Getting your foot in the articling door

Getting your foot in the articling door
Meenakshi Lakhanpal says she cast her net wide and worked to create opportunities to prepare herself for getting articles.
Getting into law school is no easy feat, but you know it only gets harder from there. Besides juggling the crushing workload, maxing out lines of credit, and adjusting to a new environment, it’s essential to start lining up an articling position — all within the first six months.

While some students struggle with this reality others like Meenakshi Lakhanpal, an Osgoode Hall Law School student now articling with Deeth Williams Wall LLP, got offered articling positions from all three firms she interviewed with as well as with the one she worked with in the summer following 1L.

So what was her strategy?

“I thought it would be a good strategy to cast your net as widely as possible,” says Lakhanpal.

Of course Lakhanpal, who used to be a medical doctor and researcher before moving to Canada, is a unique case. When she decided to upgrade her education with a law degree, she planned very carefully.

“I had to create these opportunities,” says Lakhanpal.

She pushed herself to get ahead in the first six months of law school.

“I took it as an opportunity to network and to speak to as many people as I can, and to make them aware that I’d be interested.”

Pro bono and workshops where you train alongside a lawyer are just some of the activities Lakhanpal took on.

“Generally all law schools have a lot of programs or events happening and a lot of times those events are facilitated by practising lawyers,” she says.

Lakhanpal tried to meet as many lawyers as she could, but made sure not to focus on them exclusively. Lakhanpal stresses peers can be a great resource when it comes to giving and getting recommendations, which can expand your network ten-fold.

Furthermore, Lakhanpal saw an opportunity in intellectual property law, a strong practice area she had a unique background for.

“Coming from a science background I feel there is a strong need and there is a disparity [or a lack of] a number of people who are practising IP law, and the IP bar in Ontario itself is very small,” notes Lakhanpal. “There is an urgency for more younger people to enter into the IP field.”

But no matter the area of law, there is one specific thing every law student must do:

“I think it all comes down to how different and how unique you could be, not just like in IP, but anything else,” says Lakhanpal. “If you are bringing to an employer something that is very distinct than the other candidates, that’s what sets you apart.”

While that is important, Lakhanpal says, it is also crucial not to overburden one-self. She entered law school with a husband and a 12-month-old child so she knew there was only so much she could do when it came to extra-curricular activities.

“[I thought] I’ll do one extra-curricular thing in each semester and that should be enough for me to boost up my resume every quarter, or every four months and I think that strategy really helped,” she says.

While Lakhanpal seems to have all the luck in the world, Kimberley Bonnar, experiential education and career development director at Osgoode, says about a third of all law students at Osgoode are still looking for an articling position as they enter their third year of law school.

There are still students searching for articles to start this summer, says Bonnar.

While most law societies set specific deadlines for law firms to follow while hiring articling students, there are many different reasons why different firms hire at different times of the year. Some firms do not have a budget planned out a year ahead, others may suddenly expand services or have a good fiscal year, so articling position availability can be a little unpredictable.

Yet all law students tend to fall into one of three major groups.

“Many of our students will participate in this recruitment period but by no means is it sort of an exhaustive period, this is kind of the first-round of hiring,” says Bonnar. “Another group of students will have an articling position carrying forward from their second-year summer jobs.”

Working as a summer student is often a way to get your foot in the door, and for some firms it is the only way to get an articling position.

“If you are specifically interested in our firm, with very rare exception, you need to become a summer student with our firm first,” says Rhonda Cohen, managing director in charge of the summer student program with Toronto labour and employment boutique Sherrard Kuzz LLP.

“We like to take summer students because we like the opportunity to have more than one year to work with them before we make a decision to hire them back. And we find that there is a real market for it, students want summer jobs,” says Cohen, noting “tuition is really high in law school.”

A summer job with a law firm is a great idea for a number of reasons, “if you can get a job making, say $1,450 a week, that’s good money and if at the same time you could be learning skills that you would use in your profession and making connections with people who you will work with in your profession, there is really no down side,” says Cohen.

While her firm is a boutique, there are various types of firms to look into depending on one’s interest.

Bonnar says articling positions really break down into the following categories: private practice, government and quasi-government entities, private corporations with large legal departments, articles overseas, legal aid clinics, and other not-for-profit groups and NGOs.

Law students should be deciding on the type of law firm and type of law they are interested in well before their articles.

“We love working with students, we love when students are around, it’s just really fun in the summer when they are there,” says Cohen. “We tend to get really good ones and then they stay.”

The 1-2-3s of getting an articling position?

1.    Contact your school program director to choose your legal path (i.e. type of law and type of law firm) and get guidance and advice on resources available within the school system.
2.    Make a list of all the firms you may be interested in articling with.
3.    Contact at least five to 10 firms directly to find out what their hiring process is like.

Cohen says succeeding as an articling or summer law student is not rocket science, you need to be a hard worker and be very eager and interested to learn.

“It’s a long life to practise law if you are not interested in what you are doing,” she notes.

Taking opportunities to learn every step of the way is another essential element of success.

“For our firm, we give our students a lot of opportunities to go out with our lawyers and see and do everything we see and do on a regular basis, and I mean everything. So take those opportunities, don’t sit in your office because you have a memo to write,” says Cohen.

“If you focus more on making your colleagues look like a star and less on making yourself look like a star you will in fact be a star.”

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