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Big versus littler

|Written By Ryan Edmonds

If you thought first year was bad, wait until the stress hits in second year. After all, this is when most students apply for those oh-so-important summer jobs that will invariably chart the course of their future career.

Big firm? Small firm? Specialty boutique? What type of law do I want to practise? These are big decisions to make after only one year — or even weeks in some cases — of law school.


Deciding which path to go down this early in the game is not easy. There are many pros and cons to both the big- and small-firm experience. Small firms and boutiques have a lot to offer students in terms of practical and hands-on training, but will rarely be able to match the variety of law available at big firms.


For some students, this variety can help with deciding which road to follow. Take Kate McNeil, who was a student at McCarthy Tétrault LLP’s Toronto office. Coming into, and all through, law school, McNeil was sure she wanted to practise corporate law. She took all transactional and corporate courses in her first three years of law school (she did a four-year JD/LLB) and spent two summers in McCarthys’ business law group. However by her third summer, McNeil’s student director insisted she do an advocacy rotation. She chose labour and employment, thinking it might resemble corporate law, but instead found a new calling. “After discovering labour law during my last summer, my articling year was a chance for me to figure out what kind of practice I really wanted — a people practice or paper practice,” says McNeil. Of the four required rotations, she spent one in business, one in bankruptcy, and two in an extended litigation/employment and labour law rotation. At the end of the 10 months, her choice was clear: “I chose the people practice.”


Now an associate in McCarthys’ labour and employment group, McNeil is the first to tout the benefits of being a student at a big firm. “The variety and structure of the rotations allows you to try different things in a safe environment. You’re able to explore a variety of interests and sink your teeth into them for two to three months.

The big-firm experience gives you the chance to try something random, like broadcasting law. If I had worked at a boutique securities firm, I never would have ‘discovered’ labour law. And while that would have been fine, I now know that it wouldn’t have been right for me.”


Laleh Moshiri, the director of professional development at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP, echoes this sentiment. “Our priority is to expose students to a number of different areas, since what you study in school is often very different from what you end up practising.” To this end, in addition to rotations through its practice groups, BLG also offers students client secondments, as well as rotations to different offices in Canada. For example, students in Toronto could work in the energy law group of BLG’s Calgary office.


At big firms, there are also big benefits. In addition to the weekly training workshops, extensive mentoring programs, and prestige that will stay on your CV forever, there’s the compensation. The 2008 Toronto law student application book indicates that summer and articling students at Toronto’s big firms can look forward to at least $1,300 per week in addition to such perks as articling bonuses, gym memberships, and, in some cases, benefit plans. “No one pays better than Bay Street for student jobs,” says McNeil. “How many 25 year olds do you know who make that kind of money?”


However, these benefits don’t come without a price. “There’s lots of work,” says Moshiri. “Lots of interesting high-end legal work, but lots of it.” For students, this means long hours, and often a substantial work-life imbalance. McNeil admits to working evenings and weekends as a student, but says she still made it up to the cottage now and then. “It’s just a new lifestyle. Students have to understand that law is a service industry and clients have expectations.”


But at least one Bay Street alumnus who worked in both a big and small firm has doubts about his big-firm experience. “The thing with being a student at a big firm is that they only teach you how to build Cadillacs, because that’s what their clients demand and that’s what their clients can afford,” says the Osler Hoskin & Harcourt LLP summer, articling, and associate alumnus, who preferred not to be named. “Once you get out there, you realize two things — one, that not everyone needs a Cadillac, and, two, that even if they did, not everyone can afford one.”


Micheal Simaan, the director of student recruitment at 70-lawyer Torkin Manes Cohen Arbus LLP in Toronto, agrees with this assessment. “At a large firm, you’ll often only get a small section of a section of a section of a file. It will be very high-end legal work, but you’ll have no idea who the client is.”


Contrast this to the small-firm experience, where the clients are simultaneously the most rewarding and frustrating part of the job. “Clients can be challenging,” says Kimberlea Cartwright, who just completed her articles at two-lawyer Zubas & Milne in Toronto. “I never knew until I had my own.” Still, the University of Victoria graduate says, she wouldn’t have traded her experience for anything. Being the only student in a busy boutique, Cartwright had lots of responsibilities. She’d conduct interviews, provide cost-benefit analysis, represent clients before administrative tribunals, draft letters and pleadings for her principal, and in some cases even settle files with opposing counsel (although during negotiations she did have to disclose she was a student-at-law).

“Without doubt, the practical aspects of law are best experienced in a small firm,” says Cartwright. “The small firm is what prepares you for when a client is sitting across from you and wants an answer.” And when she needed an answer, Cartwright was grateful to have her principal only a stone’s throw away.


The downside to working in a small shop is very clear to her, though. “We just don’t have the resources that the bigger firms have,” she says. “When a complex piece of litigation comes in, we’re very limited in terms of how many we can handle.” As for compensation, it’s certainly not Bay Street. “Maybe half that, with no benefits.”


But what if you could take the hands-on and practical training of a small firm and combine it with the resources and complexity of work available at the big firms? In many ways, that’s exactly what students can expect from Canada’s litigation boutiques.


Twenty-four-lawyer Paliare Roland Rosenberg Rothstein LLP receives over 600 applications for four second-year summer positions. “We look for students with what we call the ‘hardware,’” says Andrew Lewis, the partner in charge of the firm’s student program. While some boutiques will emphasize certain areas of litigation over others, advocacy is what they all have in common. “Most students already know that they’re litigators, sometimes even before law school,” says Nina Bombier, head of the student program at Lenczner Slaght Royce Smith Griffin LLP. “If you’re even remotely unsure about what you want to do, then go to a big firm and get a taste of different things,” says Lewis. “Our firm is all about advocacy.”


But if you are sure that a pure litigation practice is for you, then boutiques have much to offer, from competitive-with- or greater-than-Bay-Street salaries to an engaging hands-on experience with some of the most complex litigation out there. “We were just in Federal Court representing Friends of the Earth, on a pro bono basis, trying to force the federal government to comply with the Kyoto Protocol,” says Lewis, who notes his firm often represents interveners before the Supreme Court of Canada.


There are no rotations at most boutiques, where students instead take assignments from any lawyer in any given area. “The real objective is to get the student to participate in the litigation process and assume as much responsibility in as many areas as possible,” says Bombier. “The best way to learn is by ‘doing.’”


However when all is said and done, there is still no right answer as to which path students should go down, especially after only one year of law school. “You have to be very honest with yourself about what you’re looking for and what you’re prepared to do,” says McNeil. “If it’s not a fit, don’t do it. The idea is to be happy with your job and engaged in your work. If you’re just looking for the big firm to pay down your debt faster, it’s not going to be a good experience.”


And if you think you’ve made a misstep somewhere along the way? As McNeil’s story shows, keep an eye out for serendipity. You never know — it might just lead to a great future in a field you had never considered before. n


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