Career beginnings: a Q&A

Since my last Canadian Lawyer 4Students article, I have been called to the British Columbia bar. As I’m no longer a student, and this will be my last article for 4Students, I thought it would be fitting to look back to the beginning.

I reached out to Patrick Thomson upon the completion of his first week as a summer student at Lawson Lundell, to find out what questions and concerns he has as he embarks upon his legal career.

Patrick: Should students articling at a large full-service firm give up any hope of having a personal life outside the office, or is achieving a good work/life balance a reasonable goal?

Peter: The legal profession can be very stressful. When you have a big closing or court case looming, it can start to feel like home is nothing more than a mattress and a toilet. Things can get even more complicated if you have a significant other who works regular hours, and whom you only see when they’re fast asleep.

Of course this isn’t a healthy habit, just as it isn’t healthy to think of your home as a mattress/toilet. So it’s not just a reasonable goal to seek out a good work/life balance, it is an imperative goal.

When I started my articles, my principal warned me about how easy it is to lose track of your personal life. You can go to work every morning, bill your time, and come home at the end of the day to Netflix until you fall asleep. Rinse and repeat for 10 years, and when you look back you’ll have nothing to show for it.

To avoid this fate, it’s important to make plans and set out your goals. Your work as a lawyer will inevitably fluctuate — there won’t always be a big closing/court date that demands immediate attention. Recognize that you don’t have to operate at 100 per cent all the time, and take advantage of the slower times.

Patrick: Articles are a time for a student to learn how to actually practise law. How do you find a balance between learning on the job and doing valuable (and time sensitive) work for lawyers and clients?

Peter: Lawyers recognize that students are there to learn, and the type of work they assign to students reflects their position. For instance, students will often be given non-billable assignments. These are typically of a non-urgent nature, so the student has time to go in-depth with the assignment and really learn something.

The fact that it is non-billable also alleviates some of the stress that students can feel with billable files, such as a concern with being efficient and billing the client appropriately. Another good opportunity for students to simply focus on learning is attending appointments with lawyers to observe — this can include trials, mediations, or company meetings.

On the flip side, you will also be assigned billable work with tight deadlines. Even though you won’t have as much time to prepare, these situations are often just as good, if not better, at preparing you for life as a lawyer.

Lawyers are often put in positions where an answer is needed within a short timeframe. These situations force students to think on their feet and provide them with a more realistic working environment than an open-ended billable project does.

Patrick: If you are learning on the job, you are bound to make plenty of mistakes. How do you convince yourself that every mistake you make isn’t the end of the world?

Peter: If you do make a mistake, the most important thing to do is let the lawyer know as soon as possible. Even though you are learning on the job and you lack the experience of a seasoned lawyer, mistakes are less common than you might think.

One of the most important qualities for a student to have is diligence. Check your work over, then check it again! Diligence is the best way to avoid mistakes.

Another source of mistakes is inadequate or misunderstood instructions. When getting instructions from a lawyer, make sure you understand the issue, get a firm deadline, get an estimate on the amount of time you should spend on the file, and understand the work product the lawyer wants from you (i.e. quick e-mail, detailed memo, etc.).

Patrick: If you’re part of a group of articling students, at the end of the day you’re all competing to get hired back for an associate position at that firm. In light of that, is it reasonable to expect your fellow students to be competitive (or even hostile) toward you?

Peter: This has certainly not been my experience. On the contrary, my student group was and continues to be very supportive of one another. Of course the associate position is what every student is working toward, and not everyone can be hired back, but being competitive or hostile won’t help anyone.

If you build a reputation as a hostile student, it’s less likely that lawyers will want to work with you or hire you back as an associate.

Your fellow students can also be a great resource. Whether it’s a question about the law, a certain lawyer’s preferred formatting, or even just to vent, your fellow students are an excellent first point of contact.

And although it may seem like your time as a student will never end, it will be over before you know it. At that point, the other students will cease to be your “competition” and will have become your colleagues. I think most students recognize this and strive for a positive work experience and sense of camaraderie rather than try to one-up each other wherever they can.

Peter Rowntree is an associate at Lawson Lundell LLP practising corporate and commercial law. He can be reached at [email protected]. Patrick Thomson is an articling student at Lawson Lundell LLP. He is currently beginning his summer articles at the firm and will be returning to UBC’s Peter A. Allard School of Law to complete his education in the fall. He can be reached at [email protected].

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