It used to be a common understanding in the legal community that the road toward an in-house position required that you first pay your dues within a law firm as an articling student and then as an associate. This was seen as the only way of learning to apply the law and slowly understanding what the client needed and how the lawyer was able to meet these needs.
Also common, was the perception that articling students were only workhorses — used predominantly to write long legal memos; research points of law that may or may not ever get to the client; and, yes, photocopy and prepare briefs. Articling students and new associates may get to see the ear, tail, or trunk, but they rarely got to see the whole elephant.
Today, we are starting to see more and more opportunities become available for summer and articling positions with in-house legal departments. This change has been further advanced through programs like the Law Practice Program in Ontario, which provides articling alternatives beyond those of the traditional law firms.
I feel there is value for in-house counsel, beyond altruistic reasons of giving back to the profession, to take on articling students and become involved with programs like the LPP. I also argue such programs serve a great interest for the students themselves and provide an experience they may not get in a traditional law firm articling role.
At the legal department at Nissan Canada we took on an LPP student in January. Right away, Anne Nguyen started getting involved, getting to know our business and started making a valuable contribution to the team.
Not only did she assist us in sending out cease-and-desist letters, working with our business groups to review advertising proposals, reviewing contracts, and researching contractual terms, but she also tried and won her first small claims matter.
Nguyen had been working with our arbitration specialist in preparing for an upcoming small claims matter. At the trial, our arbitration specialist was found to have, in the facts before her, become a witness and therefore could not try the case. Immediately, the judge turned to Nguyen and asked her to carry the case. Luckily, she had some involvement with the prepping of the case and so she immediately jumped at the opportunity and, while some advanced preparation and notice would have been appreciated, she was ultimately successful in the dismissal of an $18,000 claim.
Talk about adding value to our team and our business. As Nguyen explains: “Not having anticipated that I would be called upon to present the case, it was a particularly memorable and nerve-wracking first experience that really spoke to the sometimes unexpected but valuable opportunities that can arise in an in-house environment allowing me, as a student, to gain unique legal training as well as to make a contribution to the team.”
As shown from our own experience, in-house counsel has come to see there is a lot of value in bringing in articling students (from either the traditional stream or the LPP program in Ontario).
In sectors like the auto industry, many of our claims come from either small claim or Canadian Motor Vehicle Arbitration Plan sources. These are great opportunities to involve articling students. Not only do these represent a great experience for the student to get a taste of litigation, learn techniques for carrying a case, and make the articling experience a memorable one, but it is a cost-effective way for the in-house counsel to get low-risk, low-monetary value claims adjudicated.
Articling students can work with the business team to review and update corporate policies and establish policy manuals, provide training to other staff on compliance or other policies, or procedures.
Articling students can help in-house counsel conduct legal research, reducing the costs associated with hiring external counsel to do it. They are also trained in the latest and greatest technology tools, which means they can help you find that needle in the haystack that will strengthen your case or support your legal opinion.
(Note that, in my opinion, technology services/solutions providers should extend their academic licence available to law students to articling students, so that they can utilize their tools through the articling experience, thereby supporting the student and demonstrating the value of their programs to the business. A win-win!)
Articling students can also assist in the review and drafting of routine contracts
In conclusion, there are substantial benefits in engaging an articling student. I have not heard of many in-house counsel complaining about how many excess resources (time or budget) they have, yet many do not employ articling students.
The key piece of advice I do provide, if the decision is made to engage an articling student, is to get the articling students involved with other departments immediately. Get their faces and names known, and get them in on as many meetings as possible so that they can gain a quick and thorough understanding of the business.
Have them prepared, because just as Nguyen was thrown into the fire and was successful, your articling student can do the same with the right coaching and mentoring. After all, they are just looking for an opportunity to impress you and to add value to your organization.