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Become an articling superstar

|Written By Andi Balla
Become an articling superstar

It’s a late November evening at the offices of McCarthy Tétrault LLP in downtown Toronto, where some of the country’s most powerful corporate lawyers have come together for a networking event that involves visiting the art collections of three big Bay Street firms. Running the show are some of the firm’s articling students who have volunteered to give details to the visitors about different pieces of the extensive art collection on display.

It’s very different from what articling students do in their day-to-day work lives, but it is a good example of how students can become engaged and get the most out of their articling term experience. It means they are interacting directly with clients and partners they might not otherwise necessarily meet elsewhere, says Gail Wong, a lawyer with McCarthys who serves as the firm’s director of student programs for Ontario.

As the start of the next articling term gets closer for many law students, getting the most out of the experience is important for any young lawyer, whether she or he wants to be hired back, explore new areas of practice, develop new skills, or figure out what to do in the future. We spoke with several lawyers to find out some tips on how to have a successful articling experience.

Interact with many

The students at the corporate counsel art crawl were practising what several lawyers said was a very important element of getting the most out of the articling experience — having a positive interaction with as many people as possible during the articling term. These include partners, associates, clients, and any support staff such as clerks and assistants.

Wong says really engaging is very important for a successful articling term, and the best way to do it is by connecting with people. “Students may not realize it, but they have a better chance [for success] when they connect with people,” says Wong.

Ian R. Stauffer, a partner with Tierney Stauffer LLP in Ottawa who has led the firm’s articling program for the past 21 years, says students must have a good working relationship not just with the firm’s partners, who ultimately make the hire-back decision, but everyone involved with the firm. “If you really want to be hired back, if you are keen on working at the firm, then latch on to the lawyers. And make friends with their assistant, secretary, whatever the title is,” he says.

Working with as many people as possible is key, says Andrew C. Lewis, the partner at Toronto’s Paliare Roland Rosenberg Rothstein LLP in charge of the boutique litigation firm’s articling program. “From the perspective of getting hired back you want to work for as many lawyers as you can because generally the lawyers you work for are the ones that will provide the feedback based on which the hire-back decision will be made,” he says. “And in that respect, the more lawyers you work for, the more exposure you have to the people that are going to make the decision about that.”

And one of the most important contacts is with mentors, says Wong. “We assign mentors, but we also encourage students to seek out informal mentors,” she says. “They can have a huge impact on students because they provide guidance and they help them navigate through transition.” In line with the goal of meeting as many people as possible, mentors are also vital because they help articling students connect with others in the workplace and introduce students to new people.

Take the initiativeRebecca K. Saturley, the partner in charge of articling students at Stewart McKelvey in Halifax, says being bright and able doesn’t necessarily translate into success, as all students the firm hires are, well, bright and able. Articling students should go the extra mile, she says. “You do have to take some initiative,” says Saturley. “If you want to do a particular type of work, if you want to work with a particular partner, then you’ve got to take the initiative to go knock on their door, not just e-mail them, show some enthusiasm and excitement for their practice.”

Initiative is also important when seeking feedback, says Stauffer. The best thing to do when giving a lawyer a piece of work, whether a letter or completed research, is to ask for some feedback, he says, even if it is just sitting down with the lawyer for five minutes. “Students are entitled to that. I’ve always believed that, otherwise how else will they learn.”

Don’t be afraid to make your interests known, adds Wong, particularly if lawyers-to-be are articling at a large full-service firm. “For example, if they are interested in mining law or venture capital financing, we can certainly find the partners that can do that type of work to engage the students.”

Be flexibleOne of the most important traits of a successful articling student is being flexible in terms of assignments. “You must be able to take on some things that really aren’t your cup of tea,” says Stauffer. “A lot of students, even by the end of law school, think they are destined to become criminal lawyers or commercial lawyers, but in a general practice . . . they will probably get a whole lot of areas of law thrown at them.” And that’s beneficial, because students often discover new practice areas they are interested in.

Flexibility is also the order of the day when dealing with lawyers who have different styles, different ways of doing things, different timelines, and who can be more accommodating than others, says Saturley. Lewis agrees and says often the best solution for students is to accept the work as it comes, and take it as a learning experience. “You should be prepared to take any work that comes your way. One should not turn up one’s nose at any particular work that a lawyer gives to you,” he says. That serves a number of purposes, he adds. It allows the students to interact with a variety of people but it’s also important because it offers new experiences which can lead to long-term benefits.

At the end of the day, whether being hired back is the goal or just getting the best articling experience possible, it comes down to a lot of hard work. “It’s important that students are able to instil confidence in the lawyers they are assisting. And the best way for students to do that is to produce high-quality work consistently,” says Wong.

Enthusiasm counts too, she adds. “Successful students are those students who demonstrate engagement with and enthusiasm for file issues, and also engagement for members of the firm, that’s quite important.”

Know your employerMuch of the articling experience depends on where you land. Sometimes where a student articles is exactly where she or he wants to be, but that’s not always the case. But once you’ve committed to a firm, you must adapt to your employer to make the best out of your time there — whether the firm is a small boutique or a big business law firm with hundreds of lawyers.

For example, Tierney Stauffer is a full-service shop with 22 lawyers in Ottawa as well as the eastern Ontario towns of Cornwall and Arnprior. Stauffer says students at a firm that size will benefit from the fact they are usually more involved with clients and get more hands-on experience and court time than those articling at bigger firms. But Saturley says they try to give students as much face time early on as possible “so they are not just, say, in the library doing research.”

On the other hand, Wong, whose firm is one of the largest in the country, says it’s hard to generalize, but students at large firms perhaps need to make more of an effort to get to know lawyers from other practice groups so they increase their chances of a successful articling experience and for being hired back. “In a small firm, with say five lawyers, you are going to see all of those lawyers on a day-to-day basis. In a large firm, you obviously need to be more proactive in connecting and meeting more lawyers in the workplace,” she says.

Beyond size, some firms focus on particular areas to which the students need to adapt and excel. “What we tell people right from the onset is that if you come work for us you should be interested in litigation,” says Lewis. But he also adds when students do their articling they are still very early in their legal lives and should not feel they cannot shift gears if they find out one particular area of law does not fit their interests fully.

Getting to know the firm you’re working for is particularly important for the students whose ultimate goal is being hired back. Each firm has its own culture and priorities, so students should set priorities in being hired back so they can work toward that goal from the beginning, says Saturley. “Try to demonstrate that you are a good fit within our firm. Every firm has its own culture that can be slightly different,” she says. “I think it can be hard to figure that out early on, but I think to the extent that you can, try to demonstrate that early on.”

She says law firms try to take a long-term view when they hire articling students. “We don’t just hire bodies to get some work done in any given year. We are hoping that we are hiring people who are going to be with us for the long term and who are a good fit,” says the Stewart McKelvey partner. “And so we start very early on with the professional development program that teaches students . . . about the business of law.”

Keep things in perspectiveThe articling year is a pressure cooker, says veteran articling mentor and former University of Ottawa professor Stauffer, but it is vital students keep things in perspective. “Most students have always excelled at what they have done, and certainly the students we take on are very bright and hard-working,” he says. “What I find is that by about the fourth month, anxiety sets in because they feel they are not meeting their expectations, that is that they should get everything done on time to keep up to date and never lag on anything. That’s part of the reality, and I want students to realize as they start, that they shouldn’t expect to be superhuman. They cannot expect they will be perfect.”

He says articling students, like other lawyers, need to find a work-life balance that works for them, something that is beneficial for both the students and the firms they work for.