Bull by the horns

Entrepreneurship is a catchword in the practice of law these days, but it’s also a skill you could use when articling in a small law firm, where there is less structure and more room to innovate and create the kind of experience you want.

Bull by the horns
Entrepreneurship is a catchword in the practice of law these days, but it’s also a skill you could use when articling in a small law firm, where there is less structure and more room to innovate and create the kind of experience you want.

Elena Losef says when she articled at intellectual property boutique Deeth Williams Wall LLP, she was able to do the kind of work she wanted versus simply taking the assignments she was handed. “It did require some entrepreneurship, kind of understanding what you want out of the experience, and not just waiting around for someone to tell you, ‘This is what we’re going to give you,’” she says. So when she wanted to try her hand at trademarks, she told her colleagues she wanted more assignments in that area. “It was really nice because they were very receptive and handed me more work,” she says.

So if you can create your own experience and make the best of it, what are some of the things you should look for?

With the Law Society of Upper Canada recent introduction of a new skills requirement for articling based on the Federation of Law Societies of Canada’s guidelines, what regulators across the country expect from articling is becoming clearer and more consistent. Law firms, regulators, and law schools alike seem to agree you shouldn’t spend all your time in a law firm doing research and writing memos. While those skills are important, you also need to gain advocacy, interviewing, and communication skills.

LSUC Treasurer Janet Minor, who led the law society’s project to revamp the articling system, says the new skill requirements are mandatory for all students who choose articling or the new law practice program. “They are meant to be competencies any practising lawyer should have whatever the area of practice,” she says. “So for instance, fact investigation and research, drafting and legal writing, being able to interview a client or a witness for that matter, and being able to plan a course of action,” she says.

The requirements are meant to create more consistency in the skills students are receiving through their articles. Part of the new requirements is that an articling principal sets out a plan for the students, and students have access to this from the beginning of their articles.

Several industry sources agree, how you go about developing the required skills is partly up to you, especially if you end up in small law firms that typically don’t have the structured programs of larger law firms. In large law firms, expectations are often set out in extensive orientations and reinforced through regular professional development sessions. But when students are self-starters and want to make significant contributions to the design of their experience, smaller law firms offer plenty of opportunities.

Christian Monnin, a partner at Winnipeg litigation boutique Hill Sokalski Walsh Trippier LLP, says his firm offers a lot of room for practical experience and the ability to do work you want. “We give you a lot of slack here to get out and get on your hindquarters as they say,” Monnin says, adding he notices when students have “the desire to do it by themselves.”

Students, in fact, get opportunities for practical experience a lot sooner at small shops, says Monnin, who has also practised in a big law firm. “At the larger firm we were much more structured,” he says. “[At Hill Sokalski], there’s oversight, but you’re arguing your motions, you’re arguing your applications, you’re sitting in on trials, and you’re doing examinations for discovery, I would venture to say, far sooner than in the larger firms.”

But while the opportunities are there, seeking them out is the student’s responsibility, he says. “If you don’t ask for something, you’re not going to get it.” This is where students’ initiative comes in, says Pamela Cyr, an assistant dean of career services at the University of British Columbia Faculty of Law. “If they find out about an interesting trial that’s coming up, they can ask the lawyer if they can come along,” she says.

Cyr suggests students should not be shy about contributing an opinion on a case lawyers in the firm have worked on for a long period of time as they have a fresh insight into matters. “So I think it’s also in the firm’s best interest to value the student’s opinion,” she says.

There’s no question it can be nerve-racking for students to appear before courts, tribunals, or other adjudicative bodies, says Monnin, who notes he is impressed with students who shake off their nerves and step up to the challenge.

It’s important that students see “how their work is being used practically,” says Cyr, who notes about 40 per cent of UBC law graduates article in small law firms. Instead of simply drafting a motion, she suggests articling students accompany lawyers to the courtroom, sit at the counsel table, get involved in discussions with clients about strategies, and observe how lawyers receive instructions. They should also see the bills going to clients, she says. In that  process, students also gain the kind of practical experience regulators are looking for.

But according to Cyr, there are skills law societies don’t list on their competency checklist but students should still strive for. “A huge area now beyond doing legal work is soft, emotional skills [such as] resilience, working well [under] pressure, working well with clients,” says Cyr. “The lawyers that excel now are not the gold medalists or the people who were on top of their classes; it’s people who have the soft skills, the emotional intelligence,” she says. “Resilience is a huge buzz going around — people being able to work hard and withstand stress.”

At big law firms like Blake Cassels & Graydon LLP, there’s recognition these skills must be learned and there are training programs in place. “We train [students] on the soft skills they’re going to need,” says Jennifer McNaught, director of legal personnel and professional development at Blakes’ Vancouver office. The training covers matters like what to do when you think you’re going to miss a deadline, McNaught explains. Or it could be “how to say no to work without sounding like you’re not interested in working on that file,” or what the word “draft” means for that matter, she adds.

In smaller law firms, students may develop some of these skills through tighter interpersonal relationships with their colleagues. Losef says she was able to form sufficiently close relationships with the lawyers she worked with that she felt comfortable pointing out improvements they should make to their web sites and social media pages. Her input was well received, she says.

In the same vein, McNaught recommends students suggest topics for articles they would like to co-author with lawyers, a process that builds relationships while demonstrating students’ initiative.

Professional development training, of course, is another way students can become better at what they do. At Blakes, students have a professional development opportunity at least once a week, says McNaught, but of course, this isn’t always the case in a smaller law firm context. Still, students in big and small firms can seek out professional development training outside of their law firms.
“With respect to smaller firms, I think it’s maybe difficult to do [frequent professional development training] internally, but obviously, there are so many opportunities for professional development that are now just available for the legal community,” says McNaught.

For Cyr, small law firm articling can be just as enriching, if not more enriching, than a big law firm experience. “I don’t think it’s necessarily true that a student who goes to a small law firm that doesn’t have a recruiter that’s in charge of having a professional development program or regular feedback and that kind of thing necessarily means that they’re going to have a lesser articling experience,” she says. In fact, Monnin says, “I would venture to say that unlike the larger firms, we hit the ground running a lot sooner here. We do one thing, and we do it well, and that’s litigation.”

Monnin also says the likelihood of a job after articling is greater at his boutique firm than in the big law firms in which he has previously worked. The need for articling students is limited at Hill Sokalski, he says, but, “When we do hire articling students, it is to hire a future associate and hopefully a future partner.”

He adds: “Unlike the larger firms, which tend to hire a consistent crop of students on a yearly basis and making no promises on whether they’ll get kept on, [at Hill Sokalski], a fair bit of them do get kept on.” ¦

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