Alberta Lawyers' Assistance Society

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Alberta Law Culture - The Good, The Bad and The Interesting

Don’t you hate it when you send an email and then realize that there is a typo or that you could have phrased something better?

It happens to all of us, and it happened to me last Friday, when the Assist weekly newsletter headed out into everyone’s email inboxes. I wanted the topic for this week’s Red Mug Coffee Circle to be about Alberta law culture since we have new articling students and internationally-trained lawyers who are interested in learning how things are done in practice. And, to make it more interesting, I added the tag line “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”

As soon as I saw that the newsletter had arrived in my inbox, I realized that I had given it the wrong tagline, and that I should have called it “Alberta Law Culture—the Good, the Bad, and the Interesting” so that it didn’t sound so negative. And now I have a rare chance for a do-over because I ended up being sick on Monday and we had to cancel Red Mug Coffee Circles because I wasn’t sure if we had enough leaders to moderate the session. I didn’t see an email on my phone indicating that the eminent Bob Philp QC could lead the session and the esteemed Craig Boyer might be able to join as well—my apologies, Bob and Craig!—so we cancelled.

And now I get to call the session what it should have been called—the good, the bad and the interesting.

When my children were young, I job-shared a senior corporate counsel position at a multi-national corporation with another lawyer. Our job share was extremely successful, and we received positive promotion within the company, including doing presentations to the Board of Directors, a true test of trust. Neither of us knew anything about job shares, but we quickly learned that the secret of a successful job share is that the two partners have to think the same.

My partner was a few years older than me and had two boys a few years older than my two boys (I had my third during our job share period). We both had been securities lawyers at large firms but were enthusiastic about the human resources portfolio. She had majored in French in university with a minor in English, and I had majored in English with a minor in French. Our husbands were lawyers with entrepreneurial bents. We even had the same china pattern! But most importantly, we seamlessly passed files between us in a time-efficient manner because we approached things the same way. This was a fluke, but it turned out to be the secret sauce for a job share.

She also shared parenting strategies with me, including the good, bad and interesting game. Depending on your child, it can be difficult to get children to talk about what happened at school. Of course, some children are chatterboxes who talk non-stop from the time they get in the door until bedtime, but even then they don’t always share key things about their days, so we played the “good, bad and interesting game” every day at dinner for years. Everyone has to say something good, something bad and something interesting that happened during their day—and it was much more effective than saying “how was your day?” or “did anything interesting happen at school?” which tended to elicit one word responses like “fine” and “no.”

It normalized sharing successes as well as talking about disappointments and I highly recommend it for parents whose kids have forgotten what happened at school by dinner time.

But it also created a model that works beyond how we talk about our days.  I liked that every day has good elements, bad elements and interesting things. It also applies to culture—there are good components, bad components and, usually, some really interesting stuff, too. So, that is what I wished I had called our Red Mug Coffee Circle. And due to my illness, that is what we are going to talk about this Monday. Please come if you would like to participate!

As a teaser, here are a few of my thoughts about Alberta law culture—good, bad and interesting.

My perspective involves comparing now to how things were thirty-six years ago when I became an articling student. Things aren’t perfect now, but on the whole, they are better than the “bad old days,” and it is helpful for us to see that evolution occurs, even if it is at a slower pace than we would like.

What is good about Alberta law culture? For the most part, once you complete articles, you can make your way to an interesting and rewarding career. In my opinion, knowing your “why” is one of the key components to having a successful career in law. If the work you are doing resonates with your personal values, you are more likely to weather the inevitable storms effectively.

As I mentioned, I had been a securities lawyer at a large firm for about seven years. It was a great job and I felt fortunate to have it—the economy in the late 1980s wasn’t stellar. I found it quite interesting, and I had some skills that made me somewhat successful. But I wasn’t passionate about it and I didn’t have a lot of motivation or interest in learning more. I thought that this was how everyone felt about practicing law—but I was wrong.

When I moved to my new position working with human resources issues, I realized that I had been an imposter securities lawyer. Lawyers often experience Imposter Syndrome, the feeling that they aren’t as good as their colleagues, that they must have been hired by mistake, and that they will be fired once the firm discovers its mistake. I had imposter syndrome all the time because I was trying to be someone that I wasn’t, a square peg trying desperately to fit into the round hole that was called “high prestige law job.”

So, one thing that is good about Alberta law culture is that you can change practice areas and locations—you are not locked into doing one thing that looked interesting when you articled. There is often an income disruption when you change practice areas and locations, so plan to have funds set aside to retain flexibility. Lawyers often end up with golden handcuffs—they are well compensated, so they stay at a job that has stopped fulfilling them. Having resources on tap to cover six months of living expenses salted away can help you keep your options open.

One thing that is bad about Alberta law culture is that our go to for stress relief is alcohol and substances. Lawyers have high rates of alcoholism and heavy drinking. The percentage of Canadians who do not drink alcohol has increased and is now more than 20% of adult Canadians. So, while some lawyers may use alcohol for stress relief and to celebrate, there is now a considerable portion of our population who do not drink. 

We hear from lawyers that they feel pressured to participate in a heavy drinking culture where people will ask why they aren’t drinking and urge them to join with the group in consuming, sometimes to excess. Assist works to educate lawyers and legal employers about the risk that alcohol consumption poses to our profession and to be sensitive to the reality that increasing numbers of lawyers and students do not drink. The Mad Men keep-a-bottle-in-your-desk-drawer approach belongs in the 1960s, not the 2020s. 

Some of the reasons people choose not to consume alcohol may relate to religion or cultural heritage. Discriminating against an employee on these bases may contravene human rights legislation. It may be difficult for lawyers who are used to alcohol playing a role in law firm socializing—most grew up and always worked in environments where alcohol played a role. However, it is also difficult for young lawyers and articling students who do not drink to respond when more senior colleagues tease them for not drinking, or not drinking more.

And I remember being a pregnant associate trying desperately not to let anyone know I was pregnant until I passed the first trimester. Female associates my vintage feared being terminated for being pregnant (although I don’t know anyone who had this experience) and mastering the art of pretending to drink at firm events—you always had a glass in your hand and took an occasional “almost” sip… It was silly. While we talked about the fear of being fired, the more real possibility was that we would not be part of the “in” group that hung out together and got the best files.

Surely in this day and age, consumption of alcohol should not be linked to preferential work assignments.

If you know anyone who is struggling with an alcohol-based work culture, please urge them to call Assist. We can help with strategies for managing stressful conversations and provide peer support from other lawyers who have managed to practice law and have collegial relations with co-workers while not drinking. I think the most popular person in my law school class was a guy who didn’t drink but went to all the parties, and then went around offering rides to classmates who shouldn’t have been driving.

And, of course, Assist is here for lawyers who are worried about their consumption of alcohol or other substances. We can connect them with counselling resources and an incredible community of lawyers in recovery. Assist’s roots are in the lawyer twelve-step community where peer support is state of the art and effective. The lawyers in recovery I have met since joining Assist are among my favourite people—they are empathetic, kind, humble and supportive. I wish that other groups of lawyers experiencing distress had this type of community to look to—and we will see if we can generate enough interest for a lawyers with depression or anxiety group.

What is interesting about Alberta legal culture? The work is challenging, most of us can make decent remuneration and most lawyers are great people who really care about their peers. Does that last statement surprise you?

Even though we face challenges with respect to incivility, most lawyers want to have good and productive relationships with opposing counsel and peers. The American TV and movie model where lawyers are sharks should be kept to the realm of fiction, but unfortunately incivility raises its head here, more often than we would like. And when someone is uncivil to use, most of us respond uncivilly, perpetuating a destructive relationship.

You will have seen an invitation in the top section of this newsletter to a webinar next Friday organized by Alberta Crown Prosecution Service, Justice and Solicitor General where respected members of our profession and judiciary will share their views about conducting litigation civilly, professionally and respectfully. This session focuses on criminal defence and prosecution, but we can all learn from this esteemed panel.

And one of the takeaways will be a list of “positive practices” for ensuring or restoring civility!

CBA Law Matters recently released a two article series on civility and the profession and the stress of incivility. I can help you find other resources and teaching tools if you want to be part of the movement to promote civility within our profession.

I have more good, bad, and interesting comments about Alberta law culture that I could share on Monday, but we mainly want to hear about the experiences members of our community are having so that we identify solutions and provide support. Incivility can shake our confidence. It can make us afraid to open our email or answer our phone. And it isn’t necessary. My favourite civility resource is by Eugene Meehan, QC, called “Civility as a Strategy in Litigation” . Please engage with us as we encourage lawyers to be true to their good-heartedness even when faced with boorish behaviour!