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Started from the bottom: - What new lawyers learned in school that most helps their practice

Unlike most undergraduate programs, a JD prepares you for a specific career. Whether you litigate or focus on transactional cases, whether you work in Vancouver or in Vaudreuil, you’re training to practise the law. But how do you know what best prepares you for practice?

On-your-feet skills

It all depends on what you want to do with your law degree, says Christie Campbell, an associate who focuses on commercial litigation at Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP.

“The most useful thing I did in law school was participate in the trial advocacy competition,” she says. It is where students learn basic courtroom skills such as conducting cross-examinations and preparing closing statements.

“Being able to get on my feet in a safe courtroom setting was very helpful [in preparing me for] what I do now,” says Campbell.

Volunteering at clinics trains students for different but essential aspects of lawyer life: client interaction, reporting to senior lawyers and developing and implementing legal strategies.

“The faster that you get learning those basic skills, on top of the theoretical bases you're learning in your courses, the better off you'll be,” she says.

At the same time, Campbell says she wouldn’t want law schools to require all students to develop this kind of practical training.

“You can use law school to do so many things other than the practice of law in a private firm,” she says, noting that for students hoping to pursue academia or business, for example, other courses might be more beneficial.

Ways of thinking

The diversity of opinions found in law school helps students advocate more effectively.

In practice, “you are put in a position where you have to argue for one side, but in order to argue effectively, you need to know where the other side is coming from,” says Olivia Mann-Foster, a civil litigation association at Birenbaum Steinberg Landau Savin & Colraine LLP.

“Before law school, you may surround yourself with similar-minded people and you [all] take one position on an issue.”

But getting into discussions with classmates and professors, listening to moots and attending guest lectures “really helps you understand where both sides are coming from and why a decision may have been [made],” says Mann-Foster.

For Simon Gooding-Townsend, the ability to quickly figure out the law in unfamiliar cases proved particularly useful when he was clerking at Divisional Court last year.

“A judge would say essentially here is what some of the facts are. [I had to] come up with the key law on those facts, a way of framing the [judge’s] approach,” says Gooding-Townsend, a legal researcher at the Town of Collingwood’s Judicial Inquest.

Seminar classes at law school were especially helpful for him to develop the ability to quickly assess new legal ideas.

“Those [courses] would often be a practitioner coming in and talking about a paper they're working on,” Gooding-Townsend says. “It's essentially a disjointed presentation. It's not building on what was done in previous weeks, the way other courses are structured. There was one class in which a U.S. tax expert came in to talk about U.S. tax law reforms.

“I had never studied U.S. tax [law], but reading that paper and thinking about a framework through which I could analyze it — a way I could usefully contribute to that discussion — was good practice for the work I did while clerking,” he says.

What’s not on the curriculum

No program is perfect, and law schools certainly don’t train students in everything they will need to know in practice.

Take textbooks. Gooding-Townsend had almost never used them at law school, since exams and even research papers are case law-driven.

But clerks often research topics they know nothing about.

“Getting a quick outline of the main issues is so useful,” Gooding-Townsend says. “So, go to textbooks: Even if your job is to find case law, just follow the footnotes.” 

Another thing law schools don’t stress is the potential diversity of each lawyer’s career.  

“If there was something I wish I'd learned at school it’s that you can move around,” says Mann-Foster. “You don't have to make decisions about what to do for the next 30 years when you're in your second year of law school. There are really successful lawyers who don't start and end in the same way.”