Imagine being so close to landing an amazing, career-path-changing job, only to be told you didn’t get it because you took time off while both your parents were terminally ill. Ashley Syer was taken aback when she was told that this was part of the reason an in-house position went to another candidate. The other part was that they thought she had never been properly mentored. Was the opportunity really that amazing if they saw this as a strike against her? Necessity ultimately drove Ashley to starting her own practice in 2014 and since then, she has become a woman who wears many hats – a lawyer, a sole practitioner, a mediator (C. Med, RRM), and a mentor.
Always being the type to follow her interests rather than what was expected of her, Ashley deviated from the path she grew up knowing. She comes from a family of teachers who thought she’d become a band teacher. However, after watching hours of Law & Order reruns with her dad after school, Ashley’s interest in law was piqued. Primarily, she was drawn to law because she knew that no two days would be the same, and it would give her a chance to help people.
Knowing she wanted to stay in British Columbia where she grew up, Ashley only applied to two law schools. She found herself on the waitlist for the University of British Columbia (UBC)
. One week later, Ashley got her tonsils removed and to add a bit of joy to her recovery, she received a call from UBC – she had been accepted. Her cheers were silent, but her excitement was real.
The harsh reality is that, sometimes, things will get worse before they get better
At what was supposed to be the start of her real “adulting” life, Ashley was thrust into a turbulent 21-month journey. She graduated from law school soon after the 2008 economic collapse and was called to the Bar in May 2010. In October of that same year, her mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Not long after, her dad received the same heartbreaking diagnosis. Ashley and her family could not seem to catch a break.
What little luck she still clung to ran out after articling. Her office was reassigned to a new but more senior hire, and Ashley was given the option of an isolated, windowless room (essentially, a “cave”) or a small, glass-walled office – she opted for the latter. Not only did the firm end up sticking her in the cave, but a comment about “natural light” seemed to be the catalyst for the notorious meeting where Ashley was asked by the managing partner if she was “little d depressed” because her life “sucks right now”, or “big D depressed” and should they send her to a doctor. Ashley felt she could not ask for help and that her only choice was trying to convince the partner that she was fine.
It was over drinks on a patio with the managing partner that Ashley was ultimately let go. A lack of support for her mental wellbeing was not Ashley’s only problem at the firm. When she said that she wanted to take the firm to the Human Rights Tribunal for sexual harassment, the partner replied that if she did, she’d never get hired by another firm in Vancouver.
“You really never know when things go sideways, how much time you have left.”
The tremendous grief Ashley experienced losing both her parents gave her perspective on what was important. Ashley asked herself, “what do I want out of life?” She could easily list off a few things: theatre, time with friends and family, and becoming a hobby travel photographer while setting foot on every continent. Trying to figure out how to resurrect her career, however, was more challenging.
Ashley joined a small firm run by two partners that on first glance looked promising. Unfortunately, there was a lack of both mentorship and work available. As a result, her billable hours weren’t up to par, and she was not feeling like she had ended up at the right place to build and grow professionally. Both she and the partners knew it was not the right fit, and she found herself looking in a different direction entirely.
After a long interview process for an in-house position that went with another candidate, Ashley seriously considered quitting law and becoming a wedding planner. That same week, Michael McCubbin, a friend from law school, phoned and said he was renting an office space and would have an extra office if she wanted it. Taking up the offer, Ashley finally felt like she had the collegial environment she had been hoping to find. She credits Mike for giving her the opportunity to figure out how she wanted to practice law. If it weren’t for him, Ashley doesn’t think she would still be practicing today.
From mentorless to mentor
There was a magical energy at Mike’s office – that is, until he moved away. When the lease was coming up, Ashley began to look for her own space, hoping to recreate a similar atmosphere where a group of lawyers, all independent of each other, could share a space with an open-door policy. The space she found was much bigger than she planned, but she hoped to build it, “Field of Dreams” style. A special thing began to happen – everyone who joined the office, with a single exception, was starting out as a new sole practitioner or new partnership, and Ashley found herself sharing some of the things she had learned when she started her own firm. That magic of a collegial space with open doors, Friday beverages, and a group of other solos to lean on in support had been replicated.
For about three years, it was a running joke that Ashley was operating an unofficial lawyer incubator. When the pandemic happened and she found herself with empty offices to fill, Ashley decided to make the running joke a reality – she started The Lawyer Incubator
. Lawyers have been reaching out to Ashley from provinces across the country, others from as far away as Australia have signed up for mentorship, and many more have expressed interest. She is thrilled to be welcoming her second in-person incubator lawyer in August 2022. Several legal tech companies – such as Clio
, and ACL5
– have shown support by partnering with the Incubator.
Ashley’s firm and mediation practices, Syer Law
and Gastown Mediation
respectively, have also found success. Being a woman in law is not an easy feat, but Ashley surrounds herself with like-minded and good-hearted people. She believes in the importance of female empowerment and is on the organizing committee of the Trial Lawyers Association of BC’s
annual Women Lawyers Retreat.
“Sometimes those unexpected twists and turns, and the things that you think are really bad at the time, might be the very best things for you.”
Despite the adversities Ashley has faced, she is happy with her decision to join the legal profession. In an average week, she’ll usually have one tenancy hearing, a mediation or two, client calls and meetings, and prep time for hearings. A highlight of having her own practice is the ability to welcome dogs into the office. Sadie, a mediation-dog-in-training, graces the office space and makes for an excellent foot warmer. It’s been far from smooth sailing for Ashley and although the law has been anything but kind to her, she continues to stand back up whenever she is knocked down and treat others with the kindness they (and she) deserve.