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Three articling myths

|Written By Peter Rowntree
Three articling myths

It’s no secret articling can be stressful. For many students, this is their first time working in a law office. Even those who have summered have probably heard stories about how different articling is, and have preconceived notions of how their lives will change over the year. In this article, I hope to dispel some of those myths.

1. You can’t leave your office

It’s true the amount of required face time varies firm to firm, but some students take this idea to extremes. I’ve heard of a student who found being unavailable so unnerving that, each time she left her office, she would put a Post-it note on her door to let the lawyers know where she had gone. Even for short trips to the washroom!

The truth is, whether we like it or not, articling students are already available 24/7 thanks to our smartphones.

If your services are urgently required, don’t worry — someone will reach you. Whether it be an e-mail at 11:30 p.m. or a voicemail on your office phone at 11:30 a.m., it’s not hard to get a hold of a student. So, although a Post-it note updating colleagues on your bowel movements may save the lawyer in question a minute or two, as long as you’ve got bars on your phone you’ll be fine.

In fact, getting out of your office and meeting people is an important part of being a student, because it’s not true that:

2. Students don’t have clients

When asked to describe the differences between a student and a lawyer I’m willing to bet that, among the myriad answers, students reply that they don’t have clients.

This is certainly how I felt until a conversation with a partner changed my mind. He began by talking about how students are typically assigned work: a lawyer will knock on their door or shoot them an e-mail. If you keep your door closed and work away on your assignments, you might never have to leave your office. You can do a great job, e-mail the assignment off to the assigning lawyer, and continue on to your next task.

However, if you take this approach you won’t have much control over your eventual placement within the firm.

This partner believes students should treat partners as if they were their clients. In the same way partners control their workflow by building relationships with their clients, students have to build relationships with partners.

If you are interested in tax, for example, go knock on a tax partner’s door and let them know. It might not happen then and there, but when that partner has something suitable for a student they’ll give you a call.

Once the assignment is done, don’t wait for the next project to roll in; ask the partner if there are any follow-up tasks. If they don’t have anything at the moment, check in again the following week.

The partner explained it is important to maintain this relationship throughout your articles — once you move on to your next rotation, keep checking in with your preferred group. However, don’t feel that:

3. You have to work exclusively for one group

If you’re getting all of your work from one practice group, it certainly isn’t a bad sign. Students take this as a sign they are doing good work for the group, and the group likes working with them — and rightfully so. Though this is a great position, if the student becomes too deeply entrenched it can actually be to their detriment.

In talking with friends and colleagues articling at firms across the country, it seems there is pressure to quickly find a place within the firm and a desire to stay there once it’s found. Many students begin their articles with the notion they will be such-and-such type of lawyer because they enjoyed the course(s) they did in that area in law school. Though it’s certainly not a bad idea to seek out work in the areas you’re interested in, you can get into trouble if you focus all your energy in one place.

Firms change at an astonishing rate. Since I started my articles, I don’t think a month has gone by in which there hasn’t been some shifting in the ranks, including through promotion of associates to partners and the hiring of new lawyers.

Groups that are incredibly busy will quickly hire people to meet their clients’ needs. If you put all your eggs in one basket, there may not be room for you by the time hire-backs come around.

I’ve known students who did all their work for one group, were given very positive feedback from that group, but were not hired on because the firm did not feel that group had any room. On the flip side, I’ve known students who were hired on to groups they had not previously done work for because of the great reputation they had gained by working for a variety of lawyers throughout the firm.

In the end, all we can really do is work hard. Articling is intended to give us a broad legal background. It’s the only time in your legal career you will have the freedom to move freely between completely different areas of the law, sometimes in the same day. In that sense, you might say it’s the only point in your legal career that will remotely resemble the august Harvey Specter’s multi-disciplined Suits practice.

So next time you are overburdened with a chambers application, a closing, and a disgruntled creditor all in one morning . . . just keep that in mind.

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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