Molly Naber-Sykes '83This Q & A is the complete version of the one that appears in the Spring/Summer 2011 issue of Nexus.

Litigator, teacher, writer, parent, and volunteer Molly Naber-Sykes talks to Nexus about how to have a legal career outside a firm, without ever calling yourself a 'used to be.'

Nexus: Has your career unfolded as you had planned?

MNS: I don't know if I really had a plan. I thought when a graduated that I would work in a law firm and become a partner and I would do litigation. I liked it very much. I was able to find and do good work, l worked well with my colleagues, and worked well with my clients. But I just found it hard to work 60 hours when my husband was working 80 hours and we had three kids. I didn't feel I was giving my job my full attention. I didn't feel I was giving my family my full attention.  I just felt squeezed all the time.

Nexus: What did you do?

MNS: Fortunately, I had the financial support and other support to be able to walk away from my career and I did think I was walking away from my career. I thought it was over. It was so hard for me, so heart-wrenching. I really wanted to practice law. I just didn't want to go, and I couldn't see what life beyond the traditional model was going to be for me.  I didn't know what was going to give me satisfaction, what was going to be my identity. But I knew that I wasn't going to be a 'used to be.' One of the partners when on maternity leave talked about going to the playground and talking  to other moms about 'I used to be an accountant' and 'I used to be this, and I used to be that.' I decided I wasn't going to do that. I completely checked out of downtown. But once a year, I would drop down right into the middle of the profession and hang out with the coolest criminal advocates and the coolest civil advocates [as a trial advocacy instructor]. And I developed a really interesting practitioners' network.

Nexus: So you didn't really tune out?

MNS: No, I didn't. I was very fortunate to be connected to the profession through advocacy. I also taught courses at the University of Calgary and at the Alberta Legal Education Society. I think my re-entry to active practice would have been much more difficult, if I had tuned out.  I also co-wrote an article for the CBA Alberta branch newsletter, called Practice Pointers. And in every edition, our article was there, and our photos were there.  Most people thought I was still practicing. So that's how I stayed connected.

Nexus: How did you end up as an instructor in Yemen?

MNS: I was one of the founding board members of a non-profit called Bridges, a capacity-building organization based on the model of 'training the trainer'. The Yemeni president invited the founder, a friend of mine, to teach. Yemen was graduating 50 percent women from professional faculties, such as law and medicine, and those women needed help finding their way forward after graduation, given traditional Muslim society. I taught ethics and practice management to about 50 lawyers for 12 days in 2007, with interpreters. We engaged them in discussions of some pretty thorny ethical issues.  I have to ask you, if I were working in a traditional law firm, could I have pursued that opportunity? Maybe-but unlikely.

Nexus: If you have to do it all over again, would you change anything?

MNS: My only regret was that I didn't leave practice sooner, but now I realize that those years of practice were so important for me on so many levels, so the answer is no.

Nexus: Are you writing your experiences down in a 'how-to' book?

MNS: That's a really good question. For the longest time, I didn't know how I felt about my alternate career path. It wasn't easy. When my husband Henry and I went back to our 25th law school reunion, many people were still working at the same law firm they had done their articles with. I don't think you can appreciate what's out there, and how you can make your law degree work for you in other ways than the traditional model, until you step away from the traditional model. But there isn't a lot of support for it.

Nexus: What would you like to say to the Class of 2011?

MNS: I would encourage them to be courageous if their first job doesn't seem to be perfect, or if they think there might be something better that fits their passion, or allows them to have work/life balance. Look and see what's out there. There are so many things we can do with our law degree. The ability to return to the traditional model is there-and you return stronger.

Photograph by Dan Bannister