Pauline Chan says her work at Goodlawyer aims to rethink success in the legal profession

Chan will speak about pathways to purpose at the Women in Law Summit in April

Pauline Chan says her work at Goodlawyer aims to rethink success in the legal profession
Pauline Chan

Pauline Chan is the head of lawyer experience & lawyer-in-residence at Goodlawyer. She will deliver the opening keynote at Canadian Lawyer’s upcoming Women in Law Summit in Toronto in April, where she will speak about “Pathways to purpose – Redefining success in work and life.”

Chan has worked at a large law firm, as a barre studio owner, a fractional GC, and in legal tech. She spoke to us about her journey, the legal profession, expanding access to legal services to diverse founders and how she defines success.

You have worked at a large law firm and been an entrepreneur; now you are at Goodlawyer. Can you share a moment that made you rethink how the legal profession should operate?

There were two realizations. The first was looking around the firm and realizing that although law schools have roughly 50/50 male/female enrollment, by the time we’re talking about partnership, the numbers are something closer to 90/10 male/female.

The second was realizing that women lawyers with families were in two situations. They were working “part-time” and being paid part-time while knowing that these roles are few and far between and require years of impossibly perfect performance before being able to plead your case for reduced hours and reduced pay. Or they were juggling that near-perfect professional performance while also working with myriad service providers like pet walkers, nannies, cleaners, meal preppers, and tutors to help sustain their personal and family lives.

I do not judge anyone for having service providers, as it’s a personal and family choice, but it wasn’t something I wanted for my family life. Both these options seemed counter to the style of practice that I and many of the people around me wanted, and I knew there must be a better way. 

At Goodlawyer, you aim to transform how lawyers and businesses collaborate. How do you plan to do that?

Firstly, abolish the true billable hour and detailed time docketing that goes with it. There is such a mismatch of incentives and results for lawyers: The more time you spend on a task, the more rewards you get.

Like any successful business, lawyers should constantly find ways to provide more value as efficiently as possible. This provides both a competitive advantage and can free up time for whatever they want, whether a separate non-law venture, families, more law, or even a nap.

Our lawyers get the best aspects of being a solo lawyer with the resources and backing of a law firm. They get to be entrepreneurial, work on their schedule, pick their clients, and do as much or as little business development as they want. Goodlawyer provides similar operational support to medium and large law firms, such as software tools, client support, billing and collections, marketing and sales, peers and community.

You have advocated for expanding access to legal services for founders from marginalized groups. How do you approach this challenge at Goodlawyer?

Information is power, and it all starts with education. The information must be given considering the entrepreneur’s risk tolerance and business goals without drowning them in legalese. We understand that entrepreneurs and founders are prepared to take on risks that we, as lawyers, might see as unacceptable. Instead of putting up barriers, we help find solutions to the real business and legal problems that they face.

Many of our lawyers and I have given countless legal information presentations to groups supporting immigrant and women entrepreneurs in the last couple of years. These presentations are built specifically with this audience in mind, so while there is much information, it is digestible and easily applied to their situation. Not only are we providing legal information, but we share our past experiences with other clients while respecting client confidentiality so they can get a real-world understanding of the risk scenarios and strategic business benefits and then decide on the issues they want to tackle based on services provided with fixed-fee certainty.

You ran your barre and yoga studio; how has that shaped your approach at Goodlawyer?

Having seen the controlled and sometimes not-so-controlled chaos in startups and small businesses, I realized that most founders and entrepreneurs are prepared to take risks and face unknowns that would give most lawyers nightmares. As a profession, we are uncomfortable with a standard of “good enough” and the idea of running with a “minimum viable product.”

This makes sense in some ways, given our professional obligations and the consequences of shoddy legal advice. But in the entrepreneurial world, this standard ultimately leads to smart and fast growth, innovation, and creativity.

Frankly, I think legal operations for firms and practitioners could learn and benefit from using this approach, especially for practitioners where the client profile is suitable for it. There are more clients suited for this approach than we tend to think.

How does your passion for building diverse teams affect your work?

There’s nothing I love more than bringing together lawyers with different backgrounds, perspectives and ideas so that they can find their tribe. So many of us don’t feel like we belong in the legal community unless we change who we are, how we present ourselves, how we speak, who we associate with, and so on.

I’m here to tell those lawyers that our profession is stronger for having you in it and with your differences, perspectives and experiences. Do not change unless you want to. We do not need more of the same, and it only harms our ability to serve the public when we take away what gives us the ability to connect with others.

How do you define success, and how would you advise a lawyer to do this?

Success means a happy and fulfilled existence in my career and family life where I am driving towards a meaningful and vital purpose, regardless of whether it is a traditional standard of success. The conventional standards tend to exclude women and lawyers of colour. Success also means the flexibility to change directions or intensity over time as my life changes.

My advice is to look deep inside and constantly self-reflect on what is meaningful and fulfilling to you without judging yourself, which is admittedly easier said than done. You can then pursue that in a way that feels right for you. I don’t believe there is any guarantee that we will have another chance at this life, so why not live it for yourself?

What have been some of the most significant challenges you've faced in your career?

I did not think about law school until a pivotal point in my life. I worked for my ex-husband, and as my marriage was ending, I imagined I would keep my job until the divorce was finalized. Unfortunately, my ex thought differently and fired me. Of course, I called my mom crying, and, as a legal assistant, she told me that my firing was not legal. The realization that I, like many people, did not know my rights nor had any truly accessible way to get legal help piqued my interest in law. I enrolled in law school shortly after to gain the knowledge and skills to help others.

Another pivotal moment came early in my legal career when a close friend and coworker had a serious accident that caused her to be in the hospital for a month. I remember thinking how lucky she was to be off work for a month. She agreed with me. When I found myself daydreaming about trading places with her in the hospital, I knew I needed to make a change.

These two experiences drive what I do today. I want to help build a profession that will not turn its best and brightest into walking wounded, dead, or worse. I also believe that, until Goodlawyer, the profession has consistently moved further from those it is supposed to serve, with the status quo now being that only those with special access and deep pockets can get legal help.

What strategies are most effective in supporting marginalized lawyers within the legal profession?

First, we need marginalized lawyers’ ideas, perspectives and experiences to be at the centre of reshaping the standards of professionalism, how to succeed and excel in the profession, and who is allowed to join and stay in our profession.

The most straightforward example is how face time and long hours at the office are seen to equate to dedication and hard work when this notion is based on a single-income earner who doesn’t have to run the family.

Another example is how we consistently judge experienced and well-trained lawyers to be “less than” and “not enough” to be called to the bar unless they essentially go through our law schools, bar exams and articling again after already dealing with the upheaval and financial stress of immigrating, often with dependent family members, young and old, to a new country. In both cases, we’ve already automatically excluded women, who are usually the CEO of the family and lawyers of colour.

What advice would you give to legal professionals inspired to pursue entrepreneurship or innovate within their practice?

It’s difficult, intimidating, and risky to colour outside the lines. My advice would be to do what you need to do to mitigate the risks as much as possible. Get into a good financial position to allow for your coming adventures, plan for various possibilities, and then plan some more.

But after that, it’s just one decision at a time. Some are seemingly minor, some are not, and know that the path will likely look like scribbles on a page instead of a mostly straight line up and to the right, which is perfectly normal. Believe in yourself. Remember that you learned how to tie your shoe once upon a time when that too seemed impossible, or perhaps more recently, you stood up in court as a student to make a chambers application. Find your tribe who will support and push you. Get out of your comfort zone, and you will find new opportunities and people.

What are your hopes for the legal profession as you look to the future, and how do you plan to continue contributing to its evolution?

My hope is for a more inclusive, empathetic legal profession. I stand on the shoulders of giants, including mentors, colleagues and parents who taught me that change is not just possible but necessary. Inspired by their legacy, I'll continue advocating for better paths for the people working in this sector.

When I started on this path, I felt tiny and doubted my ability to influence the vast legal sector. But I now see the waves of change beginning to ripple through. I now know that a small army of legal professionals wants to build something better. By sharing my story and theirs, I hope we inspire others to join this movement, ensuring our sector’s future is more vibrant, healthy, and accessible.

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