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Four things I wish I had known in law school

|Written By Peter Rowntree
Four things I wish I had known in law school

It’s amazing how quickly three years goes by. Now that I’m a little more than halfway through my articles, I wanted to take time to reflect on my time at law school. I humbly offer up these four tidbits of advice.

1. Don’t take morning classes

I took income tax with the most amazing professor in second year. There was only one problem. It started at 8 a.m. and I’m not a morning person. Now that I have a grown-up job I am required to wake up way too early. I can’t even sleep in on the weekends because my stupid circadian rhythm is set to get me up at an ungodly hour. Do yourself a favour and allow yourself time to sleep in on weekdays. This is the last time in your life you’ll have this luxury until you are an old decrepit bag of bones. So make time to wake up at 9 a.m., fry up some bacon and eggs, and watch some SpongeBob before heading out to learn the law.

2. The importance of becoming an efficient researcher

When I needed to research a topic at law school, I spent some quality time with Westlaw. With deadlines often far off in the distance, I felt I had all the time in the world to try a multitude of search strings. Looking back, I might criticize my research technique as being a little inefficient. That was all well and fine in law school, but once I started my summer position I quickly discovered I had to change my technique in the interest of both time and money.

Perhaps one of the most daunting realizations for me was my research on Westlaw and Quicklaw would no longer be free. In considering the research I would have to do, potentially being given the classic summer/articled student task of having to produce some sort of answer to a question that examines an obscure area of the law, I had the added stress of a) not wanting to overcharge the client; and b) not wanting to look like an idiot to the billing lawyer by overbilling. At the same time, these concerns had to be reconciled with what should really be the main goal — producing accurate results.

I was relieved to learn, in the case of my firm, I am able to benefit from a research and opinions group whose members have specialized knowledge in the field of legal research. While not every firm has this capability, I found it’s a good idea to make friends with your library team, who can help you find ways to do more effective searches. If your firm doesn’t have either of these resources, the courthouse library is another great resource, as are the other lawyers at your firm.

If I could have started law school with this knowledge, I would have focused on refining my research skills to work more efficiently.

3. Start your exam preparations on day one

You’ve probably heard many times now there is way too much information in law school to be able to cram before the exams. Well, it’s true. By the end of law school, I was a master at creating course summaries (or CANs, or outlines, depending on where you go to law school), and have sometimes thought about how much easier law school would have been had I had the technique from year one. I will share with you my technique.

Before classes start, grab a few of the more recent summaries available for your courses. I would never recommend relying on another’s summary. However, having a few good summaries handy in lectures is great for when you miss the name of a case or miss a statutory provision the professor has just mentioned. Most importantly, start taking good notes from the first lecture, including as much detail as possible. After the lectures, you might want to compare your notes to the other summaries and your textbook to make sure you haven’t missed anything. Lastly, a few weeks before exams you should start whittling down your notes to only the most essential points. If you’ve been diligently working on your notes all semester, condensing them should be no problem. At that point you can try a few practice exams and feel pretty confident about the ones upcoming.

4. Law school is nothing like practice

If you haven’t already heard this 100 times, you should at least have a sneaking suspicion you’re not going to be sitting around playing judge after you graduate. Of course what you learn in law school is an important foundation to being a lawyer, but after I summered I found myself wanting to broaden my legal education. I wanted to do less case-focused courses, and try more practical courses.

Working at a full service firm, I end up being assigned a lot of corporate solicitor’s work. As many students do, I found my legal education to be lacking in solicitor-focused courses. So, upon returning from the summer I decided to take advantage of the opportunities my law school had in terms of solicitor’s training. There were a range of opportunities. I entered a contract drafting competition. I took “Art of the Deal,” a course taught by three partners from a large firm where we picked apart different deals and deal techniques throughout the semester. I also took “Negotiations,” which was completely different from any law school course I had taken.

Of course, this doesn’t only apply if you are going down the corporate path. If you’re interested in litigation, take advantage of legal services programs where you can get your hands on experience with real cases and clients.

So make the most of your law school experience. Three years really isn’t much time and does go by quickly. Have fun and enjoy the experience, but keep in mind you are there for a reason — make sure you are obtaining the skills you will need to succeed in your future career.

Peter Rowntree is a recent graduate of the University of Toronto Faculty of Law and is currently articling with Lawson Lundell LLP in Vancouver.


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