This post is a bit of a challenge to write because it combines so many elements, not all of which are about the job itself. I had mentioned in previous posts that had tried dishwashing, and well, I hadn’t been able to do it very well. Other manual tasks were likely to be similar if dishwashing or my experience in tech classes were any indication. For lack of a better description, I was a bit worried about my future and what “I” could actually do.
The university library job showed me a white or pink-collar job that I was capable of doing, and had enjoyed, and although it set a good baseline, it wasn’t exactly what I wanted out of my career. Similarly for the computer jobs — they were things I did to pay the bills, not what I wanted to do with my life…I had moved away from computers back when I graduated high school and I had both turned down and didn’t think I could afford going to Waterloo to do computer science.
During my undergrad, I slowly found myself separating myself from a lot of my classmates in terms of my interests. Being in the equivalent of a commerce/business admin program (it was officially a “Bachelor of Administrative Studies”), I did economics, law, public policy, political studies, etc., but nothing really grabbed me. The closest things I saw to potential careers for me were government and law.
With government, I did a project with the City of Peterborough’s planning department in between the 3rd and 4th years. The course was “marketing”, and they were looking at some basic fundamental research of what the downtown businesses actually wanted to do. My partner and I took their surveys, turned them into a database, ran some reports, and did a presentation deck in Harvard Graphics. I loved it, thought it was really cool. Here was something that I hadn’t seen in my business courses where everyone was busy counting costing to produce widgets. This was about serving customers, but not with a “product” or a “service” per se. It was different. I also was invited to a conference in my fourth year on privatization, and the rest of the attendees were all Masters or law students…way out of my league. I both loved them and loathed them. They were talking politics, I was only interested in policy.
I didn’t know what to call the difference, but I knew there was something else called “public administration” and for an essay, I bought a copy of Kernaghan and Siegel’s “Canadian Public Administration” textbook and it was AMAZING. Everything I ever wanted to do or know in one volume. I assumed I would gravitate to municipal government, somewhere like Peterborough maybe. Something close to the citizens.
Yet there wasn’t always a booming market for public admin people, I knew that at least. So I thought I would hedge my bets. Do a law degree, and if it didn’t work out in public admin, I could always hang out my own shingle. A professional certification. I confess I did consider accounting for a short while, but I had a friend who was hard-core accounting, and her passion was not mine. I thought I would give law school a try.
That sounds frivolous, but I’m not a frivolous person. It was just a cold reality that I wanted law as backup and maybe support my government career, not to be a lawyer in the courtroom like a John Grisham novel. I knew from my research that some of the smaller municipal regions didn’t have enough money to hire both a city solicitor and a city manager. One, I had heard, had hired a lawyer with an MPA degree to do both. It sounded PERFECT. It retrospect I realize it was a stupid governance structure, but at the time it seemed rational.
So off I went to UVic. I had an 80+ average in my undergrad, and a 99th percentile ranking on the LSAT and GMAT. I got in everywhere I applied. I didn’t like UofT or Queens for their approach, Osgoode seemed too large, Windsor was for law only, Carleton was MPA only. It quickly became a choice between Dalhousie or UVic, both having a combined degree option between a strong public admin program and a solid law school. But UVic had a co-op option that would help me be able to keep paying for schooling and it wasn’t like I could live at home while I did them.
UVic accepted me into both degrees by the end of January of my fourth year and guaranteed me entry into a limited enrolment co-op program (participation in law co-op was by lottery; public admin co-op was guaranteed; the joint degree relied on public admin’s rules and thus was guaranteed). I accepted early, turned down everyone else, and never looked back.
Which is a giant lie, I did look back once in July, and I have to digress because it was funny. I ran into a coworker in July, six weeks before my departure, and she asked me where I was going for law school. I told her UVic, and because she had gone to Dalhousie for her undergrad, she asked me if I applied there. I said, “Oh sure,” and that I had been accepted, but I was sold on UVic. Then I paused. And I realized something odd.
I had never been accepted by Dalhousie. Never got my letter. Never told them no. That might not seem unusual for most people but scroll back up. I had Dean’s Honour List grades, which made me competitive in EVERY Canadian law school. Without exception. Which then moves you to look at LSAT scores. If I had 80th percentile on it, I would have been accepted by everyone too. Some early, some late, but everyone would have accepted me. But I didn’t have just 80th percentile. I had killed myself for six weeks beforehand studying, and I aced it — I had 99th percentile. There is no “100th”. I missed less than five questions. This isn’t me just bragging, it’s simple law school admissions math — 80% undergrad and 99th percentile LSAT? They don’t even look at your application. They just offer you admission and move to the next person. You don’t even have to prove you kept your 80% average to the end of the last four months, you get full acceptance immediately.
So I had done all my applications in December and everything was in by January 1st. UofT accepted me first, 2nd week of January. Full early acceptance. Then Osgoode. Then Windsor. Queens. Finally UVic. So I rejected the rest and accepted UVic.
Then MPA offers came in, but I only cared about UVic at that point, and when they accepted me too, similar math, I was done.
But come July and my friend asking about Dalhousie, I realized they had never accepted me. Which was, honestly, just plain odd.
So I called them. And that conversation went about the way you would think it went. A snotty admissions officer said, “Wellll, you KNOW, we have very high standards.”
Uh-huh. Could she check? “Well, what was your undergrad marks?”
My 80% was good, she said, but then she moved in for the snotty kill…”Yes, but what was your LSAT mark?” she asked with as much condescension as possible. The phone lines were noticeably chilled.
If I was in person, I would have smiled sweetly, and I did try to put as much honey in my voice as possible as I said, “Well, pretty good. I did get 99th percentile.”.
She reluctantly asked me to hold and then went off to check. About two minutes later she comes back, and there was a noticeable thaw. “Mr. Sadler? Would you mind holding for another minute? I absolutely need to check something else, and it is very important, something is very wrong here.”
She came back on, and she was highly apologetic. Their computer system had my 80% undergrad score entered correctly. My LSAT was properly recorded as 47/48, 99th percentile. Everything was perfect in the system. And yet, when they ran their little reports, my name was not being selected for early, medium or even late admission. She was quietly FREAKING OUT.
I explained, again, as I had at the beginning, that I was really just calling out of curiosity. I was, definitely, 100% going to UVic, and that was not in question. She could have offered me a full scholarship, and I likely would have said no. Which then caused her to switch gears and ask me how far I lived from Toronto. My head spun for a second, I answered, and she asked me if I could come to an interview the next night in Toronto with the Dean. I reassured her, no, really, everything was fine, I was going to UVic, I had seriously just been curious. She, on the other hand, was frantic. She assured me I would still get a letter, which I told her I would duly reject, and she was very miffed that I wasn’t even considering.
We hung up, she went off to find out what had happened, and I went on with my life as if it was a curious incident. Until that night I got a call at home after work. My mom said, “Paul, there’s a serious-sounding man on the phone for you.” It was the Dean. He was in Toronto, doing interviews, and wanted to extend an invitation to me personally. I thanked him, and declined, explaining my heart really was set on UVic, and he assured me it was a good school. But he still wanted me to consider coming to Toronto for an interview, they’d pay for my transport, etc.
I admit I was tempted, but honestly, there was no point. I’d been through these types of interviews before, and what they look for is exactly why I had killed myself to get a high LSAT mark…I didn’t have all the extra-curricular experiences in high school and university that they were looking for, as manager of X group or Y club. I studied, I worked, that was about it. I knew admissions math, and I knew if I was “merely competitive” instead of automatic “in”, I might not get accepted. So I had put myself in the LSAT+marks group, got in, and was done. A scholarship interview would not have ended up with anything other than a maximum of a few thousand dollars in tuition for first-year compared with the income I would get from a co-op.
So I declined, and then he thanked me for having called. They had quietly freaked out for the rest of the day and found six other students with similar marks and LSAT scores who the system had “dropped” somehow from the reports, and he was quite concerned that they had missed us. I pointed out though that if any of the seven had really had their hearts set on Dalhousie, they would have contacted them LONG before I did. I was just scratching an itch, really.
But, as I said, I digress.
I went to UVic, I started first-year law.
My career was set. I would do first-year law, followed by a summer co-op. Then, over the course of four and a half years, I would alternate school and co-op and would graduate with a dual degree — an MPA and a full LLB. Since the LLB requirements are set by the Law Society, not the school, there were no “savings” in time for the law degree. They just accepted some transfer credits from law to Public Admin, and you got two degrees. Plus all the co-op experience. And co-op income. A great, well-thought-out, logical career path.
And then reality hit. I hated law school. Not law per se, but the way law students are trained to think, i.e. like lawyers. I could NOT stop seeing the people in the cases. Cases that had been over for almost a hundred years in another country made my blood boil. I saw wrongs that I wanted to right, while my fellow students saw a simple case citation, brief summary, interesting principle, and moved on. I was devastated by some of the cases. The law, truly, was an ass.
And if I wasn’t happy being a law student, would I be happy being a lawyer? Could I do 4.5 years of law school as a potential background for a job in government? And if I wasn’t happy in law, after careful planning, would I be happy in public admin either?
First-year law was a nightmare for me for a lot of reasons. While I had lots of friends in the residence, part of it was just my being alone, and being away from home. As my father had said, “I can’t help you with choosing a law school or university, but I can tell you, if you’re that far away, you’re going to get homesick and you won’t be able to pop home for a weekend like you could if you were at Queen’s or UofT.” Like always, I ignored his advice at my peril, and while I would still have chosen UVic, he was absolutely right. I did go home at Xmas, sure, but Peterborough wasn’t home anymore. My soul had moved on, and it had not found a new place to rest yet. Law school wasn’t it.
I finished the year, and the classes I liked, I did well in. Constitutional law. Law, legislation and policy. Things that had to do with the government. Contract? Torts? Property? Meh.
But I got a co-op job after about six interviews. They liked my law school stuff, and were intrigued by my future public admin side, but they REALLY liked that I also had computer skills. Really? That’s what they were hiring me for? Okay, why not. It’s a JOB. Take it.
i. Law Co-op student — This was my first real career-track job. I was hired by the Ministry of Education in B.C., and between being hired and actually starting, there was an election. And the Ministry became the Ministery of Education and Ministry responsible for Multiculturalism and Human Rights. I was working in the legislation and policy section, and nobody had ANY idea what those other responsibilities would mean. It didn’t affect my job though, at least not initially.
My job, for the most part, was to review and summarize legal cases that pertained to education in the province. Any case at any level that involved teachers, students, schools, principals, janitors, books, curriculum, etc. They wanted to build an internal database of one-page case summaries (i.e. backgrounders, although I didn’t know the term then) that they could use to brief Ministers, senior officials, etc. The issue, summary/background, outcome and case citation. It was AWESOME. I could see the point. I could see how they would use it.
I created a database in FoxPro on a MAC, everyone could access it, and I started building case summaries. They had some already, and I converted them over to a slightly new format, standardized it, and went to TOWN on the project. There were two actual lawyers in the group and three policy people. Plus me, some admin types, etc. and two other graduate co-op students. One was pulled off to do human rights stuff, the other more policy research. I wasn’t entirely sure I was doing real legal work, but I liked it. And I could see a career path. I saw some jobs that I liked.
I had found a home in government.
You have no idea how profound that sentence was to me. I knew I wasn’t cut out for dishwashing, or a bunch of other manual labour jobs that I wasn’t good at doing. If I couldn’t find a job in government, if government wasn’t right for me, my only backup plan was library science. And I didn’t even know then that you could switch disciplines and do a whole other degree from scratch, I just didn’t know anyone who had ever done that switch. So I was a bit desperate, I guess you could say, to both actually work INSIDE government, and to VALIDATE that I hadn’t been a completely ignorant career planner for myself.
While that statement is worth the price of admission to this blog entry, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out three other things I learned during that summer.
First, I learned about the difference between positions, authority and personal styles of management. I had a direct supervisor, a woman who was a senior policy person. But she reported to a director who had spent 25 years working in government. The old hand. And my first week there, he organized a meeting with me, and became very serious. He asked me to think about something overnight and we would discuss it the next day. Something fundamental to government and law. He asked me to think about what the difference was between unlawful and illegal. He didn’t want me to do any research, just to think about it, and we set a time the next day to discuss it. He told me it was a subtle difference, but I needed to know it.
So I went home and thought about it. I even pulled out Black’s Law Dictionary and read their definitions. The next day we met, and I suggested that “unlawful” meant something that was not authorized by the law (i.e. we didn’t have the power to do it) while illegal meant something that was actually against the law. I was quite proud of that nuance, and knew it was at least viable.
He stroked his beard, looked at me very solemnly and told me that it was a good try, but there was a subtle difference. Unlawful meant against the law. Illegal was a sick bird.
My boss’ boss, the Director, had set me up so he could say an elaborate pun. Ill eagle.
However painful that pun was, it taught me something valuable about the team. Yes, those law students and graduate students at the conference two years ago had talked about politics, and name-dropped Ministers and Prime Ministers and historical events. And yes, now that I was in government, I could see important files and issues around human rights, the right to education, legislation, policy, courts. But, at the core, government or more precisely the public service, was made up of people. People who could create an elaborate structure around setting me up for a really stupid pun, just because it was a way to lighten the day. We worked together, we laughed together. Years after I left, I still spoke to some of them, just to catch up. We drifted eventually, too little in common, too short a base, but I realized that the people who made up the team were as important to me as the files.
The second thing I saw was that for all the theories in public admin or law about how policy gets made, sometimes it is a lot simpler than you think. The year was 1992, and gay rights were NOT exactly commonplace. Two cases had made it up to the top of Ontario and Manitoba Courts of Appeal looking for same-sex couples to have pension benefits from their deceased partner. No one knew what would happen at the Supreme Court, but Ontario and Manitoba had split results — one said pension benefits were owed, the other said no marriage, no benefits. And people in B.C. wanted to know what our government position was and would be for the future.
I was asked to start phoning around. While the issue was one of human rights generally, it was mainly about education pensions. Teachers specifically. So it was not only human rights, it tied into our role on the Education Act. I called every province and territory in Canada to see if they had ANY plans in the works to do ANYTHING about it. Were they planning to legislate recognition, not for marriage per se, we were way too early for that in history, but for the pension benefits. Could teachers designate a same-sex partner as beneficiary? The implications were huge, and I was just doing research.
Manitoba and Ontario couldn’t comment, they were still in litigation consideration for appeals. Alberta and Saskatchewan were aware, but nothing planned. Yukon said, “Huh? You mean pro-actively do something?”. The NWT were on it. They had plans, they had drafts, most of which they expected to go NOWHERE, but they were on it. The Maritimes had very little. New Brunswick was monitoring and wanted to stay in touch.
I confess I was a bit naive on the sensitivity of the issue. I had gone to Trent University, which had the highest per capita gay population in Canada. I was at UVic, which had the highest per capita gay population (supposedly) in Western Canada. For me, it was administrative, not political. I knew people would be against it, but we weren’t talking legalizing marriage, we were talking about pension benefits. And, being naive, I did a sampling of the U.S. just to see if anyone was doing anything. Nothing in Washington (the state, not the capital). New York was aware, but monitoring responsively. They suggested Vermont or California. Vermont never returned my call, California wanted to know if we were going to apply it to all regulated professions (I had no idea what that even MEANT at the time).
Then I called Louisiana or Alabama. I don’t remember which it was. First, I had to explain where Canada was. Then B.C. Then what pensions were. They knew who the teachers were. When I got to explaining “same-sex” couples, they flatlined. They had no idea what that meant. After about 2 minutes of trying to explain to them what it meant, I said, “Like two men or two women who are couples.” He paused, and then said, “Well that’s just sick.” I put him down for a no, and he promised to never visit Canada in his lifetime if we were doing “those sorts of things up there”.
I typed up my research, gave it to my boss, she turned it into the background for a much more complex memo with the lawyers weighing in, and off it went to the higher-ups. It was mostly just a status quo memo, looking back, but the idea that MY RESEARCH was used as the basis of just seeing what others were doing rather than a complex review of principles and rules was eye-opening. They weren’t going to reinvent the wheel, and most legislative efforts start in the same place. They review the other jurisdictions in Canada to see what they have or are thinking of amending. Many years later, that same unit would have been heavily implicated in the Supreme Court case involving curriculum in Saanich and the use in primary grades of books with same-sex couples, where Justice Louise Arbour wrote one of the most important phrases to me in the history of Canadian law i.e. that “tolerance is always age-appropriate”. A drop-the-mic moment for Canadian legal writing.
The third thing I learned though is, again, easier to describe in retrospect than it would have been in the moment. I was a value-added worker. I was doing stuff they wanted to be done but didn’t have time to do themselves. Case summaries. Building a database. Researching. I came up with ideas. I added my own tweaks. I contributed. I acted like one of the team, and I became one of the team.
And when school started again, they wanted me to stay. Not the other co-op students, just ME. There was nothing wrong with the other students’ work, they just didn’t do the type of work I did and didn’t “embed” themselves as I had done. So the unit hired me to work part-time through the fall with them. They had NEVER done that with a student, hired them on. I was sold too. I loved them. I wanted to graduate and work with them forever. I even thought I might finish my law degree and see if I could article there.
If the government was my home, as I had learned, I wondered if a legislation and policy shop for a Ministry of Education could be my permanent residence.
I had no idea that fate was about to intervene and send me off in a very different direction.