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The journey of a lawyer: an interview with Colena Der, corporate lawyer

Updated: Jan 12, 2023

Youth Leaders in Law is a conference catered towards educating high schoolers around Canada about the field of law. As it can be difficult for high school students to find direct opportunities to be connected with lawyers, Youth Leaders in Law aims towards creating those opportunities. What better way of gaining insight into Law than hearing a lawyer’s first hand experience? Going forward, I interviewed Colena Der, a corporate-tax lawyer, about her job, education and experience as a lawyer.

Colena Der Biography:

I am a partner at Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP, in their Calgary office. I practice in the area of corporate tax.

I completed my undergrad at the University of Alberta, obtaining a bachelor of science. I went to law school at the University of Ottawa.

I first joined Osler as a 2nd year summer student and returned to article with them following the completion of law school. I have been working at Osler for 12 years.

  1. What was your experience in your chosen undergraduate program in university? From that experience, what pushed you to go into law?

I completed a bachelor of science in my undergrad, specializing in pharmacology. I really enjoyed the program. I loved the science courses and the labs. What peaked my interest in law was the Business Law course I took as an elective. The subject matter was appealing to me because it was analytical (a lot like the science courses), but against a framework of real world facts and practice application. Ultimately, what pushed me to law was when I realized that, while I enjoyed the study of science, the career paths with my degree were not appealing.

  1. What was the hardest part of the LSATs for you? What do you remember from studying for the LSATS?

The logic portion of the LSATs was the hardest for me. That was the part where I spent the most time doing practice exams.

I remember that the first few times doing practice LSATs was very difficult because the format and content of the tests was quite different from the tests in my undergrad. But with a few practice exams under my belt, I started improving my score and my time.

  1. What was your experience with law school? What was the most memorable event? The hardest part of law school?

My law school years are some of the most memorable years for me. People who go to law school come from such diverse backgrounds – liberal arts, science, engineering, business, mature students, etc. Your horizon and world perspective expands just by virtue of the people you meet and the discussions you have with your classmates. One of the greatest things about law school for me was the opportunity to meet people with different backgrounds and experiences than mine, and to become good friends with many of them.

The most memorable event was writing, and passing, the first round of exams. That felt like a real milestone and gave me confidence that I can succeed in law school.

The hardest part was second year, when recruitment for summer positions with law school began. The recruitment process is time consuming and, if you have not had a professional interview before, a very different experience.

  1. What type of law are you currently practicing in? What does your field of law entail / what are the main responsibilities of a lawyer in this field? What do you like most about your job? How would you describe the environment of a law firm?

I practice in the area of corporate tax. My job is to interpret the tax rules and provide guidance to clients on how those rules apply to them. More specifically, I help clients structure their business and operations in a tax efficient manner, I help clients identify potential tax considerations in transactions and assist clients to resolve disputes with the tax authorities.

I like my job, and my choice field, because it is challenging and allows/requires me to continuously learn because tax law is constantly evolving. I also like the fact that the projects I work on have a relatively short time line from start to finish. It is rewarding to see projects come to a conclusion and celebrate the tangible results with colleagues and clients. Finally, I like the fact that my work is very collaborative. Most of my files involve a team of coworkers (from across different disciplines) and clients, all pulling towards a common purpose or goal in mind.

  1. If anything, is there anything you would change in your past journey to becoming a lawyer?

No, I don’t think I would change anything in my journey to becoming a lawyer. I think all the experiences along the way (even though a lot of it was not directly legal in nature) have helped build up the skill set I have now and allow me to bring a different perspective to my work.

  1. What advice would you give to a student aspiring to be a lawyer?

First, don’t be too focused on getting “legal” experience in building up your resume. Before you get to law school, focus on work experience, volunteer work and other activities that help build up the “soft skills” that you need in the legal profession (eg. effective communication, client service, team work).

Second, there are many things you can do with a law degree. Don’t feel obligated to go into private practice at a law firm. Use the time before and during law school to figure out what you can do with a law degree.

Third, law is a very demanding profession. But don’t be daunted by stories that you hear about the long hours, steep learning curves, etc. It is also very rewarding when you find the practice area and career path that excites and motivates you.

We have gathered a lot of insight about the experiences of a lawyer from Colena and are super thankful for her to take the time out of her busy schedule to answer our questions! This is just a taste of the Youth Leaders in Law conference coming this 2021 where you will be able to ask your own questions to different lawyers. We look forward to seeing you there!

Meghan To

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