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Law Is Not A Zero-Sum Game: What the Success of Shopify Can Teach Lawyers

It took me a long time to realize that law school and articling are a very poor model to teach me how the real-world works. Law school has a very nasty way of teaching students that acehivements are a zero-sum game. You sometimes cannot help but think that the success of others in law school equates to your failure. For example, law school courses are graded on a curve. The reality is that there will be only so many A-grades that are given in every course. if someone else gets an A and tells you about it and your grade was a B+, it can teach you to view their success as taking something from you. There are countless examples of this happening in law school, from grades to on-campus interviews, to in-firm interviews, to articling positions, to clerkships.

This type of environment can produce feelings of uneasiness and failure in students. At the very least, it produces terrible conversations. Law students tend to be so competitive and type A in law school that they are constantly soliciting or volunteering information. Below are direct quotations I heard from fellow students and colleagues and my unsaid reactions beside them:

“I pulled an all-nighter last night working on a file” ‘um, ok. That was kind of a weird thing to say to me completely unsolicited. Should I be pulling all-nighters? Can you leave now, you are making me question my decision to go to law school.’

“So how did you do on the exam? I got an A- and am pretty disappointed with my grade. It is so subjective.” ‘Considering you have no idea what I got on the exam and I could have failed for all you know, you are obviously a complete sadist and unfit to practice any area of law, except for maybe corporate.’

“I have found law school really easy.” ‘I happen to be aware that you have a pretty sweet job lined up with your father´s law firm after law school no matter what you achieve – or don’t achieve – in law school which must be nice for you. Rubbing my face in it is not so nice.´

“I docketed 350 hours this month. I better get hired back.” ‘Should I be docketing 350 hours per month? Because I am definitely not coming even close to that. Also, this is the last conversation you and I are having for the rest of the articling term.’

This phenomenon used to drive me nuts both in law school and articling and happened much more frequently than I can possibly express. But there was an exception in my law school class that I have been thinking about lately.

Harley Finkelstein, the COO of Shopify, was in my year in law school at the University of Ottawa. Talking to him was always a breath of fresh air for me because he never engaged in the kind of competitive chatter or one-upmanship that many other law students did. He was always talking about entrepreneurial interests he was pursuing and, what seemed strange to me at the time, encouraging me to get involved. I can recall him talking about selling t-shirts online and being the first person to tell me about Google ad words and how they were a very effective way of selling and that I should try it too so that I could earn money while in law school without expending the time that would be necessary for something like a part-time job. I could not understand him wanting me to share in his success at all at the time, especially given the conversations I was having with other law students. I probably even viewed his advice and encouragement with suspicion.

It is very fitting that Harley ended up leading a company that is based on encouraging entrepreneurship and creating entrepreneurs. The model of Shopify is simple to understand: Encourage people to become entrepreneurs and use the Shopify platform. As entrepreneurs succeed with the Shopify platform, their success encourages others to become entrepreneurs and use the Shopify platform as well. As more people use the platform, Shopify succeeds and grows. The growth of Shopify using this model has been extraordinary since its founding in 2006.

What does this have to do with law students and lawyers? I believe that Harley understood something as a law student that took me years of experience and maturing to understand — the real world is not a zero-sum game. To the extent that law school and articling teaches you that it is, it is a very bad lesson.

In the real world, when someone else becomes successful, they are not taking anything away from you like they might be in a law school class that is graded on a curve or an articling class where a law firm budget may limit the amount of students hired from the pool of articling students. The real world is big enough to accommodate unlimited successes.

This took me years to understand. At some point during my career, I started to unlearn the zero-sum lessons from law school and see defence lawyers as something like a guild, rather than competition. I know how hard it is to be an effective defence lawyer and make a living as one and I respect and admire the people who do. When other lawyers succeed, they are not taking anything away from me and I can learn from their successes. After I started to think this way, I would do things like send an e-mail or make a phone call when a defence lawyer had a significant achievement or ask to meet for coffee so I could learn about their success. After I started doing this, I realized that there were significant personal benefits to seeing the world this way. I made friendships with lawyers who then referred cases to me, found mentorship opportunities and, perhaps most importantly, enjoyed my life a lot more. It is a wonderful feeling to be able to derive enjoyment in life from seeing good things happen to good people.

More than a decade after law school, I can say that law school is not a good teacher to understand that the real world is not a zero-sum game. In the real world, there are lots of different ways to become successful and nobody is taking from you when they do. Harley tried to encourage me to become an entrepreneur because he understood this. He understood that if I were to become successful as an entrepreneur, it could have created an opportunity for him to share in my success. He helped build and lead an extraordinary company on this idea — the world is not a zero-sum game. The law world isn’t either.


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