Alt-Law: What to do when what you’re doing doesn’t do it for you

  • January 01, 2013
  • Kim Covert

Maybe your articling or job opportunities are in direct inverse proportion to your law school debt. Maybe you’ve put in your time at a big firm, just like you planned, only to find you don’t like the work, or can’t bear the hours.

If you’ve had it up to here and can’t take it any more, a simple online search will assure you you’re not alone – law grads in Europe, India and other far-flung parts of the world share your pain.

Most law schools prepare you for the traditional practice of law – articling, maybe a clerkship, then working as an associate for a large firm for good money, gradually easing into work on real cases and then eventually partnership.

But reality is a hard wall to run into after the idealism of law school. A Nov. 22 article in the Globe and Mail said about 400 law students were unable to secure an articling position last year; according to the Law Society of Upper Canada’s numbers, one in in seven of this year’s class could be left in the cold. And even an articling position isn’t a guaranteed ticket to the show in these days of pared-down legal budgets.

Another frequently cited figure is 40,000 – the approximate number of lawyers who leave the profession each year. In Canada, 44 per cent of the women called to the bar since 2003 have walked away from it. The reasons are varied: perhaps the job wasn’t what they wanted, or thought it would be; they found billable hours are kryptonite to work-life balance; maybe they needed to feed their entrepreneurial appetite.

What many discover is that a law degree opens up a world of opportunity that has nothing to do with filing papers or working 18-hour days as an associate in a downtown office tower. Some of those opportunities even pay better. But finding them requires research, taking them can involve risk, and being happy with them necessitates knowing what you want to be and do when you grow up. And after all that soul-searching, you may discover you’re in the right profession, you just need to find your proper niche.

“How many times have you heard it? ‘You can do so much with a law degree.’ And you can do so much with a paper clip, too, but its best use is its intended use, generally,” says career coach Jennifer Alvey in her blog Leaving the Law.

“Yes, you can take your law degree into many interesting, rewarding, even lucrative careers. I’ve done it twice. But the alternative to a legal career is the road less traveled. The signposts are sometimes faint or indecipherable. . . . That’s why those who hate law stay in it—not because they don’t have transferable skills or other talents they could use elsewhere, but because the trip out can be daunting. They stay stuck because they are scared.”

Much of that fear is the not knowing – most lawyers are only aware of a small fraction of the opportunities available to them, writes Lawyers Life Coach Ellen Ostrow in an online article titled The Case Against Being Trapped in the Law.

So do something about it, she says. “(I)nvestigate every practice area; the advantages and disadvantages of work in large, medium, small and solo practices; and opportunities in all levels of government, law schools, the judiciary, public interest, bar associations, business and education.”

And don’t feel that you have to stay in the legal field per se, says Ostrow, who notes an impressive list of transferable skills that come with a law degree: the ability to write clearly; to think on your feet; to think analytically; and “to communicate effectively, to synthesize ideas, problem-solve, advocate and advise.”

“Just because you’re not in private practice does not mean you’re not a lawyer,” Sharon Davis, president of the Women’s Law Association of Ontario, told the Law Society of Upper Canada’s Gazette. She spent 15 years as a lawyer at a publishing company before entering private practice.

“I think that thinking needs to change and people need to understand they do have alternatives.”

A change of thinking can feel like a big reach to someone burdened by law school debt – one of the reasons many in the profession feel trapped, acknowledges Ostrow, who nonetheless counsels that “pursuing your ‘right livelihood’” can be worth it because “you’ll be more effective and successful in your new field.”

Career change experts in any profession will tell you to first take a look at what’s making you unhappy – is it the law itself, or the way you’re practising it? Is it the culture of a particular firm, or the culture of law altogether?

If your discomfort comes from your particular job, then change the job, not the profession – that’s one of the top pieces of advice to come out of the 2012 Alternative Careers for Women in Law – the sixth annual program offered in 2012 by the Law Society of Upper Canada. Other advice offered to participants included:

  • Find your own definition of success
  • Define the type of culture you’re most comfortable with
  • Be curious – there are lots of ways to have a legal career
  • Find mentors
  • Join a professional association to keep up to date with developments, trends and colleagues

“The most interesting people I meet generally have had varying careers over time – people who have done a wide variety of things – whether it is as in-house counsel, litigation or working for non-profit organizations and government. Or they go all over the place, or they change an area of law, or they do something completely different,” says Sharon Davis. “I think what we need to do as a profession is take away the stigma and value the many wonderful opportunities we have as lawyers both within and outside the traditional practice of law.”

Out of the Firm

Ask the young lawyers who work at the Canadian Bar Association why they’re not racking up the billable hours at a big law firm, and their answers are a variation on a theme: they gave it a try, but it “wasn’t for me.”

Their reasons for coming to the CBA may have been different, but what they do agree on is what they get from the experience: work-life balance, yes, but more importantly, an opportunity not just to work “in law” but to shape it.

In their words:

Noah Arshinoff,  Staff Lawyer, Legislation & Law Reform:

I wanted to find ways to improve the law and have an impact in the drafting process … I wanted to get closer to the political level and be involved in the legislative process.
My job involves evaluating how law reform initiatives impact the legal profession and making recommendations regarding effective advocacy strategies. I effectively lobby for lawyers before the federal government with the goal of ensuring laws are well-drafted and reflect a genuine purpose of public interest.

Rebecca Bromwich, Staff Lawyer, Law Reform and Equality:

I decided to work at the CBA because I have never stopped being idealistic and intellectually curious about what the law is and what it means to be a lawyer. … Working as a law reform lawyer at the CBA affords me an opportunity to be intellectually challenged with work at the cutting edge of a diverse array of areas of law.
I was recruited to work at CBA out of my volunteer role as Young Lawyers Chair. I was a longtime OBA and CBA volunteer … CBA volunteerism and leadership can have unanticipated positive consequences for work opportunities.

Kerri Froc, Staff Lawyer, Law Reform and Equality:

Out of law school, becoming partner at (Balfour Moss in Saskatchewan, now part of Miller Thomson) was my exclusive focus. … The firm was as supportive as it could be in terms of making sure I had the flexibility to do the kind of work I wanted to do … I gravitated more towards the larger-picture issues of law. What I liked doing most was researching, writing and presenting legal arguments at trial and on appeal, as well as being involved with constitutional and human rights work.

…Joining (the CBA) as a staff lawyer in 2005 allowed me greater intellectual space to consider not only what law is but what it could be. … I am able to develop new theories of constitutional law and influence the new generation of young lawyers by teaching equality law, and am also involved with the ‘nuts and bolts’ of law reform through governmental advocacy for legal change and Supreme Court of Canada case interventions.

Aviva Rotenberg, Director, Strategic Initiatives and Project Director, CBA’s Inquiry into the Future of Legal Practice

As I approached articling, a good friend advised me not to think of myself as a lawyer, but rather, as a person with a law degree – the thinking being that this would open up more doors for interesting opportunities. Although I deliberately chose to article at a traditional firm (a litigation boutique), I did so because I knew that whatever job I ended up with, some real-world legal experience couldn’t hurt.
…While I enjoyed the practice of law, I had other talents and interests that I wanted to indulge in my chosen career. I wanted to work somewhere where my interest in the law helped me develop my entrepreneurial spirit, creative side, and a general enthusiasm for the betterment of the profession.

Clarisse Titus,  Lawyer, Professional Development

I started my career in a large national law firm in Toronto but realized early on that the practice of law was not for me. I decided to leave the firm a few months into my second year as an associate to pursue a long-standing interest in international development. Life apparently had other plans for me and a series of events forced me to reconsider my priorities.

I did not want to practise law but still wanted to work ‘in law.’ I gave my ‘requirements’ to a placement agency and, amazingly, they had a position that fit the bill. This is essentially how I became a Professional Development Lawyer with the CBA. Though circumstances guided many of my decisions, I truly feel fortunate as I found what I was looking for and much more: fantastic colleagues, work-life balance and a great work environment.

Out of the Frying Pan

In part because of the tremendous debt burden that grads carry from law school, there appears to be a sense that their only option is to find a job in a big firm in a big city with a big paycheque – and to be grateful to work whatever hours might be demanded of them.

Some young lawyers, however, are discovering that there is treasure to be found in the legal field north of 60o. And if the temperature hits -40o more often than is strictly comfortable, as Malinda Kellett says, “the northern lights don’t get old.”

In their words

Malinda Kellett – originally from London, Ont., graduated from University of Western Ontario in 2006, worked with Gowling Lafleur Henderson in Calgary before heading north. She now has a general corporate practice in Yellowknife with Lawson Lundell LLP, which also has offices in Vancouver and Calgary.


“There is a lot of interesting and complicated legal work arising out of the North. In addition, given the size of the jurisdiction, and the limited number of lawyers with Northern experience and expertise, Northern lawyers have the opportunity to work on a wide range of files – and every aspect of the file.

“There is huge need for legal services in the North, especially in the areas of aboriginal, criminal, family, real estate, wills and estates, and even collection work. Any professional could move to the North, gain the proper training and have a busy, fulfilling and challenging practice.

“The work-life balance here is second-to-none. It takes less than 10 minutes to drive anywhere. We don’t have a rush hour, we have a busy five minutes….-40o is damn cold and I’m not sure anyone likes it (I’m convinced that those who say they do are lying), but there is a way to dress for it, and just get on with life.

Glen Rutland – Grew up in Brampton, Ont., went to law school at the University of Saskatchewan. Worked in the legal sector in Toronto, though not as a practising lawyer, and lived in Yellowknife for four years before going to law school. He currently works for the territorial Department of Justice in Yellowknife as Director of Policy and Planning.

“I knew the opportunities that were available in the North, and also knew that I could have an interesting legal career while still enjoying the things that I like to do, such as kayaking, hiking, boating and skiing.

“…my work includes legislative development, strategic planning, providing advice and support to the Minister’s office. Previously I was Legal Counsel for the Government doing labour, human rights and other civil litigation. Prior to that I was a staff lawyer with legal aid practising criminal and family law.

“In somewhere like Yellowknife, you have most of the amenities of a city or town down south, but you have the opportunity to practise in a small and collegial Bar. You will also have the opportunity to advance your career quicker, as there are opportunities for new counsel to take on more serious matters.
“The best thing about practising in the north is the balance between working and living. … (the worst thing is) the shortage of lawyers. Demand on the lawyers here can be high, both professional and personally. Also, it’s -40o today.

Caroline Wawzonek – Born and raised in Calgary, she went to law school at the University of Toronto and was called to the bar in 2006. She articled and then was an associate at Ruby and Edwardh, but started looking for other opportunities when that partnership dissolved. She was a solo practictioner in Yellowknife from 2007 to 2012 and now works in a small, regional firm. She is currently the president of the Law Society.

“My spouse has a PhD in geology but was looking to go to industry. He had offers in Edmonton or Yellowknife. I made some calls and it was made very clear that there would be work the moment I hit the ground in Yellowknife, so we agreed to a one-year adventure-trial. … At the end of the first year we bought a house.

“It took a bit of time to get to know the jurisdiction, the judges, the bar, etc., and to get a hand in some more serious files. But within a year, I was running jury trials and had a matter at the Court of Appeal. … it would be rare for someone of my call year to have had similar experience in the south. Plus, I have travelled across the NWT for circuits. Look up Uluhaktok on a map. Cool, no?

“My sense of the legal profession in the south is that in the best-case scenario you can go to a big firm (if they are hiring!) and get a good salary but briefcase-carrying/due diligence experience OR you can maybe find a small firm where you might get more hands-on experience but a less attractive salary. In the north I have had incredible opportunities for experience AND have made a very good income.

Out of the Ordinary

Here are some other examples of young lawyers doing interesting, unusual and exciting things with their careers:

Jeffrey Fung: Founder of and Director of Marketing and Awesomeness at

“I am fortunate to work in two positions that provide a unique perspective on the legal industry. On one hand, I use technology to help lawyers connect with prospective clients. On the other hand, I discuss and share opinions on law practice management issues with thought leaders from within a law firm.
“I came up with the idea for when I was buying a condo. After discovering that my wife and I (both lawyers) didn’t have a real-estate lawyer in our network, we searched online and asked a number of people, all while working busy junior associate jobs. There had to be a better way! Two years later, I left private practice to work full-time on … an online, business development tool for lawyers, where prospective clients reach out directly to lawyers. … As founder, I develop the business strategy and execute our sales, marketing and customer service efforts.

Omar Ha-Redeye: A solo practitioner working in association with other solo practitioners at Fleet Street Law in Toronto. Runs  My Support Calculator, is executive producer for the TV show Family Matters with Justice Brownstone.

It used to be that hanging out your own shingle was only for the unemployed. But it’s increasingly becoming a preferred choice for young lawyers looking for greater flexibility and fulfillment.
“After getting called to the bar I started my own solo civil litigation practice, in association with a group of other talented and highly motivated lawyers. Working in an association provides strategic benefits for marketing and practice management while reducing risks of liability ... It helps address some of the feelings of isolation that many sole practitioners experience.

Choosing my own clients and creating my own schedule allows me to teach classes at local universities and college and start my LL.M at Osgoode Hall. I travel, and judge moots internationally. It lets me be involved in social justice and advocacy, including the Canadian Bar Association … where I sit on the Board of Governors despite only being a second-year call.

Stéphanie Vig: Member of the legal and human rights department of the Forest Peoples Programme, a U.S.-based NGO which works with indigenous, tribal and forest peoples in Africa, Asia and South America.

The path to a career in international law or international legal development work is not easy; one must often proceed through unpaid internships and volunteer work before securing a paid position. But this field of legal practice promises an exciting career at the intersection of policy, research and fieldwork.
I provide legal and technical assistance to forest-dependent communities and their organizations, including in relation to legal cases before national courts and the use of national, regional and international legal processes and human rights bodies to challenge rights violations.
In any given week, I will be commenting on a new law affecting the rights of forest-dependent communities, undertaking an on-site investigation of a new concession grated to a foreign company in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or leading a human-rights workshop with local NGOs.

Thinking outside the box:

Not interested in – or tired of working – in big city law firms? Here are just a few suggestions for alternative careers:

In the law:

University faculty
Librarians and legal researchers
Career counselling & development
Policy development in government
Conflict resolution

And out:

Consulting/Business professional
Sports agent
Source: University of Ottawa Common Law Section Student Services


Job-finding websites

Total Legal Jobs
Government jobsites at the Federal, Provincial/Territorial and municipal levels


Life After Law
Counsel Network
Rainmaker Group
Robert Half Legal
NagataConnex Executive Legal Search

Kim Covert is the E-Publications Editor for the Canadian Bar Association.