Articling how-to

As law societies grapple with a crisis that could change articling forever, students are still looking for their own ways to clear the final hurdle to a career in law. Staff writer Michael McKiernan asked articling students past and present for their advice on setting up articles away from the mainstream and at smaller firms.
Tips for students

1. Think small

Bay Street firms run their articling programs like a well-oiled machine and provide a large chunk of the available spots, so it’s no surprise that they’re front of mind for law school career counsellors, says Toronto lawyer Omar Ha-Redeye. But the 2011 Ontario call advises more students to think small. “I think for people who are going into litigation, smaller firms are better options. I was in court more than anybody I know. I was really thrown into the mix and was on my feet the whole time,” he says.

Aaron Grinhaus, who chairs the Ontario Bar Association’s sole, small firm, and general practice section, says large firms “are not the be-all and end-all,” adding that most private practice lawyers fall into this group. “You get your hands dirty articling in a smaller firm and then you can do anything. You can even practise for a bit and then go to one of those firms with some experience under your belt, and be useful to them, as opposed to being a drone for five or six years before they either fire you or make you a partner,” he says.

Communities outside the large urban centres also get short shrift from universities, according to Michele Allinotte, who runs a practice in Cornwall, Ont. “Sometimes the perception is it’s beneath you or a lesser position because it’s at a firm and in a place that nobody’s heard of, but small firm lawyers are the ones delivering legal services to the people of Ontario. I do enjoy practising here and it’s great in terms of quality of life and the ability to earn a decent income,” she says.

2. Take the initiative

“The articling position isn’t going to come knocking at your door,” says Vani Selvarajah, a University of Alberta law graduate currently completing her articling in Ontario. She says networking was crucial in securing her spot. “A lot of people are willing to help. Many of them were in this position themselves.”

Small-firm lawyers, often too busy to worry about a marketing budget, may not have advertised their positions, so you’re going to have to seek them out. In fact, they may not even know they want an articling student yet. Sometimes it’s your job to show them the light, says Angela Sordi, a consultant at ZSA Legal Recruitment. “It’s about selling the idea as well as yourself. Know the positive aspects and what an articling student can do for a small firm,” says Sordi. Once you’ve made the case, move in for the kill. “Have the information ready about the requirement to be a principal, and bring them the forms to sign. Make their job easy. The less footwork people have to do, the more likely they are to be open to it,” she says.

3. Know your options
Articling requirements are not as rigid as they once were. Most jurisdictions allow some form of joint articles, which means that students can split their term across two or more placements. Vani Selvarajah splits her week between Toronto immigration law firm Jackman & Associates and the office of sole practitioner Gary Anandasangaree. “Gary gets a lot of solicitor work done, like wills and estates and real estate, so it’s complementing really well. I’m passionate about immigration but I’m not sure if I’m going to build a career solely based on it,” says Selvarajah. “It also gives you exposure to lawyers who’ll have different ways of handling things. I think that’s important, because starting out, we don’t want to be moulded in just one way.”
4. Embrace new technology

In a competitive articling environment, you have to make yourself stand out. And the earlier, the better, according to Simon Borys, a second-year law student at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., who has put a great deal of effort into building his online profile. “Everyone comes to the table with law degrees, so you have to demonstrate to future employers what you bring in addition. Online activities are a great way to showcase that,” he says.

Borys highlights his own history as a police officer on his blog, which he uses as a platform to link up with fellow students, senior practitioners, and potential future employers. He’s also active on Twitter and participates in online legal discussion groups. And it’s paid dividends, because he’s already secured a summer position at a criminal law firm, with a strong chance to return to complete his articles. “It’s been very well received and I’ve made lots of connections,” says Borys.

5. Embrace old technology

Angela Sordi says law students can’t afford to forget tools of a more old-school variety if they want to set up their own articles at a smaller firm. “Look in the Yellow Pages, and pick up the phone. Keep your eyes open when you’re driving down the street, and pull over and knock on the door,” she says. “How are you going to come across those small firms unless you proactively seek them out?”

That approach worked for University of New Brunswick grad Andrew Sudano, who found that high marks and strong extracurriculars weren’t enough in the competitive Ontario market. After unsuccessfully cold-calling law firms in the phonebook of his hometown of Markham, Ont., he expanded his search. “I was really interested in criminal and family law, so I searched for some of the professional associations. The Family Law Association of Ontario web site had e-mail addresses of feature members, so I sent resumés,” he says.

One of the recipients, Toronto family lawyer Robert Shawyer, was impressed. “I thought that was pretty innovative and entrepreneurial,” says Shawyer, who is now Sudano’s articling principal. 

Tips for principals

1. You'll never know until you try

Ron Everard of Calgary firm Everard Kubitz changed the habit of a lifetime in law in 2002, hiring his first articling student more than two decades into his career. Until then, he’d been happy to leave the training to larger firms and hire young associates instead, with mixed results. A persistent student convinced him to take her on and Everard has never looked back. “I don’t think I was alone in thinking [I was] never going to have a student, but that experience changed my thinking,” he says. “We could expose her early to our culture and our way of doing things.”

Toronto family lawyer Robert Shawyer says he never thought of acting as an articling principal until he discovered how little experience was needed to become one, and thinks the shortage of positions in Ontario could be eased simply by making lawyers aware when they become eligible. “The majority of lawyers don’t understand what the requirements of being an articling principal are,” he says.

In Ontario, lawyers need just three years of experience to become a principal. It’s the same in Manitoba, while Alberta’s law society requires four years. Others, such as Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia, demand five years of experience.

2. Play the long game 

As much as you’d like to think they’ll be profit generators from the get-go, articling students are unlikely to pay for themselves in the early days. And you shouldn’t expect them to, says Ron Everard. “You’re looking at someone who’s going to be around long term. You can’t see it as cheap labour for a year, and bring in another student the next. That’s false economics. We have a practice here that’s growing and you want someone who will fit long term,” he says.

Less than a decade ago, Justin Clark was one of the first articling students taken on at Brampton, Ont., firm Simmons Da Silva and Sinton LLP. Now he’s a partner, and sees his own path as a model for future students. “We get to find future lawyers who are going to grow our firm, and our training process works with that in mind. They learn about the practice of law and how it works, they learn about going to court and the lawyer-client relationship, how to network and build a practice,” Clark says. “If that student turns into a successful lawyer, I’m not sure there’s really a cost at all to the firm.”

3. Commit to it

There’s no denying there is a cost to principals in articling, and it’s probably not going to go well unless you’re fully committed. Apart from the financial outlay in the form of a salary, some thought has to go into the kind of work the student will do, as well as the practical considerations that come with an extra body in the office, such as finding space and setting up a phone line. “It is costly and requires a significant degree of efforts relative to returns if the wrong articling student is hired in a small firm,” says Selwyn Pieters, a sole practitioner from Toronto who has taken on several articling students in just over six years of practice.

He says he felt compelled to do his bit to deal with the shortage, and takes extra care to make sure he selects the correct candidate. “The right articling student is someone who is driven, practical, teachable, dependable, and can use common sense and judgment,” says Pieters.

According to Aaron Grinhaus, firms that make the investment and plan carefully can reap the rewards. “The firm gets a workhorse and your time gets freed up to do more marketing. Anything you can do to get more business is going to improve the quality of a small firm,” he says.

4. Tell everyone 

Once you’ve decided you’re ready to make the leap and hire an articling student, get the word out. That doesn’t have to mean a big marketing push, says Justin Clark.

In 2010, he was a speaker at the Law Society of Upper Canada’s inaugural Articling & Beyond Symposium, an event that returned in 2011. The symposium brought together more than 200 students and new lawyers, as well as close to 100 experienced practitioners looking to make connections. “It’s about getting out there in the community, and letting people know we’re here. Students are always quite interested to know there are firms out there looking to hire,” he says.

As well as online advertising, Clark’s firm has logged entries on articling registries run by law societies and law schools. The LSUC maintains its own registry, while the Canadian Bar Association’s B.C. branch runs a similar listing, as well as a separate one for those interested in shared articles. 

5. Share your costs

Joint articles can be as useful for principals as for students, allowing lawyers to give back to the profession at half the cost, or even less. Marie Gordon of Edmonton firm Gordon Zwaenepoel set up a composite article roster for Alberta practitioners prepared to supervise a student for at least two months of the 10-month articling requirement. “It seemed to me that it was unfair to place all the onus on the students, since they are the ones with the least number of contacts and resources,” says Gordon.

She says the idea is particularly attractive to small, specialized firms that often feel unable to support a student alone. “In areas like criminal and family law, students really want to see if this is an area they can practise in and they’re frustrated when nobody seems to be offering articles. It’s particularly crucial that students get exposure to family law, because we have such a shortage of lawyers in that area in Alberta,” she says. 

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