As described in The Economist, the demands for legal work has reduced since 2008. This has caused the legal profession to undergo some major changes and has increased competition for the remaining legal work. As a result of this competition, professionals need to spend more time developing and maintaining their practice. However, even in this competitive and demanding landscape, some lawyers, supported by their firms, find unique and interesting ways to pursue their passion.
One such example is Sophie Virji. After completing her B.Comm in Finance at McGill University and working in commercial banking for a few years, Sophie pursued her law degree, which she says “seemed like a natural stepping stone to a career in corporate law”. While in law school, Sophie accepted an articling position in her home town, Calgary, with Dentons. Sophie is currently a senior associate in Dentons' Tax Group.
Sophie remarks that “going the corporate route was a natural and pragmatic move for me given my academic background, however my interest and passion in international development, which was honed at a very young age, has always been a big part of me." She found the perfect opportunity to pursue this passion when she heard about the Aga Khan Foundation Canada Fellowship. She decided to consider taking some time away from corporate law to see what international development was all about and use her legal qualification in a way that would allow her to explore this interest. “Legal skills can be used in many contexts – whether to advise micro-entrepreneurs, world-class non-profit universities or international NGOs. I knew that one way or another, my skills would be useful to help others and their communities.”
When Sophie accepted a consulting role with the University of Central Asia, an agency of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, Dentons was certainly surprised, but unwaveringly supportive. Although she was unsure how long the journey would be, she kept ties with Dentons' Tax Group and was certain that if her journey brought her back home, it would be back to Dentons. After 9 months of collaborating with the Ministry of Economy of Kyrgyzstan and various other national and international experts to develop a training strategy aimed at addressing the economic and social empowerment of Kyrgyz women through microfinance, Sophie pivoted into a policy role at the Diplomatic Office of the AKDN in Kabul, Afghanistan. There she worked with the Diplomatic Representative of the AKDN office to advance the AKDN’s development priorities, strengthen government and diplomatic relations, and worked with the internal agencies to develop capacity and efficiencies.
Sophie returned to practicing with Dentons after 13 months in international development. Sophie says that her time in “Central and South Asia was a tremendously fulfilling and perspective-changing experience ... I could not imagine having taken any other path and I am grateful for Dentons’ support in this endeavor”. Sophie also says that the experience has driven her to “continue to volunteer in local community development” as she builds her practice as a tax lawyer with Dentons.
Another example is Rustam Juma. When Rustam became a lawyer, he like many of his classmates in law school, intended to change the world. "I went to law school because I wanted to make a difference," Rusty says. While at law school, he landed an articling job with one of Canada’s largest law firms and stayed on as an associate in the securities group. "Who doesn’t like making money? But, I was in search for something more!" he says.
In March 2011, ten lawyers traded their offices for something very different. Rustam Juma and others at Dentons Canada (which was then Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP) volunteered to work in developing countries through a partnership facilitated by Uniterra, a program that connects organizations and companies in Canada to ones in the developing world in need of skilled advisers.
Through its Leave For Change program, Uniterra works with a variety of Canadian employers to fill two- to four-week volunteer placements in one of the 15 countries where Uniterra works. The employer covers part of the costs by providing $5,000 per volunteer and allows its employees to apply according to their interests.
Dentons Calgary was the first law firm to sign on to the program. Rustam chose to teach high school kids in a remote village in Vietnam certain soft skills such as resume writing and job interview preparation. The types of positions can vary considerably, from helping with human resources in Mongolia to training students in Guatemala. Even though volunteer opportunities did not exactly match his practice area, skills like public speaking, professionalism and networking are valued skills anywhere and transplant well.
Despite the ever-changing challenges facing the legal profession whether it be competition or otherwise some lawyers are still finding the time, resources and energy to pursue their passion of giving back to underprivileged communities in the developing world. Moreover, big firms even in these challenging times are encouraging, facilitating and supporting their professionals to pursue their passion.
Noren Hirani practices intellectual property law with Bennett Jones LLP in Calgary, where she advises clients in IP-related corporate commercial agreements. Noren is currently a board member of the Association of Women Lawyers Calgary as well as the Chair of the CBA Alberta Equality Committee.