Welcome back to Thrillable Hours, my interview series about alternative careers for lawyers. Thanks to the many recent submissions, suggestions and encouraging emails from lawyers and non-lawyers alike. I’m thrilled (had to) that the series is resonating with so many of you.
Allison Suter is a reader who I have corresponded with over the years, who also happens to be a lawyer, and a tax expert. And a wedding photographer. Basically, she’s an extremely talented human being, and when I read about her new business — creating software that makes income tax filing easier for Canadians for free — I asked if I could feature her prior to the tax season rush. Because nothing says interesting like taxes. Fine, nothing says interesting like someone creating an innovative new site to make something as boring as taxes seem easy. Which is precisely what Allison did.
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What made you decide to leave private practice? Was there a particular moment that catalyzed the decision for you?
I think even before I went to law school I knew that I wasn’t going to be in private practice for my whole career. My dad even remembers me saying as much as he helped me move to Vancouver to start law school!
Between graduating from law school and before I started my legal career, I took a year off to travel. During that year I became more certain that a traditional path wasn’t going to work for me. Shortly after I started my practice, sitting at my desk in my little corner of the sky became more and more draining every day, despite my challenging work, smart colleagues and fantastic mentors. Then I started dreading Mondays. I left (and ran away to Argentina temporarily) almost as soon as my husband and I had saved enough money to start a business and live off our savings for about two years.
What do you find most fulfilling about your current job?
What I find fulfilling about both SimpleTax and my freelance photography business is that I really believe in what I’m doing. With SimpleTax, we are helping people complete and file their tax returns—something that (in Canada and the U.S. especially) is much too complicated. And being a photographer is incredibly rewarding in its own way: I get to hang out with people on the happiest day of their lives and capture the moments that they might be too busy to remember.
On a more personal level, I love being in charge of what my day looks like, everyday. Do I want to work from Bali for a month? No problem. Do I want to take a yoga class on Tuesday mornings? No problem. I’m also quite introverted, and I love being able to work from home without distraction.
But probably the most fulfilling thing for me is building something. I’m fairly certain I’ll never work in professional services again, because I get such a high from creating. I think I’ll always want to be the client.
Do you have any advice for professionals who are interested in branching out from traditional practice but concerned about what is out there?
A lot of people (and all of Pinterest) will encourage you to take a dramatic leap to start living the life of your dreams. While I love the inspirational nature of this advice… I’m not sure it works that well for a lot of lawyers. For me, getting ready to leave took a lot of sacrifice, planning, and even more saving. One really good thing about being a lawyer at a big (or even medium-sized) firm is that it can pay quite well. Rather than splashing out with my friends and colleagues, I lived like a student and saved every penny that I could so that I could make a change.
When I left the law, I knew that I had a two-year runway to start something. I didn’t know exactly what was going to fill my days, but I knew that I had enough to get me by to figure out what that was. For my personality, having that security was the single most important thing. In the end it only took a few months to start SimpleTax, but since it’s such a seasonal business, having that security was invaluable.
Do you still identify as a lawyer or use the skills you developed in your legal training?
While I don’t really identify as a lawyer anymore, I do use my legal background every single day. I think that law school and practising law gives you the broadest understanding of the society in which we live. I majored in finance in my undergrad degree (and even worked in finance for a year) before law school and I remember sitting in my corporate securities class thinking to myself “oh … NOW I get it”.
Negotiation, contracts, and reading and writing are some of the skills that developed that I use every day. Furthermore, since I was a tax lawyer, I’ve even got a bit of a technical overlap since since I’m building tax software! I don’t ever regret my education.
What do you have to say to those who tell me lawyers can’t have fun?
You haven’t met my friends!
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Allison is an entrepreneur and non-practising tax lawyer. She earned her BComm from the University of Alberta in 2004, her LLB from UBC in 2008 and practiced tax law with Moskowitz & Meredith (now KPMG Law) in Vancouver and Toronto until 2011. After leaving her practice, Allison founded SimpleTax, a personal tax filing software company with a mission to make it easier for Canadians to prepare and file their tax returns. Allison is also a freelance wedding photographer and spends many summer days capturing peoples’ memories on one the happiest days of their lives!