Investing in the future

Investing in the future
Illustration: Jeff Szuc
Celia Fergusson is hitting the ground running as she embarks on her first year as an associate at Fillmore Riley LLP. Her year as an articling student at the Winnipeg law firm has not only given her the exposure to all areas of legal practice as prescribed in law society requirements, it has also helped her establish good working relationships with partners and associates in her chosen field of litigation in employment and insurance law. “They understand my skills. They understand the level I’m at,” she says.
Brimming with confidence and already comfortable with her new role as a practising lawyer at the firm, Fergusson is a beneficiary of a homegrown articling system that lawyers at Fillmore Riley see as a unique way of managing an articling program while giving students the best possible individualized experience.

It is called “the gatekeeper system” and it was designed a decade ago to provide “consistent co-ordinated feedback on student performance and a well-balanced manageable workflow for articling students,” according to managing partner Glen Peters. This system, he says, “is quite a bit ahead of where we used to be before and where I presume other firms are.”

As the legal profession anguishes over a widely perceived crisis in the articling system, the focus is mainly on the quantity of placements that law firms provide and the plight of the 12 per cent or more of graduating students nationally whose legal careers are stalled because they cannot find an articling position. But there is also reason for concern about the quality of the articling experience that law firms provide, according to legal management consultant Jordan Furlong of Stem Legal Web Enterprises Inc. “The purpose of articling is to train new lawyers, not to assist experienced lawyers. But there are firms that view articling students almost as glorified temps, whose job is to clean up tasks or fill gaps in lawyers’ projects,” he says.

What Furlong likes about the Fillmore Riley gatekeeper system is that it offers an alignment of the priorities of a law firm and those of the law societies by managing students’ work in a way that benefits them and the firm. Peters describes the gatekeeper system as a hybrid between more conventional models, some of which provide formal rotations whereby students move from one practice area to another according to a rigid pre-arranged schedule, while other models may offer little in the way of formal structure beyond assigning a lawyer to supervise each student.

At Fillmore Riley one of the partners acts as a gatekeeper, taking in requests from colleagues who have a task for which they want a student’s assistance, then determining which student it should be assigned to, on the basis of the student’s interests and capabilities, while also considering in what practice areas the student needs to gain further experience. The students meet with the partner in charge of this system once per week to discuss their current workloads. This enables the students to learn from each other and keeps student workloads at a manageable level.

Curran McNicol, the partner who performs this gatekeeping role, says he tries to balance the particular interests of each student with the requirement that they be exposed to all practice areas, so they have ample opportunity to gain extra experience in their chosen speciality and to form relationships with lawyers in the practice group they will likely join if they remain at the firm. He says he also ensures they have good quality assignments. “We don’t want them just doing research. We want them involved in files,” he says.

This works out well, according to Fergusson. “You are in constant communication with the gatekeeper, so you always feel you can bring stuff up and that your workflow is being managed,” she says.

The articling model is a strategic advantage for the firm, says Peters, since Fillmore Riley recruits students with the expectation that they will stay on as associates and eventually become partners. He says the retention rate over the last 10 years has been close to 90 per cent. And the model contributes to an easier transition from student to associate, as they are adopted into a workgroup even before they have completed their articling year.

However, as with any model or system, what matters most is how well you execute it, observes Furlong. “In the rush of deadlines, the crush of work, how well does this system hold up? Can the student count on the gatekeeper? And does the gatekeeper [have] standing and sway with the other lawyers?”

In this respect, Fillmore Riley has a key advantage. A mid-sized regional firm with 60 lawyers, it only takes on two or three articling students, handpicked not only for their qualities, but on the basis of their interest in staying on with the firm.

So could such a system work well at a larger firm? Or can a big firm that takes on many more students still achieve similar goals in providing students with a well-rounded articling experience that still takes their individual interests into account and helps them foster good working relationships with associates and partners?

That is exactly what Anne Mundy-Markell has set out to do. A lawyer and former teacher, she is now director of student and associate affairs in the Ottawa office of Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP. She usually has 17 or 18 articling students under her wing and there are 180 professionals working in the office. Since there is not much attrition among associates, the firm is usually limited to hiring between half and two-thirds of the students once they have completed their articling year. But they are all hired in the hope that they will stay with the firm and, if that doesn’t work out, Mundy-Markell does everything she can to ensure they find a good placement elsewhere. In any event, she wants them to be well-trained up to the standards her firm expects of its associates, since it’s a responsibility to the law society and because they will hopefully have some kind of ongoing relationship with Gowlings and may well be instructing counsel on future files.

The goals and strategies that Mundy-Markell employs are similar in many ways to those of Fillmore Riley’s gatekeeper model. Students are matched with a partner principal and an associate mentor with Mundy-Markell overseeing the whole program. She makes the lawyers’ roles as easy as possible by ensuring any required paperwork is prepared for them in advance and information from the law society is presented to them verbally or in summarized form. At Fillmore Riley, every attempt is made to ensure students get extra exposure to work in their areas of interest, while familiarizing them with all practice areas and cultivating relationships with lawyers working in these areas.

There are two key ingredients essential for managing such an articling program in a larger firm. One is that the students are encouraged to be entrepreneurial — which is a key value at Gowlings in any event — and seek out relationships on their own, putting themselves forward for the kind of work that most interests them. “We don’t have a centralized system because that is not how we as lawyers get our work,” she says.

The other key element is that Mundy-Markell relies to a great extent on documents she creates to record their interests and chart the progress of the students. She says colleagues call her “the queen of charts.” And, she adds, “With 18 students this year, it’s the only way to keep my sanity. It’s the only way to really keep on top of what we think all the requirements are. . . . It’s very important for keeping us focused.”

And this kind of focus on the quality of the articling program will likely pay off for any firm, large or small, whose goal is to hire and retain their best students. As Fergusson puts it: “Knowing that they put that much effort and that much time into the articling process just makes me feel comfortable in the years ahead. They are investing in their future and in me.”

Freelance journalist and business writer Kevin Marron can be reached at
[email protected].

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