A pilot always needs a backup plan in case things don’t go as expected. For example, they never set off towards their destination without an alternate airport in mind. Working as a pilot prior to law school and learning the importance of having a plan “B” might have contributed to James Ball’s comfort with change. When disruption in the aviation industry forced him to reconsider his aviation career, he was happy to give law a try. When he lacked fulfillment and balance in his legal practice, he jumped on an opportunity to fly again. Law has oscillated between being James’ primary and backup plan. Currently, his plan “A” is flying, but the aviation industry has given him the opportunity to blend both his careers together in unexpected ways.
Law and flying were competing interests of James’ from a young age. Flying initially came out on top. So, after training in Toronto, he got his first job in aviation in Northern Manitoba. On September 11, 2001, James was working his first week at his first aviation job. 9/11 completely changed the airline industry, and although he continued to work in the North for four years, the trajectory of his career changed drastically.
Going back to school was supposed to be a short break from flying. James loved education and thought he would work on an undergrad degree but perhaps return to his flying job in Manitoba either in the summers or after he completed his degree. But the airline he had worked for went bankrupt two months after he left. With that door closed, James focused on his education. The university environment helped him develop a surprising love of writing. In researching different career paths and how to become a lawyer, James found a lot of helpful information. He noticed that similar guides on how to become a pilot were noticeably absent. A fortuitous connection with the author of “So, You want to be a Lawyer, Eh?” resulted in James writing “So, You Want to be a Pilot, Eh?” which was published in 2007.
After finishing his undergrad degree, James decided on law school at Dalhousie
in Halifax. He spent his summers and articles in the city, before being presented with a rare opportunity to practice aviation law in Vancouver. James really enjoyed his first Vancouver law-job; not only was he able to learn the practice of being lawyer and the intricacies of aviation law, but was also able to continue to develop his writing through publishing articles in various trade publications.
After a few years, he was tempted away from this job by the prospect of starting an aviation practice at another firm with a lawyer he greatly admired. James found the aviation law part of this new job fulfilling, but he began to struggle with the way his practice was set up. In particular, he was also doing non-aviation work that he did not overly enjoy, and the myopic focus on billable hours was taking its toll. James never hated what he was doing, but he did not want to work 60 to 80-hours per week in a job that he did not love. And money, without sufficient time off from work to spend with family, was not a motivator for him.
Conversations with friends in the aviation industry tempted James back to flying once he shut down his practice. After a short stint piloting a 19-seater plane in BC, he found work with WestJet
and a temporary home in New York City. The company that his wife worked for won the bid to redevelop LaGuardia Airport
’s main terminal, and staying behind was not an option for James. Aviation is a unique industry which allowed James to live in New York City but “commute” to his Toronto crew base during his time there.
When James joined WestJet
’s regional airline Encore in 2016, labour law was a hot topic in the airline industry. With his legal background, he began assisting with labour relations issues. He became chair of the union’s grievance committee and is proud of the work he was able to do to help members. James became more and more involved in his union and union adjacent responsibilities, including as a member of a negotiation committee for four years.
James is still a WestJet
pilot but he’s no longer based in New York. Although the decision to leave was a difficult one, when his wife got pregnant in 2019 with their son, the couple realized how important being closer to family was. Although their plans for a slow and well-thought-out move to Calgary were rushed when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, James and his wife were safely back in Calgary at the beginning of the pandemic when his son was born.
The Covid-19 pandemic hit the aviation industry extremely hard. Some airlines simply shut down or ceased operating whereas others, like WestJet
, worked with their unions to reduce hours and pay to try and avoid lay-offs. Although almost 800 pilots were laid off from WestJet
, many were able to remain employed during the pandemic albeit for significantly reduced pay due to the work of the company and the Pilots’ union in reaching agreements.
During the height of the pandemic, it seemed James was working more on union legal type work than he was flying! As the pandemic started to wane, James and his wife welcomed their second child, a daughter. Given the intensity of union work during Covid, James has taken a step back from union work to focus on his family and flying. Nonetheless, he still spends time as the Canadian Representative on the International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations’
Legal Advisory Group, where he works with lawyers, pilots, and other lawyer-pilots from around the world to examine issues in the airline industry with an international aspect.
Now, James is both a pilot and a busy dad. He feels the pull of union work and hopes to get more involved again when his kids are older. James has no plans for a full-time law practice in the near future, but it remains an option he wouldn’t mind returning to. He is happy with the way his career has unfolded and has found a new love for labour law, which his aviation career introduced him to.
Being torn between two career options that both require a high level of training and discipline can be tough, but James is glad he did not limit himself. He learned to expect that, at times, he would have to put one to the side while becoming proficient in the other. This has meant that James has not moved up corporate ladders as quickly as some of his classmates. Resisting the urge to compare his career progress to others, James reflects on all that he has accomplished. He established a legal practice, started a family, and has safely flown thousands of people to destinations across the world. James is proud of his classmates’ accomplishments and is also proud of his own.