For Women in Law By Women in Law

You’ve Got Options

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You know what they say about us lawyers: we’re “risk averse”. Maybe you knew you wanted to be a lawyer since you were 8 years old, the day you held your own in an argument with your parents. Or maybe you are a little more like me and ended up in law school because you knew you wanted to do compelling work and law seemed like a safe career. I’ve observed that as a group, we lawyers seem to like excitement but carefully curated within the bounds of our own risk tolerance. I’ve recently been thinking about how this common personality characteristic can limit us when deciding our own career trajectories.

Admittedly, my decision to go to law school was not well thought out. I was young, and with some pressure from my parents to continue studying, I thought it might be a good way to put off any major decisions about my career for a few more years while enjoying the perks of going to school in a lively College town and studying a topic I was interested in. A law degree opens doors to a world of opportunity, right?

Not so much. Or at least, that was my initial experience.

Unless you go into law school with a crystal-clear picture of what you want your career to look like, at some point you are swayed by the idea of an opportunity to work at a large firm and participate in the OCI process. With some debt (I’m assuming I’m not the only one who went a little overboard during my 3L exchange year) and ambiguous aspirations, a coveted articling position at a large firm is a very tempting option.

My first few years of practice were an exercise in keeping my head above water. I was the only litigation junior at a solicitor-heavy full-service firm, meaning that any and everything kind of dispute-related file landed on my desk at some point. Franchise litigation? Land and Water Board hearing in the Yukon? 75-page family law affidavit? I was all over it.

The learning curve was relentless, and I like to think that I am a better lawyer for all of it, but I knew from day one that being the jack-of-all litigation trades was something that would not be sustainable for me in the long-term. Yet, fear of the unknown and a little bit of complacency kept me in that role for six years, far longer than I should have been. My gut always said to take the leap and pursue something new, but the risk-adverse in me was too scared to make a career change that may land me in a place I disliked more: maybe I’d end up working for a tyrant partner who made my life miserable, or maybe specializing would leave me pigeon-holed with no career flexibility.

Why would I leave if I was comfortable enough? My hours weren’t too bad, I was somewhat interested in some of my files, I liked my colleagues, why fix what wasn’t completely broken?

It quite literally took a once in a century pandemic for me to decide that maybe it was time for a change. I accepted a job in-house at a health regulator in the early months of the pandemic. I had always had a keen interest in health law and professional regulation, and I decided it may be what I needed to gain some expertise in this field. I had almost zero relevant experience, but I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity.

The learning curve was initially very steep, but I found the inner workings of a regulator fascinating. I also loved my little team. But around the year mark, I started to feel that same nagging feeling – something was not quite working. I enjoyed the content of my work, but I wasn’t loving working fully remotely and I missed the environment of a firm. I needed another challenge. So, I took another leap, back to private practice but this time with a rare opportunity to specialize in the field of health law. The old me would have hesitated. Nothing was broken, I liked where I was. But the new me recognized that this was an opportunity that excited me.

I believe I am much better for the risks I have taken in the last two years to take my career trajectory into my own hands. If you find yourself feeling a little too complacent, unsure with a nagging suspicion there may be something better for you out there, I have a few pieces of advice:

  1. Listen to your gut. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.
  2. Change is a good thing. While at times terrifying, it can be reinvigorating, and can teach you a whole lot about yourself and what you are capable of. You will very quickly learn you can adapt to and excel at almost anything you put your mind to. Imposter syndrome, be gone! Nothing is permanent and if you don’t like the change you made, you will have the opportunity to change course or maybe even go back to your old workplace with a newfound appreciation for what you had.
  3. You’ve got options. The average legal career does not look like it did 30 years ago. Most lawyers no longer spend their entire career at one firm (not that there is anything wrong with this). Career paths are also no longer linear. Maybe to your surprise, becoming partner at a firm is no longer your ultimate goal and instead you’d prefer to be climbing the ladder at a cutting-edge tech startup. If you are itching for a change, know that there is so much to be gained from trying out different work environments, meeting new people, working in new fields and facing new challenges. You will almost inevitably experience personal growth even if the opportunity doesn’t turn out to be your dream one.

So, if you’re feeling like a change may be warranted, I challenge you to shelf your risk-averse self for a moment to consider opportunities that may seem a little out of your comfort zone right now but might turn out to be exactly what you need. Think of your career as ever developing and evolving – just as you are.

About the Author

Roshni Veerapen is an associate at Harper Grey LLP practicing professional regulation and health law. Roshni is actively involved in the local legal community and is passionate about the mentorship and development of young lawyers.

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