From Dalhousie to Silicon Valley: words of wisdom
By Keith Lehwald in the Faculty of Law’s Hearsay Magazine.
At first glance, the Skype conversation could not have been more of a meeting of opposites. On one end, a spacious, bright California home filled with natural light. On the other, a dimly lit apartment in Halifax with the special brand of misery outside that Nova Scotians know as “January.” Despite this stark contrast, Rafik Bawa (LLB’97) and I had at least one major thing in common when we spoke to each other: we both went to law school at Dalhousie.
Now associate general counsel for eBay Inc. in San Jose, Bawa graduated from Dal in 1997 and articled with Stikeman Elliott in Calgary. He stayed there for a short time as an associate, but within three years he decided to move to California to pursue opportunities arising from the Internet boom.
“Honestly, I think it was just the fact that I was young and I didn’t have any commitments, and I was adventurous,” said Bawa of his decision to head south. “Maybe it was the weather; maybe it was the connection I had to the kind of work that was being done here and the ability to really get your hands dirty quickly, which is what Silicon Valley offered.”
This was especially true at the time that Bawa first moved stateside. He found work relatively quickly at Wilson Sonsini, a firm in Palo Alto with many tech-sector clients. At the time, most of the tech companies and the law firms that supported them were young enterprises with relatively flat hierarchies that were constantly hungry for new hires. This unique set of circumstances allowed Rafik, still young himself and with little experience, to take on roles with greater responsibility than most relatively junior lawyers. “You were thrown into the fire and just had to learn as you went along,” Bawa said. “And to me, that was really exciting.”
However, the odds of success were not exactly in his favour. Bawa told me that at the time he wrote the bar exam in California, the pass rate for people who did not go to law school in the United States was around 25 per cent. Although he called the bar exam process “daunting,” Bawa took it in stride. “You had to approach it like any other challenge,” he said. “The firm was kind enough to give me eight weeks off to prepare for the bar. I came back home to Canada to prepare, and just basically shut the door and didn’t tell anyone I was back. It was a 10-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week assignment, and it was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done.”
Bawa’s hard work paid off. He passed the bar in California and continued to work with Wilson Sonsini. There, he had the opportunity to work with many rising tech giants like Google and Netflix back when they were just starting out.
“When I look back at that time, the reaction to companies like that was much like it is to many startups today: interesting idea; not really sure it’ll get off the ground,” he said. He specifically cited Netflix’s original business model—mailing out rental DVDs and having people mail them back when they were done—as one that drew skepticism, but he kept an open mind. “Like any other company, there’s no silver bullet. You don’t look at a company and say, hey, this one’s a winner. At that stage, it’s really a bit of a crapshoot, frankly.”
Working with Wilson Sonsini also changed Bawa’s life in another way when he fell in love with one of the other lawyers at the firm. They are now married with two children. This chain of events transformed Bawa’s California adventure into a feeling that he had found his new home.
After spending several years with Wilson Sonsini, Rafik joined eBay Inc. as internal counsel in 2005. By the time Bawa arrived, eBay was a much more established company than several of his former clients, but it was more than job security that made him fall in love with the company. “EBay was one of the first companies, if not the first, to really understand the basic premise that people are basically good,” he said. “If you believe that, and if you rely on that for your business model, then you can accept a business model that says, hey, I’ll buy something from you and send you the money, and you promise to send it to me.”
“I think a lot of skeptics really debated and didn’t accept that notion. But what we realized is that eBay’s customers—buyers and sellers—accepted that notion, so much so that they created an ecosystem that was built around that trust.”
Bawa believes that this ecosystem of trust paved the way for modern social networks. He told me that the same kind of trust that allows you to buy and sell with individuals around the world is what allows you to feel comfortable with sharing parts of your life online that you otherwise might keep private. He also sees this model as continuing to evolve, as evidenced by new businesses like Airbnb, which connects travellers with people with rooms to rent, and Uber, a car-sharing service that is challenging traditional taxi industries around the world.
Think like a lawyer…or not
Working at eBay also taught Bawa a very valuable lesson of being internal counsel: how to not think like a lawyer all the time. “I had to quickly learn how to be a businessperson, first and foremost, who just happened to be a lawyer,” he said. “Every issue you have, every problem you’re trying to solve, you come at it not from the perspective of what are the legal concerns or how could this go wrong, but instead—how do we make this happen in a way that mitigates legal risk? It’s not a question of if we can do it; it’s a question of how we can do it.”
Bawa also noted a couple of important skills for an in-house lawyer to have, particularly the ability to think creatively and to influence people. “Sometimes in-house lawyers are in a position where they have to influence without authority, where they have to say no without actually saying no,” he said, calling this particular ability an important life skill.
(He was, incidentally, quite happy to hear that Ury and Fisher’s Getting to Yes had become required reading in civil procedure at Dal. He also recommended Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People as one of his own personal favourites.)
When asked what his typical work day is like, Bawa had some trouble nailing down that concept. “I might walk in in the morning and be working on an acquisition for a new site in Brazil,” he said. “After lunch, I’ll be pulled in by one of our general managers saying, hey, we just lost an employee to a competitor. What can we do? Do we have anything we can do to protect ourselves against confidential information that might be lost?”
However, this variable and sometimes hectic work schedule has not prevented Bawa from carrying on a healthy home life with his wife and children. He credits modern communications technology as being a great help in that regard. “The devices that we have today allow us to extend our work into what were typically considered personal hours and even our vacation time,” he said. “You can look at that as a negative, or you can look at that as a positive.
“In my perspective, it’s a positive, because […] it creates flexibility. If I need to leave work at 3 pm to go catch my son’s soccer game, I can do that. I can take a quick conference call or send a text to someone who might be working on that crazy deal. At the same time, I can log in after my son’s been in bed for an hour and finish up the emails that I missed. That flexibility, to me, really assists with work-life balance, and I embrace it.”
Although maintaining that balance can be a struggle at times, Bawa feels that the payoff is worth it. “When you love what you do, when you have a passion for it, it becomes less of a job and more a part of life,” he said. “And so, like any other part of life, you make it fit in.”
Bawa had some specific tips for anyone thinking of starting their own career in Silicon Valley. “It is a real meritocracy. It is a place where, despite your background, despite whom you know, you can really get ahead if you’re smart and if you have something to offer. If you do something well, you’ll be noticed.”
However, Bawa also advised against actively trying to get noticed. “I think if you try to stand out and be someone special, it can actually hurt you,” he said. He told me that the culture of “the Valley” is actually quite modest, saying, “You’ll walk into a Safeway and run across a guy buying a Kit Kat in flip-flops, and he could be worth $400 million. […] It’s not a flashy place, despite the high cost of housing.”
Canada and Dalhousie still live in his heart
Although he loves his adopted home, Bawa still misses the “sense of consistency” that Canada provides for him. The contrast was particularly fresh in his mind at the time of the interview since he had just returned from visiting family in Vancouver over the holidays.
“What I notice in the United States is that there are extremes,” he said. “There are extremes in wealth and in poverty. There are extremes in the type of people and the personalities that you meet. Everyone in Canada is nice. Everyone knows that.”
Despite his unconventional career path, his law school experience is an instantly relatable one. “My most distinct memory, I think, is where I lived. I found myself living in a small flat above an Indian restaurant on Quinpool Road. We had a five-bedroom house; there were four guys and one girl. The room I had was formerly a walk-in closet. It was actually so small that I couldn’t fit my futon into it without folding it up like a sofa. But the problem was that the floor of the flat was slanted; it seemed to be sinking into the Indian restaurant below. So what would happen is that I’d be in this futon, but I’d roll out of bed at night and fall onto the floor. And I remember the window – it did have a window, but it faced a brick wall.”
Thankfully, Bawa has many happy memories from his time there to counter the pain of falling out of bed. “What made it really fun was the fact that I had four awesome roommates. We would hang out together and just have a lot of fun together, and I learned a lot.”
He also fondly remembers his classmates at Dal for their fascinating diversity, both in terms of prior studies and of where they came from. “I think what’s unique to Dal is that you had people from all over the country,” he said. “It wasn’t a commuter school. It wasn’t a school where people came in, and then they went back home to their families at night. A lot of the kids were not local. You were almost forced to make your own family, and that’s what I did.”
When I asked him about any courses or professors that stood out in his memory, one example immediately came to mind.
“I remember contract law,” he said. “[Professor Richard Devlin] really had me on my toes. He was the first professor I ever had who used the Socratic method, who pushed questions on people, and it really pushed me to be prepared more than ever before for any class. I kind of hated it, but I think looking back on it, it really prepared me to be able to think on my feet and communicate effectively. It set the stage, I think, for a lot of my career.”
Advice for students and young grads
“Be open-minded about the courses you choose,” he said. “Don’t get too focused on courses that are specific to technology or specific to an area of law that is of interest to you. Instead, get a good, broad base of knowledge and take courses that will help you in many different disciplines, because very little of what you’ll learn will be applied on the job.”
“Companies are always looking for people that are at the cutting edge, that can think creatively and innovatively. It’s not just that they can develop interesting software; it’s that they’re able to provide a unique perspective, and unique perspectives require creative thinking. Anything that can allow you to have broader experiences, I think, is what I would focus on.”
I also asked Bawa what he would go back and change if he could.
“I would have taken more drama classes. I think a lot of what you need to do, especially as you get more senior in your career, is learn how to step into the shoes of other people. I think the dramatic arts particularly teach you those skills. That subject area also teaches you how to communicate well.”
“I think those are skills that people, especially coming right out of law school, underestimate. They’re focused so much on the actual tangible blackletter law and the substance of what they’ve learned that they forget that the ability to relate to people and the ability to influence people and the ability to empathize with people is what really makes people successful in the long run.”
Despite having taken a big gamble in his move to California, Bawa also regretted not taking more risks while he was at university, noting that doing so is much easier when you do not have a family to worry about.
He also gave some words of wisdom for people who might be nervous about their own risks not working out. “Especially in Silicon Valley, but today more than ever in the rest of the world, failure is not looked upon really as a failure. It’s looked upon as a learning experience. If you approach life like that and you realize that failures are learning experiences, then you will take more risks. Those risks can lead you down paths that I think you never would have envisioned before.”
Bawa and his incredible journey are living proof of the truth of those words.