We were pleased to interview James-Scott Lee, a partner at McCarthy Tétrault LLP’s Calgary office and a member of the firm’s business law practice. Over a candid conversation, James shared his story of growing up in Vancouver, his decision to pursue a law degree and the unique career path he took to Calgary. We are pleased to present his personal story in this Spotlight series interview.
Q: You went from business to law, how did that happen?
The first time I thought about being a lawyer was when I was about 10 years old. My aunt had a property dispute and hired a prominent lawyer, Thomas R. Berger Q.C., to act on her behalf. The fact that my aunt spoke so highly of him sparked my interest in law.
But I was always interested in business as well. This stemmed from my aunt and father who were quite entrepreneurial. In 2002, I graduated from the Sauder School of Business with a degree in Marketing. When I graduated, employment prospects in the industry were bleak as the tech bubble had burst the year prior. Out of interest, I took an elective about the intersections between law and business. I loved it and decided to make the jump to law school and graduated with a JD from UVIC in 2005.
Q: Can you talk about your law school experience and extra-curricular you were involved with?
There were two particular experiences which stood out to me. The IP Program at Oxford and the Law Centre at the University of Victoria. During one of our first days in the university town, we witnessed President Bill Clinton attending Chelsea Clinton’s convocation with the secret service in tow. It was an eye-opening experience. Volunteering at the Law Centre taught me the importance of compassion and empathy for those less privileged.
I have to say, however that my biggest takeaways from law school were the lifelong friends I made and the skills I gained. Law school makes you jump through a lot of hoops. You have to be resilient and see things through to their conclusion. It also teaches you drive which will serve you in anything you do in your life. Attention to detail and working with others are also incredibly valuable traits I picked up.
I think a lot of people feel like they have to practice law, but I actually think a law school graduate has a variety of interesting options they can explore.
Q: Did you ever think about litigation or have you always been set on corporate law?
Once I started law school, I knew that corporate law was right for me. I really enjoy working with clients and advocating for their best interests. Advocacy really isn’t just reserved for litigators, it is something I do daily for my clients.
Q: How did you end up in Calgary from UVIC?
I ended up articling at a very small corporate commercial firm in Vancouver. It was a fine place to article but my principle was near the end of his career in 2006 and he wanted me to buy into the practice. I was essentially at a cross roads in my career.
I felt like if I wanted to work in teams, with like-minded people, and tackle complex big firm files I would have to move to a larger platform. Hence, I made the move to Calgary late in 2007 to a national firm and never looked back. Calgary is an inviting city and a great place to establish a career.
Q: Did you have a role model or a mentor when you were a young lawyer? Can you speak to the impact they’ve had on your career?
My role models include lawyers, clients, friends and family members. I work with such an amazing group of professionals on a daily basis that it is easy to find great mentors. I try to pick certain traits from everyone I work with; that has been an important part of my professional growth.
I think early in your career you should identify people that have had success and create opportunities to learn from them, like setting up coffees, lunches, and after work drinks. Everyone has something, a skill, experience or story, that you can learn from, just don’t be too shy to ask. I think it is also important to keep in mind that you can also learn from people who are junior to you and not necessarily just senior partners.
Q: Can you talk about the growing pains of a lawyer?
I think as a good lawyer you always have a healthy sense of self-doubt, until you have done your research and due diligence. One of the great benefits of being at a large firm is the pool of resources you can drawn on which certainly helps. For most people, I’d say that you would have to be in practice for 7 or 8 years before you feel comfortable running a moderately complex file. As important as it is to know substantive law, it is just as important, and maybe more so, to admit what you do not know.
Q: What do you consider to be the accomplishment in your career which you are the most proud of?
As an associate, I recall working late on the financing for a gas plant. There were about a million moving parts and most of the recognizable banking lawyers in Calgary were on the file. The significant moment came on the morning of closing, after an all-nighter, when all the parties were on the call and I could confirm at that point that the Bank was ready to fund. There was no champagne, but since the days of the Trust conversion, that doesn’t happen anymore anyways, does it?
Q: Could you speak about the importance of giving back and community involvement?
Other than my family and children, I’m passionate about helping those less fortunate. I think giving back is incredibly important and whether you are fortunate or not you’ve relied on the charity of people all your life. I certainly have, from my parents, family, colleagues and many others. I think it also keeps you engaged in the community and helps you focus on what is really important. In this Canadian society, we have to make sure the vulnerable and less fortunate aren’t left out in the cold.
One of the projects I’m really passionate about is Ping Pong for a Purpose, which raises money for the Calgary food bank. Mike Hoffman and Ryan Wales of ATB Financial, the founders of the non-profit, asked me to join this past year as a board member. In the last two years we have been able to raise approximately $27,000 through our charity events. The great thing about the Calgary Food Bank is for every dollar donated, they are able to distribute $5 worth of food.
Q: Do you feel like there any negative stereotypes still attached to Asian Canadian lawyers?
I think if there is a meekness stereotype, it is probably derived from the Asian culture’s emphasis on being deferential to elders as a matter of respect. I think young lawyers should realize that you can be respectful and still provide your input or opinion. We hire young, smart people to tell us what to do, so if they feel like they can’t share openly, we have to look at that. In any event, there has been tremendous push in the legal community to be more inclusive and progressive in the last decade or so.
Q: What would you like to see FACL as an organization accomplish in the immediate future?
I think FACL is still a young organization that has lots of legs. Increasing awareness and membership from people in and outside of the Asian community should be paramount.
FACL should focus on establishing its profile in the community in addition to building ethnic diversity in the profession. I think people want to be associated with a group that’s focused on ethnic diversity, but that is also charitable in its own right. I think the way a group is going to gain recognition and support from the larger community is to place emphasis on raising money, awareness or volunteering for issues that relate to the larger community. Poverty, famine, drug abuse, mental health are issues that affect people from every ethnic background. This kind of community involvement will only help to make FACL more dynamic and set the organization up for the long haul.