Ashley Syer started her law firm in 2014 because of one thing: Necessity.
“I graduated law school right after the economic crash,” she says, “and the market was bad. And the practice of law had not been kind to me.
“I had interviewed for an in-house job that would’ve been amazing, and then out of hundreds of applicants, I was their second choice.”
She asked for an explanation. She says she doesn’t think they were expecting the question, and so they gave her an honest answer:
“They said it was because I had taken a year off, when my parents were sick and had both died.”
Ashley was called to the bar in May 2010.
That October, her mom, Sandi, was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer (think: Steve Jobs and Patrick Swayze and Alex Trebek).
Seven months after that, in May of 2011, her dad, Bob, was diagnosed with brain cancer. Glioblastoma, “which is the big ugly kind,” Ashley says.
She got the news about her dad’s illness over the May long weekend. She was supposed to be leaving for the Galapagos, but she had to deliver the news to her brother. An hour later, the two of them were on a plane to the family home in Penticton, British Columbia.
“I thought I’d be there for two days, and I ended up there for three weeks.”
On the Tuesday after the long weekend, she called the firm to tell someone what was going on. She asked the person to relay the message about where she was to Paul (not his real name), a partner in her firm.
It later got back to Ashley that Paul’s reaction had been a barking: “Are you fucking kidding me?”
I was visibly shocked when she told me this, I think.
“One of the other partners in that firm had just lost his young son to cancer.”
I clarified: Did Paul decide to make that person’s tragedy, and your tragedy, about his own feeling that he was being inconvenienced?
“He’s got a big personality,” Ashley says, “and he seems like a compelling and fun character—until you take a deeper look.
“When I was at that firm, I got accidentally hung up on once by a client. I phoned them back, and I found myself shouting at the person on the phone.”
This is impossible to imagine her doing, and I told her so.
“That’s not me,” she agrees, “but that’s Paul. And I was learning from him. Not in a good way. He described me once as being like a pit bull. The comment didn’t land well for me, but he had meant it as high praise. And I thought, ‘Oh dear, that’s not who I am. Where am I learning this from? What am I becoming?’”
Paul and one of the paralegals pulled her into a conference room one day after she got back from caring for her parents. Paul said to Ashley: “I know you’re ‘little-d depressed’ because your life sucks right now, but are you ‘big-D Depressed’? Like, do we need to send you to a doctor?”
The firm fired Ashley a few months later.
They said she had become “unreliable.”
Paul invited her to drinks on a Friday afternoon in August of 2011, and they sat on the patio at Cactus Club restaurant, in Vancouver’s Yaletown.
“It’s no longer a question of if you’re leaving the firm, but when,” he told her.
She sighs here in relaying the story. But she is also semi-proud of what she did next:
“It’s that thing you always see in movies and you wish you could do,” she says. “I ordered another bottle of wine and told Paul exactly what I thought of him. I was quite upset. I got drunk. I demanded a severance payment. The amount wasn’t big enough, so I told him I’d take him to the human rights tribunal.
“And he told me I’d never work in this city again.
“And he was not wrong.”
Ashley said that, all throughout the illness, her mother was a powerful, tenacious fighter. The doctors cycled through a variety of treatments. Whenever one failed, Sandi would always say “What’s the next treatment?”
As for Bob, her dad, his only concern was for his wife; rarely did he want to discuss his own treatment options. Though he didn’t mind discussing the stock market.
The week before he died, Bob asked for his laptop to be brought to the hospital, and Ashley and her brother obliged. He’d always wanted to try day-trading, and he did, with Copper Mountain stock.
“He made like $2000,” Ashley says, smiling.
Her father died in December 2011.
Her mother died in July of 2012.
After her parents had passed, Ashley ended up at another small firm, which she thought was a good opportunity to pick up where everything had left off before her parents’ illness.
Her new firm had two partners, and she thought she’d have lots of opportunity to learn from them, and be mentored by them.
“And instead what I got,” she says, “was two partners who were going through divorces, and neither of them was in a position to provide any support or mentorship.”
After months of standing in their doorways begging for work, which was demeaning and disheartening, the three of them had a frank conversation wherein it was decided that, if things hadn’t improved, work-wise, by spring, that Ashley would move on.
Instead of waiting for the spring, though, the managing partner sent her an email on the last Friday before Christmas.
Before he sent it, he stood in the doorway of Ashley’s office and told her, “I’m about to send you an email, but don’t worry about opening it until the new year.”
“What file is it in reference to?” she asked.
“You knew this was coming,” he replied.
“What?” she said.
“Merry Christmas,” he said, and left her office.
Thirty minutes later, her inbox pinged. She was fired, effective immediately.
“I wasn’t in a position to fight it,” she says. “This was going to be my first Christmas without my family.”
She felt defeated, but started interviewing for the new job in spring.
When she asked them why the role had gone to someone else, she had expected some generic answer like “the other candidate had more experience.”
“But what I heard was that I hadn’t gotten it because I had taken time off while my parents were sick.”
She said it was striking, and particularly in lieu of the fact that it would be doing in-house work for a big company. “You’d think they would know better than to answer a question that way,” she said.
Fortunately, she got a call from her friend Mike, who said he knew of an office that had just opened up in a small space with three other lawyers, and did she want in?
Ashley doesn’t mince words: “He is the reason I’m still practicing law. Were it not for him propping me up, there’s no way I would still be doing this job.”
Ashley tries now to take that moment of beneficence and pass it forward to everyone who asks her for coffee to ask her questions like: How do you find work? How do you set up your own office? What technology should I use?
“For someone who didn’t get a job for failing to be properly mentored,” she says, “I feel like I do a lot of that for other people now.”
She’s proud of that.
When her parents passed away, Ashley gained some financial stability that allowed her to “do all of this,” at which she gestures to the gorgeous office around her.
“And part of the reason I’m proud,” she says, tearing up, “is that I think they would be proud.”
Today, Ashley has her own firm, and she has taken over a 3000-square-foot office overlooking Coal Harbour. She had the space renovated and shares it with eight other lawyers.
“If you had asked me when I graduated law school if this was a possibility,” she says, “I would’ve said absolutely not. And now I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Ashley enjoys her work, and she enjoys the freedom and flexibility it gives her to travel and also do shows (she’s also an actress and singer)
“I went to law school because I wanted to help people,” she says. “And because I thought Law and Order was cool.”
In other words, she wasn’t in it to make a lot of money, or because it was a fancy career. Ashley says the practice of law always felt very aligned to her interest in theater, but with a different audience. And she liked that she’d be able to help real people who had real problems.
“And because I’ve been on my own,” she says, “I’ve managed to shape this professional life that reflects who I am and how I want to do this job. And I’ve managed to do my job in a way that lets me do other things, meet great people, and enjoy my life. I’ve had some challenges at some pretty key points in life. I’m proud that I can do my job in a way that resonates with who I am.
“Life’s hard,” Ashley says. “Plans don’t go the way you think they’re going to. The universe throws boulders in front of you. And you have to figure out do you go around, do you go over, do you find some dynamite and blow them up?
“I think my younger self had this nice, idyllic idea that I would graduate law school, be married to the man of my dreams by 28, and be a partner at my firm by 32.
“Your life will not look the way that you think your life will look. In some ways it will be worse. But in some ways, it will be immeasurably better.”
Ashley Syer is a lawyer and mediator, and an actress, singer, photographer, and writer. Her next show, The Gazebo, runs at Metro Theatre from February 21-March 7, 2020. She lives in Vancouver.