KNOW YOUR VLAWG: An Interview with Viva Frei

I first became aware of David Freiheit’s YouTube channel Viva Frei during a crossover episode he did with Desk of J. Dogood alum Stephen Cusato of Not Another Cooking Show. Intrigued, I clicked over to his channel and ended up finding one of the coolest YouTube shows out there. A practicing lawyer in Montreal,  David is best known for his VLAWGS— videos where he translates the latest current events into legalese for the rest of us—in a hilariously entertaining way. Exceedingly fair and apolitical, he breaks down information in a way that lets you make up your mind for yourself—a principle he holds dear and is passionate about. In between informing the public on what’s going on in the legal world, you also get a glimpse of him in the role of goofy dad on his adventures with his wife, three kids, and “Vlawg Dawgs” Barney and Pudge. “No one ever gets angry at seeing a dog in a video!” he jokes. David generously took time out of his busy schedule to chat with me, and it is my absolute pleasure to introduce you to the refreshingly fun and authentic Viva Frei.

The youngest of five, David was born and raised in Montreal, Canada. “Four of the five  kids studied law and became lawyers. My dad’s a lawyer, but it wasn’t the type of thing where we were forced or pressured into it. In the community in which we lived, you grew up with the expectation that you’re going to find a profession or take over the family business—but we didn’t have a family business to take over! I bounced around high schools for a bit before settling down in university to study philosophy. Then I did law in a French University in Quebec City; which, for anyone who doesn’t know, is a town of 150,000 people—85% French, and 15% Alaphone ( English or other.)  It’s a beautiful, old French town. When you go to a Faculty of Law, there’s a dozen or two English speaking kids in 1000 students—it was a totally different environment! So everything’s all in French. Exams are in French! It was  a fun thing getting involved and integrated in a totally new linguistic and social milieu. I wanted to come back to Montreal where my girlfriend—now wife—was, so after I finished I came back here and settled down.

David’s show is the perfect blend of artistry and information; a skill he credits to his previous study of philosophy. When speaking upon the subject, he remarks “My father always said, ‘You have to learn how to think before you can learn how to work.’ In the creative arts, you don’t necessarily learn practical skills; but you learn logic and you learn how to think. There’s no question having studied philosophy, it teaches you how to separate your emotions from your reasoning process, which I think is something that maybe more people should get in the habit of doing. Hopefully they learn that through osmosis from my channel!” he says laughing.

“It’s a tough thing, to not get clouded by your own emotions.” he continues. “ I mean—it happens to me sometimes—which is why to some extent that everybody who needs a lawyer, should NOT be their own lawyer. It’s difficult to dissociate your own problems to yourself; and it’s much easier to give other people advice that you yourself may not follow. But I think if everyone studied a little bit of philosophy before doing anything else, it would be good for humanity!”

David takes his viewers on the go with him throughout his day—walking his dogs, driving his wife to work, camping—all the while giving facts and highlights of the latest legal news of the day. It’s like having a fun and informative conversation with a busy friend, and the non-stop action is endlessly entertaining. He doesn’t use a script, because to him it feels unnatural. The result: videos infused with energy, giving life to subjects that would otherwise be potentially boring.

Sworn in in 2007, David worked in one of Canada’s biggest law firms for five years before leaving to start his own practice after his first daughter was born. “I started on my own, but what ended up happening was after about 7 years, I just couldn’t do litigation anymore, because I wanted to cry every day I had to  go into the office. So, at one point, when YouTube was picking up and I was able to supplement what I would lose by no longer doing litigation, I officially stopped doing it. I still do some transactional work just because YouTube doesn’t pay for a family of five type thing! I have a few good clients who I wanted to keep because I liked the type of legal work I was doing for them. I just don’t do litigation anymore.  I do transactional, corporate, contract review,  legal advice. But I gave up the litigation entirely because it’s just soul crushing and turns people into withered shells of who they ought to be in life.”

When I ask him to expound on this, he says “The litigation practice itself is just one of constant stress and constant fear and constantly looking over your shoulder— for what the opposing counsel is doing; for what your clients are doing!  Half your job is protecting your client from themselves, and the other half is protecting yourself from your client—because the lawyer is the client’s hero one day, and the enemy the next. It was just not a life that I could make for myself. I hit a wall. The phone would ring and my stomach would go into knots. Every time you talk to a lawyer on the phone, you’re always worried about whether or not you’re saying something that’s going to harm your file later or whether or not they’re going to use it against you—if it’s going to be something that hurts your client inadvertently. It’s warfare day in and day out. And I just said, ‘If I’m doing this in another 10 years, I’m going to be very unhappy with my own life.’ That was the decision to wind it up. The transactional stuff, you know, is a little more—I call it value added. At the very least, you’re working towards solutions even if you have diverging interests, whereas litigation, you’re just constantly fighting for victory—regardless of the truth type thing.”

“Some people like it!”he adds laughing. “I don’t want to cast judgment, but I’m always suspicious of anyone who says they like litigation—either the lawyers or  clients!

His journey from lawyer to Youtube extraordinaire started off by doing random, silly videos. If you need a chuckle watch his Wrecking Spartan video where he lip syncs to Miley Cyrus while running a Spartan race dressed in a suit and tie. His first video to go viral was when he managed to hoodwink a squirrel into carrying his GoPro up a tree. Upon viewing, one of his lawyer friends said that his videos reminded him of successful Youtuber Casey Neistat, but David didn’t know who he was. “I think it was November 2016 when I started making videos that were [being] seen—cooking stuff, etc. When I wound up my practice and we went on a road trip, I said ‘I’m going to do a vlog a day for the road trip, and when we get back, I’m going to see how long I can continue it for.’ I went for two plus years just putting up a video a day. Some would be very short, some would be longer; just for the exercise of creating content, editing—all that stuff. And then, what ended up happening is that I started making these videos about my experiences in law, which started getting good traction and interest. It was a natural transition. It’s proved to be pretty cool and pretty organic!

When asked what one of the biggest differences is between Canadian and American law, he says “It’s funny, I would have never have known: freedom of speech issues. I mean, I always thought Canada and the US were, you know, roughly the same. But now that I have delved into these issues in the States, and I see the the responses coming from the American demographic watching my videos, I can really appreciate how much more….what’s the word? Not sanctified…primordial! I mean, how much more fundamental freedom of speech in the States is compared to Canada. I always felt like, ‘We have freedom of speech,’ but you know, maybe some comedians should avoid certain jokes—maybe should avoid certain things. But then realizing what’s going on in the States and seeing what’s going on here and in the UK—which is a similar system to ours—it’s much more restricted or repressive. I’m realizing now that’s the biggest difference in the systems of law. It’s actually surprising to me, because I never fully appreciated it before.”

One hot button issue that David has had personal experience with is the controversy surrounding YouTube’s Terms of Service; ie. what’s permissible, what’s monetized, and what’s demonetized. He says, “That is an interesting subject, and one that is intriguing to people because it brings in all sorts of issues—legal issues, political issues, censorship issues, bias issues. I think people are loving it because it’s such an embodiment of George Orwell’s 1984 to some extent; that people are now seeing the actual embodiment or occurrence of what was otherwise just literary lore. It is amazing. It’s very interesting. And we’re going to see some developments in terms of, you know, the immunities that have been given to platforms versus publishers, to the extent that they behave more like publishers than platforms. In the era of what has been dubbed as ‘fake news,’ where everybody can now undeniably appreciate the the weakness and the death spiral of what they call legacy media; people see the way YouTube and the social media platforms are dealing with it. It lets people’s imaginations run wild as to why these social media platforms are looking to control, censor or otherwise deincentivize certain content, and it shapes the world in which we live. It’s fascinating because it’s been an evolution as to what the internet  started out as say, the Wild West—or less the Wild West as it has a negative connotation—but it was a place for absolute, unbridled freedom of speech and freedom of expression. And the issue now is the crackdown on it—and what appears to be a sort of arbitrary or politically incentivized crackdown. It is making people question the why, the how, and the when.

“On my channel, I think have a pretty decent balance of left and right. I may notice more  conservative comments, but I found that the left and the right, as individuals, as citizens, are fed up and are concerned by the way that things are going—even if they don’t necessarily agree with  their political adversary. They are now seeing how what applies to the right under certain circumstances, can apply just as easily to the left. It’s like what I said in my Tommy Robinson videos; ‘A procedural injustice today against someone you hate, is a procedural injustice against someone you love tomorrow.'”

This philosopher’s philosophy is that he wants to leave a positive existential footprint on the earth—YouTube included! “You know, one day when I pass away, maybe in 55 years, I don’t want anyone saying anything bad about me in my absence!”he says laughing.

You definitely see this mindset resonating throughout his videos, and he admits his channel probably would have grown much faster if he had taken the more mainstream route of an excessive, reactionary, opinionated style.

“For good or for bad, there’s a human tendency that bad reactions spread quicker than good reactions. And yet, all the channels that are very opinionated, very fear mongering, very sassy and name calling, they tend to grow, but then they hit a plateau,  where in order to keep growing you have to keep getting more excessively eccentric and extreme in the commentary. And then there’s a point at which you just explode because it’s not  sustainable. My growth has been steady but slower because I  stuck to the non-hyper-political, non-hyper-opinionated commentary. There’s enough channels out there giving  commentary and opinions; I don’t think the world needs another sassy, witty, opinionated commentator. People could use information and come to their own opinions. And it was one of the learning lessons that I got, actually from one of Casey’s videos which struck me as being totally out of character; and I realized why I hated it so much when he made a ‘Vote for Hillary Clinton’ video. It’s nothing to do with political affiliation, I would have reacted the same if it were someone who was non-political by nature, but giving me their opinion on why I should vote for Trump. I don’t need someone to tell me what to think. And I don’t need someone to tell me what to do. And I don’t want people thinking that I’m telling them what to think and what to do. And nor do I want people relying on me so that they can justify their own opinions! I’d rather people absorb the information and come to their own opinions. That’s much more in line with what I feel comfortable with. I’d rather be the purveyor of information, than the purveyor of my opinion!

When I ask him why he chose the name Viva Frei, funnily enough it comes back around to freedom again. “It was a totally random name! My last name is Freiheit , which literally means ‘freedom’ in German. So, I’m sitting there thinking and I came out with ‘Viva Frei’ sort of like ‘Live Free,’ and it stuck! For the first three years everyone was telling me that I have to change the name because people will think it says Vivian and that I’m a woman—but I’m stubborn! I said, ‘That what was it was born as, and for good or for bad I want to keep it like that! I’m not going to continually rebrand myself in the hopes that something catches!’ That was it: ‘Live Free.’”

Viva Frei recently reached the impressive milestone of 100,000 subscribers, and as far as this humble correspondent is concerned, he deserves several million more! If you are curious about the world around you, and are looking for a fun and informative show;  Viva Frei is the channel for you! Any objections? Well,then…that is just simply out of order! 😉

You can catch David and the rest of the Frei gang l on his channel here!

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