We recently had the privilege of interviewing Jonathan Ng, who practices Wills and Estates at Underwood Gilholme. In our conversation, Jonathan reflects on how he succeeded in securing a fruitful and fulfilling practice. We are delighted in having the opportunity to share the story of a lawyer who is dedicated in advocating for his clients’ wishes in this Spotlight Series interview.
Out of all your accomplishments, what motivates you the most?
I enjoy helping the clients. I know it sounds cliché, but people come in with a very strong wish or set of wishes. It is inspiring if I can successfully advocate for those wishes. In addition to the actual content of the work, I am also a business owner. I am motivated by maintaining my business, growing it, and working with my colleagues who are very passionate about the practice.
I also look forward to becoming a father. I have a great father who worked very hard. He came to Canada, along with my mother, from the Philippines and I am grateful for the values that they instilled in me such as hard work and dedication to the family. I can only hope that I can be half as good to my children as my parents were to me.
What were some of the challenges that your family faced when you moved to Canada? Did you face any challenges as a Filipino lawyer in Calgary?
My parents immigrated to Canada in the early 1970’s and were the first members of their families to settle in the country. Although they had the benefit of professional degrees from the Philippines, they had to work very hard to demonstrate their worth. As a second generation Canadian, I often take for granted the network of people that have helped me along the way and that were less accessible to my parents as they built their careers from scratch.
The Filipino population in Calgary is still relatively new and not well represented among professionals. I regularly find myself being the first Filipino lawyer that many people meet, but I wouldn’t say that I have faced any challenges thus far. Some of my clients are curious about my background and appreciate my family story.
You were formerly an environmental engineer. What made you decide to switch to a law career?
As an environmental engineer, I spent a lot of time working with lawyers regarding environmental disputes. I wanted to make a professional change, and I was fascinated by the way lawyers think. Engineers are trained to see things in black and white, right and wrong, success and failure, whereas lawyers spoke in a language that was based in shades of grey, and I was very fascinated about that.
Compared to engineering, I found the practice of law to be less diverse but equally inclusive. There is a disparity in diversity between lawyers and the clients they serve. However, I feel that most members of the profession recognize this disparity and see the benefit in building a more diverse bar. This is particularly important in private client services, especially Wills and Estates. When dealing with estates, it is crucial to have an appreciation for cultural differences when it comes to family values and wealth.
I must mention that engineering struggles with gender parity in school, whereas my class in law school was composed of nearly 60% women. Notwithstanding, I recognize that there are challenges with women staying in the legal profession and this should be examined closer.
Could you tell us about the factors that you considered in deciding to move to a firm which primarily practices Wills and Estates?
I originally worked at a firm that concentrated on cross border litigation. They also concentrated on another area, which was Wills and Estates. After trying both sides of the firm, I was very much attracted to the Wills and Estates part of the practice. My articling principal in Ontario, Adam Cappelli of Cambridge LLP, worked entirely in the area of Wills and Estates. Like a good articling student, I did what Adam did. He was a fantastic lawyer and an excellent mentor. He always made time for me after a busy day to explain what we were doing. He had a very appealing practice, and was a great guy to work with. The firm was very kind to introduce him to me and allow me to focus on Wills and Estates.
I also had an interesting articling experience as Adam was the host of a cable access television talk show about Wills and Estates. My job was to book the guests, write some of the scripts, and prepare the material for the show like a producer. Looking back, it was a lot of work, but it was a great experience as not only did it teach me about the law, but also about my principal's marketing style. This experience truly helped me get my start in the practice of Wills and Estates.
What are the main differences between your practice at Underwood and Gilholme and that of others?
Wills and Estates is centered on private clients. We work for people. We represent families. For that reason, Wills and Estates is very special and I feel like a family's lawyer. Although my practice area is dedicated to estate planning and administration, families often entrust us with many secrets and ask us many personal questions. People share so much with you in the Wills and Estates engagement. They tell you not only about their family and their assets but also their wishes after they pass on, and I consider it an honor to be involved in that process.
What are the most challenging aspects of working at a Wills and Estates firm? What do you do to overcome these challenges?
Wills and Estates is a volume business. You work with many clients, and it is not uncommon for me to meet with four, five, or six families in an eight-hour period. Each family has a different set of facts and you need to keep everything in order. While it is very rewarding, it can also be very challenging as people are speaking with you in the context of death. You could have a positive conversation with some clients regarding death, but for others it may be more challenging given that it is possibly the first time that they have considered their own mortality.
I am able to handle the stresses of my practice through the support of my wife. I also work with five exceptional lawyers that focus entirely on Wills and Estates. If the challenge that I am facing is of a legal nature, I am lucky to have a second opinion readily available from very strong colleagues.
Do you usually refer clients to other lawyers first or do other lawyers refer their clients to you?
Oftentimes, the first time a person meets a lawyer is when they are buying a home, where they need a Real Estate lawyer, or when they are preparing a Will, where they would need a Wills and Estates lawyer. It may arise during the conversation between a client and Real Estate lawyer that they are now also interested in preparing a Will as they now own property. Sometimes the Real Estate lawyer prepares the Will but other times the Real Estate lawyer observes that the issues would be better handled by a Wills and Estates lawyer. It also goes the other way. My clients may ask me for advice on a Real Estate transaction, in which case I am happy to refer them to a colleague who could help them better.
What advice would you give for students and lawyers that are thinking of practicing Wills and Estates law?
The main piece of advice that I would give to lawyers who are thinking of practicing Wills and Estates is to make the time for each and every client. This seems counterintuitive when you are dealing with a volume business where you can see six or more clients per day. But when people come to see you, they come to see you regarding something that is very sacred to them, and is something that they often keep in secret. These people entrust you with this sensitive information in the hopes that you could help them with their concerns. What resonates most with the client is the knowledge that you, as their lawyer, have set aside the time necessary to see their wishes carried out. If that means seeing less clients, then so be it. The quality of your work should shine through over the quantity. When clients refer you to others, they will talk about how thorough you were instead of how fast you dealt with their specific concern.
Wills and Estates, Trusts, and Tax courses provide a very strong basis for this practice. I would also identify Real Estate and Family Law as other helpful classes. Beyond that, I would highly encourage students to volunteer with organizations that provide services to the elderly, because many of their concerns cross over with the practice. In doing so, one could gain compassion and familiarity with elder issues. One particular place that students may be interested in is the Kerby Centre in Calgary, which provides education and activities for seniors.
During Law School you were awarded the Grant McKibben Prize, which is given to a graduating student who epitomizes the energy and spirit of the Calgary law school community. Can you tell us more about the things that you did that led to this award?
I dedicated a lot of my time to the University of Calgary's law show, which is a variety show that takes place every March. I loved doing it and on some days, I think I spent more time preparing material for the show than writing case briefs. My intention was not to win an award, but I always loved performing as a kid and I enjoyed the creative process. I got to know some of my classmates through the law show, and I enjoyed working with them on a project that was not law related. I also participated in moots and negotiation competitions.
Photos: Meaghan Lanaria