyers. There will be other new areas of law in 10 years. Start thinking about what areas of law are emerging. Instead of following a traditional path so you can make your parents’ dreams come true, have the courage to try something that has not been tried before and let other lawyers compete in the tournament that never ends.

Ryan Handlarski is a criminal defence lawyer in Toronto. He can be reached at 416-837-4500 or

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