Hours before the deadline to reclaim his deposit on the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), John McIntyre had a life-changing decision to make. He could start studying for the test and continue along the path to becoming a doctor, or he could save the deposit money for law school. Up until his fourth year of undergrad, medical school had been John’s goal. That year, his time spent researching the LGBTQ+ community’s barriers to accessing mental healthcare for his thesis study while coming out as a member of the community himself, made him question his career aspirations. Healthcare was still integral to John’s career, but he thought that his skills might lend better to the advocacy side of it.
The night before his MCAT deposit would have been lost, John withdrew from the test, but his career in healthcare was just beginning.
John’s interest in the healthcare system developed through personal experience. When he was younger, his dad had a couple of health scares and going through the system by his side was a jarring experience. This led him to become a first aid instructor and volunteer at his local hospital. His interest in the area helped him land a 1L summer internship at CAMH, followed by a 2L summer job in BLG’s health law group. After law school, he articled for BLG before taking on a coveted clerking position with the Ontario Court of Appeal. John returned to BLG after his year-long clerkship. There, he enjoyed the work but, as he became more senior, he began feeling disengaged with his role. He mostly had medical malpractice files and although important to him, they focused on issues that happened years before.
John’s entire reason for getting into healthcare law was to advocate for a better present and future, and he felt he could not do that while the bulk of his practice was stuck in the past.
In 2021, John decided it was time to explore alternative career options, including potentially leaving the law altogether. He enrolled in the Masters of Public Health program at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland and moved to the city in June 2021. It was an exciting time to be back in school, with the pandemic being front and center in his work at Hopkins. John was not sure what the outcome of completing his Masters would be but he knew that doing it would not hurt. He knew he wanted to remain in healthcare, whether it was changing paths to pursue a career in health administration or to continue in health law.
During the first half of his program, John continued working part-time remotely for BLG to help with the cost of tuition. However, over the school holiday break, he decided it was time to try something different, to properly weigh whether he wanted to stay in or leave the law. He explored the possibility of joining another small firm on a part-time basis while in the States, including approaching his friend and former colleague Erin Durant of Durant Barristers. Erin gave him just the push he needed, because she questioned him about why he would want to join another firm as an employee when he had the client base to start his own practice.
This was the first time John had considered going solo, and with no harm in trying, he did just that.
After completing his Masters, John took an administrative internship at a health system in Chicago, to really explore whether he was better suited for hospital administration than the law. However, his part-time solo practice was taking off, and he felt that his skills were underutilized in the internship, as he was starting over a new career at the bottom. John left Chicago after 6 months and moved back to Toronto. He has been building his practice full-time ever since, and partnered with his best friend Jessica Szabo in April 2023 to form McIntyre Szabo PC. They are currently hiring their first associate to expand the firm.
John loves the practice of law again. He has flourished since starting his own firm and thrived without the restrictions on creativity and practice that come with Big Law firm structures. His practice covers a broader cross section of litigation and client advise than it once did and includes defending medical practitioners and organizations in regulatory matters, mental health litigation, human rights complaints and physician privileging matters. John is also building a public interest practice with a focus on LGBTQ+ advocacy, including challenging OHIP’s approach to funding of gender affirming surgeries.
Maximizing profits is not one of McIntyre Szabo PC’s values. John and Jessica want to continue to afford their mortgages, but at the end of the day, they don’t consider how they can make the most money possible. What they do value is having an impact on the healthcare community and living happy lives themselves. When a new file comes in, they question whether the file is in line with those values, and they talk about these values at every meeting.
On the surface, making your own happiness at work a priority might sound selfish, but in reality, you cannot do a good job of helping people when you are not yourself fully satisfied.
Taking focus away from billable targets means John has time to do things he enjoys outside of lawyering. He teaches public health law at Queen’s University, speaks frequently at conferences and takes time every week to build and nurture his network of support. He particularly feels at home in the health law bar because it is one of the most collegial, where lawyers don’t see each other as competitors even if working in the same space. He might work more hours now than he did while in big law, but he does so (for now) because he feels so energized by his practice. Despite the long hours, or possibly because of them, John is happy, at peace, and rarely stressed. He also loves the challenges and learning curve that comes along with starting and growing a firm. He is in a very similar place financially to where he was in big law, and would be making even more if he focused more on his billable time. His ideal mix, which he’s been able to maintain, is to have on average 20 billable hours a week, then fill the rest with pro bono or non-billable work that has a broader impact.
When John and his law school classmates spoke to lawyers years ago, the happiest of them said that they never thought they would be doing what they ended up doing.
But each of them followed their passions at every step, rather than doing what they felt they “should” do to succeed, and ended up growing a career beyond their imagination. Likewise, John wants others to know that you don’t need to fit into a box and follow a set path to succeed. You can change directions at any time, so you should do what you are interested in. He almost left the law entirely because he had lost that spark for it in 2021, but he realized he just needed to find a way of practicing that better suited his personality and now loves it again. There is also a lot more mobility than there used to be – gone are the days of saying you can’t get into private practice or even Big Law later in your career. John also encourages law students and lawyers to not set restrictions on themselves. For him, he always said he would never start his own firm, but it turned out to be what makes him happiest. Finally, don’t underestimate the indirect impacts of following your passions. You will do better work and build more authentic connections if you like what you are doing, and that is sure to have an impact on the rest of your career.