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The adventures of a first-year in London

Trial by Fire
|Written By Elizabeth Montpetit
The adventures of a first-year in London

I drank an alarming amount of tea during my first year as a lawyer — two cups in the morning, sometimes three in the afternoon. I went from never having had a cup of tea in 28 years to developing a serious addiction. This was due to spending my first year as a lawyer somewhat differently than most of my 2011 call counterparts — I spent the year in London, England working for barristers as a Fox Scholar.

The Harold G. Fox Scholarship program sends English scholars to work at Bay Street firms in Toronto and Canadians to do a “pupilage” in the Inns of Court in London. I rotated through three different sets of chambers (Four Pump Court, Fountain Court, and Essex Court), which all specialize in commercial litigation. Cue the tea addiction.

My introduction to the British legal world was an invitation to attend the “Opening of the Legal Year,” an elaborate service given at Westminster Abbey to bless the upcoming legal year and usher in fairness and justice, replete with a sermon by the Archbishop of Canterbury and judges and barristers attending in full ceremonial garb — robes, wigs, and all. Basically pomp and circumstance, legal-style.

Although I mostly worked on commercial law cases, the nature of the split profession is such that barristers are essentially “hired guns” who will often accept whatever work is offered to them by solicitors. This made for an interesting mix. One barrister asked me to write the pleadings in an animal law case involving a horse that had been spooked by dogs running by in a foxhunt. The 8-year-old owner was suing for the damages caused to her injured horse (horses and foxhunts — a continuing fixation in British culture). Another barrister asked me to write a draft factum for a Supreme Court case involving the definition of “terrorism” (post 9-11 and 7-7, another British fixation). So yeah, there was definitely diversity along the way.

While it may not have been your typical first-year associate experience, I had a pretty phenomenal year living and working in London. As I look back on it, while settling back into life at my firm in Ottawa, here are a few things I got out of my time there:

1.    England is, quite literally, the home of the common law system. Therefore English law is one of the most frequently used jurisdictions in choice of law clauses or arbitration clauses in commercial contracts, making London a focal point for high-quality commercial litigation with a distinctly international flavour. London also has a well-developed international arbitration scene, and is home to the London Court of International Arbitration. This resulted in my exposure to a year’s worth of interesting and complex international commercial disputes — a combination I simply could not have seen anywhere else.

2.    The nature of the U.K.’s split profession means barristers are the advocacy experts and solicitors are, well, the paper-pushers and babysitters. The solicitors manage the clients and the documents, whereas the barristers are entrusted with crafting the legal arguments and then delivering them. It’s a remarkable division of labour that actually works quite well.

One of the main benefits of the Fox Scholarship was being able to see different advocacy styles and what worked, and what didn’t. While in London, Fox Scholars attend two advocacy courses with other pupils and young barristers. The first was a two-week “boot camp” involving lectures and workshops where we had to perform different advocacy exercises on a daily basis. The second was a weekend course — held at a manor house called Cumberland Lodge on the grounds of Windsor Castle — involving a more intensive version of the workshops. Both were pretty brutal in that they required a lot of preparation, and then a lot of criticism. But they were an excellent way to keep my oral advocacy skills sharp.

3.    I realized how important it is to have a firm grasp of the procedural law of your jurisdiction. As an articling student in Ottawa, I was familiar with the Rules of Civil Procedure, but arriving in a new jurisdiction made it all the more obvious how valuable it is to know the rules and how to use them in different situations and to your advantage. England’s procedural rules are captured in The White Book and it was something I got to know well, and quickly. Those who knew the rules stood apart from those that didn’t, giving me something to aspire to.

Being a Fox Scholar gives you more than just interesting legal experience — it also gives you the priceless experience of living in the centre of the greatest city in the world. Fox Scholars are invited to live at Goodenough College, a post-graduate residence housing masters and PhD students from all over the world. It’s kind of like an Oxford/Cambridge-style college right in the heart of London and (ridiculous name aside) it is a pretty amazing place to base yourself.

I knew it was going to be a good year when I found out in November the Queen was going to pay us a visit to celebrate the college’s 80th anniversary. I was fortunate enough to be introduced to her personally — I shook her hand (which was wearing a lovely black glove, while the other held her matching black handbag) and spoke with her for a few seconds. Although it’s all a bit blurry, I can state with confidence that none of my 2011 call counterparts met the Queen during their first year as a lawyer. Now if only we could have had a cup of tea together.

Guest columnist Elizabeth Montpetit is an associate at Perley-Robertson Hill & McDougall LLP in Ottawa where she successfully completed her articling term in 2011 and now specializes in international arbitration.


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