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Bidding adieu to articling

Lessons learned through these 10 gruelling months
|Written By Wela Quan
Bidding adieu to articling
Photo: Comstock

For most Ontario students who started their articling year in August 2010, the end is finally near. After 10 months of what one can only describe as slogging, there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel. While some have started to make summer travel plans, most of us are walking around these days with barely containable nervousness. The proverbial elephant in the room is now more of a lion in the Serengeti hungry for its next unsuspecting articling student.

As the hire-back numbers roll in and students assess the damage, I started thinking about my own journey through this process. Without a doubt, this has definitely been one of the hardest years of my life, both physically and emotionally, even at the best of times. Every law student hears horror stories about articling, every partner remembers their articling year vividly, and now having been through it, I understand why. Even though my articling year was as much of a struggle as everyone else’s, I do believe articling had its benefits.

In bidding adieu to my articling year, I would like to share a few lessons I have learned throughout these 10 months and hope that they will help shed some light on this experience.

Lesson 1: Lawyers are in the service industry

Though many people may not consider the legal sector as a service industry, in reality being a lawyer is about dealing with people. Like it or not, the sooner you admit this, the better. As an articling student, you may not have that many opportunities to work directly with clients, but I am not talking about paying clients. During your articling year, your true clients are the lawyers you work for. They are the ones you report to, the ones you submit your work to, and ultimately the ones who judge you. This means several things.

First, take this opportunity to get to know different lawyers. Whether it’s to establish a good reputation or learn more about different practice areas, taking the time to get to know the lawyers you work with will pay off. Having a good relationship with the lawyers at work is important not only to secure a hire-back but to ensure that in the event you do not get hired back, you will still have personal cheerleaders.

How each organization decides who to bring back will likely remain a mystery to you but getting let go does not mean you failed completely. Having spent 10 months somewhere, you are bound to have lawyers who are willing to go to bat for you. Those relationships are so important because they will be your source of information for job opportunities and provide you with the references to help you secure a position somewhere else.

Second and more importantly, “man is a political animal.” Blame my political science bias if you like, but Aristotle was certainly referring to lawyers when he made this observation. Every organization is political in nature and for better or for worse, articling students may find themselves dealing with situations beyond their control. In those cases, the only thing you can do is to control what you can. You may not be able to control the politics but you will always be able to control your work product and, more significantly, your attitude.

Do not get bogged down with what other students are doing or which senior partners they are working for because only you control how you play the game. Every articling student works hard, but hard-working students get cut all the time. The ones who get hired back have not necessarily worked harder than the ones who didn’t, but were likely the ones who understood how to act according to what their lawyer-clients wanted.

Lesson 2: Tabula rasa

Approach articling with an open mind so that you will be able to take away from the experience everything you can. Be it learning how to practise law, about the industry, or about your own interests, articling was created as a learning process for you so do not lose sight of that.

Although some students start off their articling year knowing exactly what they want to practise, many stumble into articling without a clue as to what area of law they are interested in. Even those who think they know what they want to do may discover something new during their articling year if they approach it with a tabula rasa mentality.

I used to always envy my friends who went to the United States to practise because in the U.S. there is no articling. Why did I have to spend another year of my life being a “student-at-law” when I’ve already graduated from law school? In hindsight, I am glad I went through articling because it gave me 10 months to figure myself out and make mistakes before actually having to face real consequences. After accepting an associate position, one of the articling students in my cohort said, “It gets real since they can actually sue me now.”

I feel like I learned a lot during my articles. When I summered with my firm, I spent four months working in our corporate law department. When I returned to article, I spent another five months working on corporate deals until we had to rotate into our litigation department. It wasn’t until a month into my litigation rotation did I realize that I had actually been working in the wrong department this whole time. Our firm’s mandatory rotation saved me from an unsatisfying life as a corporate lawyer when I am really meant to be a litigator. If your articles include mandatory rotations, give these other areas of law an honest shot. If you do not have rotations try to seek out a variety of work. You never know what you will discover about the practice or yourself in the process.

Lesson 3: You choose how the story ends

During my articling year, my roommate (who is also an articling student) and I had many conversations about what we wanted to do after articling. We talked about getting hired back, we talked about not getting hired back, we even talked about quitting it all and becoming housewives. Towards the end of my articles, I discovered a poem by R.L. Sharpe that beautifully sums up how I hope future articling students will view their own articling year.

[em]Isn’t it strange, how princes and kings,

and clowns that caper in sawdust rings,

and common people like you and me,

are builders for eternity?

To each is given a list of rules,

a shapeless mass, a bag of tools,

and each must make ‘ere time has flown,

a stumbling block or a stepping stone.[/em]

No matter what happens, whether you are hired back or not, you are the author of your own story and you get to choose how your story ends. Instead of dishing out feel-good anecdotes about rejected candidates going on to do better things (which they do), I will close with an anecdote about an acquaintance who literally wrote his own ending.

Being the only articling student in his firm, Jim Acquaintance was told very early on that his firm would not have the resources to hire him back after his articles. Even though he could have resigned himself to his fate, he decided instead to work hard so as to show his worth. At the end of his articles, instead of letting his firm toss him aside, he marched directly into the managing partner’s office. He made a case as to why he should stay and how he had proven that there was enough work for them to keep him. In the end, his firm created a position for him that did not exist in the first place. He wrote his own ending and you can too.

Congratulations to all the articling students of 2010-11, you made it through and the best is yet to come!

Wela Quan completed her articles at Stikeman Elliott LLP and received her two law degrees from McGill University. A proud Albertan, she went to and worked for the University of Alberta prior to her life as a lawyer. She can be reached at wela.quan@mail.mcgill.ca.

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