Erin C. Cowling is a freelance litigator and President and Founder of Flex Legal Network Inc. (a network of experienced freelance lawyers that assists lawyers, law firms, and in-house counsel with their overflow legal work on a project basis). Previously, she was a corporate commercial litigator at a large firm.
Erin also teaches legal research and writing as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law; is the Regional Alumni Advisor (Toronto) for the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law; has an award-winning law-blog; writes for several legal publications; has spoken at several legal events and conferences; and enjoys mentoring young women lawyers, both informally and formally through the Women’s Legal Mentorship Program.
You can connect with her on LinkedIn and you can follow her on Twitter at @Cowlingerin or @FlexLegalNet.
1. How did you get involved in your current area of practice?
This is a long story. But I will make it brief. I never met a lawyer until I went to law school. I only knew what I saw on TV. I had no idea that there were lawyers who didn’t go to court. So, I became a litigator because that was all I knew. Luckily, I love case law and being an advocate, so it was a good fit.
Now, how did I become a freelance litigator and the founder of a freelance lawyer company?
That is an even longer story. But here is the condensed version:
I was called to the Bar in 2005 and was hired back at the Bay Street firm where I had summered and articled. I worked as a corporate commercial litigator for several years. My fit with the firm changed due to its merger with another firm, an economic downturn, my taking of two maternity leaves, shifting of goalposts for partnership, etc. I accepted a job at an estate litigation boutique in 2012. I quickly realized I had no patience for bitter people fighting over their dead parents’ money and, to be perfectly honest, the stress of that job and practicing in that area of law affected my mental health. I was pregnant with my third child and my health was a priority for me, so, after working there less than a year, I quit without another job lined up. Figuring no one would hire a pregnant lady, I started taking on small research and drafting projects from lawyers that I knew to fill the gap until I could find a job at a firm again. The only problem was, after my daughter was born, every time I went to apply to a law firm my stomach would churn at the thought of returning to having no control over my time, the demanding clients, facing an uphill battle for partnership, etc. and I couldn’t bring myself to submit the applications.
Meanwhile, the work from other lawyers kept coming in and I was really enjoying drafting factums, doing the odd court appearance, drafting blog posts, doing legal research etc. on a freelance basis for multiple firms. So, I thought, maybe I could freelance full time. I gave myself one year to see whether it was a viable career choice. I put up a website, called myself a “freelance lawyer”, printed off some business cards, and started hustling for work. The hard work paid off. After little over a year, I became so busy I was turning down projects. Clearly there was a demand for freelance lawyers. I founded Flex Legal Network in 2015. We now have over 20 freelance lawyers and 5 law clerks. We assist lawyers, law firms and in-house legal departments across Canada with their overflow legal work, mostly (90%) litigation based.
2. What qualities and/or skills are important for leaders?
Good question. I’m not sure if I know the answer or even if all great leaders possess the same qualities or skills.
If I think of some leaders that I know and have worked with, I believe a leader should be able to see other peoples’ perspectives and put themselves into the shoes of the people they are managing or leading. Patience, empathy and humility are important. Those that are constantly blaming others are never a joy to work with and don’t lead effectively.
I belong to a business book club with other women entrepreneurs and we meet once a month. One of our books this year was called Permission to Screw Up – How I Learned to Lead by Doing (Almost) Everything Wrong by Kristen Hadeed. It was a great read, and probably sums up leadership skills better than I can.
3. What qualities and/or skills do you look for in a junior?
There are the standard qualities I look for, i.e. someone who does great work and shows initiative, but really, trust and reliability are huge for me. I take people at their word, which means I need to trust their word. If a junior tells me they are going to do something and they don’t follow through, I am hesitant to give them more work or rely on them for anything else. How will I know if they will respond to the client’s email? How will I know they will meet the client’s deadline? Can I trust that they will note up all the case law? Obviously, emergencies or unforeseen events come up, but if it becomes a pattern of not doing what you say you are going to do, then we have a big big problem.
I also really appreciate juniors who acknowledge their mistakes and learn from them. It is easy to get defensive when someone points out you’ve done something wrong and often our instinct is to push back (I’m guilty of this). But we all make mistakes (me included). Juniors who accept their mistakes and see them as learning opportunities are way ahead of their peers who do not.
4. What advice would you give a young woman starting her practice?
Don’t make the same mistakes I did! Law firms are not schools. You cannot just put your head down and do great work and think you will be rewarded. Unapologetically advocate for yourself. Don’t keep that court win quiet. Do the victory lap around the office. Your career is in your hands. While it might seem comfortable in the passenger seat, scoot on over to the driver seat and take control before you end up somewhere you don’t want to be.
Also, it is never too early to start networking! And by this I simply mean go out and meet other lawyers and make connections. Join lawyer associations outside of your firm, get on at least one committee or executive, write for a legal magazine, connect with others on LinkedIn or Twitter, blog to build your profile, attend networking events for young lawyers, etc. You don’t have to do all the above but pick at least two or three. The time will come when you will have to bring in work, or want to find a new job, or you want to be elected as Bencher, or teach a course at a law school, etc. and it is your network that will be a big help to you achieving your career goals.
5. What advice would you give a mid-level junior looking to advance her career?
First, are you happy? Now that you know a little bit about how to be a lawyer, are you happy where you are? If not, start looking for something new now. Life is too short to be stuck in a job that you hate.
Have you been networking? Good, keep it up and draw on your network to help you advance to your next career goal, whatever that might be.
If you haven’t been networking, start now (see above).
Say your goals out loud. Make them real. Tell people what you are aiming for, because they may be able to help you. Is it to become partner at your firm? Let your firm know.
6. What can we do to address the continued attrition of women in law?
Burn down the patriarchy.
Ha! All kidding aside: challenge the status quo. We don’t need any more conferences on how women need to change to fit into the legal profession. If the legal profession keeps pushing women out, then the legal profession needs to change.
To this day I feel like I let women lawyers down because I left Bay Street to start my own thing. Should I have stayed and fought for women and other equality seeking groups and made changes from the inside? Maybe.
Instead I chose to take power into my own hands, and I found a way to continue practicing law that makes me extremely happy and fulfilled.
7. If you could give yourself one piece of advice when you were starting out in law, what would it be?
It’s okay that you ruffle some feathers sometimes. Keep speaking up. Keep speaking the truth.
8. Is there anything else (advice, an interesting experience, tips, etc.) that you would like to share with our members?
Support each other and keep being agents of change. Canadian lawyer and feminist icon Linda Silver Dranoff says it best in her book Fairly Equal: Lawyering the Feminist Revolution:
I hope that every woman reading this book understands the importance of working together with other women in sisterhood . . . Remain vigilant to ensure that the advances my generation made are not taken away from you. Be aware of the areas that still require attention, and do what you can to be agents of further change. Speak, as I tried to do, for women who otherwise have no voice . . . I encourage those who follow us to do the same, to never ask “What can one person do?” but rather to say, “This is what needs doing, and this is what I will do about it.”
This post is part of YWL's Managing Partner Series. This series features Q&A-style blog posts where women managing partners from small, mid-sized and large law firms answer questions about their path to success and share their advice for young women in law.