If you ask Sienne Lam about her recent work for Bombardier Inc., she will tell you about conducting risk analysis involving new battery technology.
She was tasked with researching and mitigating the company's exposure to legal liability involving the usage and carriage of these new batteries. But she’s not a lawyer for Bombardier; she’s a third-year law student at Queen’s University.
Like many other law students, she was interested in a unique and hands-on experience outside of the conventional avenues available to law students, namely moot and clinical programs.
As the in-house bar is growing, practising in-house is becoming increasingly appealing to law students. Students are drawn to the promise of a better work-life balance, the possibility of taking on a management role, and the chance to grapple with business issues.
Law schools facilitate plenty of practical programs, ranging from traditional legal aid clinics to business law clinics. Still, there is a dearth of programming for students seeking to gain exposure to the in-house experience. Few law schools cater to this interest and there are only a small number of in-house articling positions available.
However, there is one student course in Ontario that closely mimics the in-house counsel experience: the Technology, Engineering and Management course (TEAM) offered at Queen’s, which Lam participated in last year. TEAM is unlike any other clinical program, research project, or term paper.
It was established in 1995 by professors Barrie Jackson and John Gordon after they realized that upper-year course work rarely engaged the skills required of professionals after graduation.
TEAM is offered to arts, science, engineering, law, commerce, and business students. They are divided into multidisciplinary groups and matched with an industry client to complete an eight-month consulting project. The nature of the project is exclusively based on the needs of the client. In the past, law students have been assigned projects for Shell, BP, Cameco Corp., Nexen Inc., Ledgecroft Farms, Agrium Inc., Imperial Oil Canada, and many other industry leaders.
Heather Brown, a senior environmental specialist at Ontario Power Generation Inc., supervised a project that exposed a law student to an area of law not commonly offered in other clinical programs.
“[A]s our project was cited in a remote location in northern Ontario in the traditional territory of many First Nations, the project gave the legal student exposure to aboriginal law and an opportunity to delve into emerging case law to assess project risks around consultation requirements,” she says.
The course exposes students to areas of law like intellectual property, energy, mining, privacy, regulatory, and workplace health and safety. Other practical opportunities to explore these areas seem to be a rarity in law school.
Fellow Queen’s law student Joy Wakefield was part of a team that produced a report on the feasibility of converting perpetual energy’s fleet to compressed natural gas vehicles. She researched administrative permits, environmental legislation, and incidental legal issues.
She says students who participate in the course get a sense of the in-house experience and discover the importance of not just producing top-notch legal advice, but also of making sure it makes business sense. “It gives students a broader perspective, a chance to see how law interacts with business and technical operations.
“Students learn how to hold meetings, how to deal professionally with clients, how to work with other professionals from different backgrounds, how to organize work and flag problems ahead of time, and how to adapt to new settings,” she says.
The course can open a law student’s eyes to a different career path. Students have the opportunity to network with other professionals and see what career options are available outside of law firms.
When asked about her own career trajectory, Wakefield admits that while she was already considering the prospect of working in-house, this experience reinforced her interest.
Alexandra Kozlov is a third-year law student at Queen's University.