Tips for surviving articles

Tips for surviving articles
Advice for articling students: Focus on quality. Learn the culture. Create options.
By now, my law school friends and I have started our articles. We’ve managed to keep in touch and meet up for the occasional drink, despite some of us working in Ottawa and some in Toronto. As the summer is winding down though, the work assignments are quickly piling up. This week seemed like the perfect time, before the fall rush hits, to get some advice from successful lawyers on how to thrive in the articling year.

Their advice? Focus on quality. Learn the culture. Create options.

Last Thursday, I attended the Ontario Bar Association’s annual “Excelling at articles” conference in Toronto. It is advertised as a chance for articling students to hear from judges, masters, and seasoned lawyers about practice management, networking, court appearances, building mentoring relationships, and more. The conference featured several lawyers from different practice areas, as well as an appearance from Master Joan Haberman of the Superior Court of Justice.

Each of the lawyers survived their articles, described by Leigh-Ann McGowan of Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP as a “10-month job interview.” Refreshingly, some lawyers talked about not being hired back after articling and how they nonetheless landed on their feet.

Inspired by their tips on organization, I’ve outlined below the three key points I took away from this conference.

Focus on quality

Co-chairman Adrian Lomaga of Howie Sacks & Henry LLP’s opening remarks resonated throughout the morning. If we only took one thing away from this conference, he said, it should be to “focus on learning to master whatever task you’re given.”

Danny Kastner of Paliare Roland Rosenberg Rothstein LLP hit this message home in his presentation on clients: Careers and reputations are built by meeting the needs of your clients, one case at a time.

Kastner stressed that the best way to ensure clients view your work as high quality is to manage their expectations from the outset. Client satisfaction is mostly related to how the outcome of their case relates to their expectations, rather than the actual outcome itself. Give your clients the best service possible, he told us, by providing frequent updates and being prepared for every single client meeting.

McGowan suggested students act like future owners of the firm in creating their work product, rather than simply employees. And when quality-control mechanisms slip, admit it, and get on with it.

She was clear on this point: “You will mess up at some point. Everyone does. It’s OK. Admit it. Apologize. And move forward.”

Learn the culture

Every articling student has heard of “fit” — that elusive concept that has been rumoured to make or break an articling experience.

Students were told on Thursday that the best way to fit in at work is to embrace the firm culture. This can include norms of dress (McGowan was hesitant on the issue of jeans at work), hours at the office, and general interests pursued by firm members.

For example, she spoke of technology expectations at a given firm. Are students given BlackBerrys? If so, are they expected to respond to e-mails 24-7? How do partners prefer to be given work assignments — in hard copy or by e-mail? By learning what the technology culture of the firm is, students can aim to meet those expectations consistently.

Beyond the culture of one’s firm, it is important to learn the culture of the profession.

Haberman gave insights on motions, but also more broadly on courtroom etiquette. She recommended students take every opportunity to attend court, even if only on small matters or to observe. By learning the subtleties of the courtroom culture, students can become more effective advocates.

Haberman emphasized the importance of basic courtesy among lawyers and honouring the formality of the courtroom. For instance, only one lawyer should be speaking in a courtroom at once.

She joked, “When two people are standing at the same time [in my courtroom], I expect them to be singing together.”

My favourite piece of advice: “You should never be fashionably late for court. It doesn’t exist.”

Create options

We’ve all heard the statistics about the number of times an individual is likely to change jobs over the course of a career. These moves can be by choice, but in the case of hire-backs, sometimes a job change can be unexpected. Several speakers insisted that now is the time to start building a network and a personal “brand.”

As Danya Cohen of the RainMaker Group pointed out, the more valuable experiences students have in their articling year, the more they have to leverage if they are not hired back.

Nancy Shapiro of Koskie Minsky LLP encouraged students to take control of their careers by networking early. As she pointed out, it can take a long time to start seeing the results of networking efforts, but the results do come. In fact, Shapiro said she continues to get referrals from contacts made in her articling year.

She recommended numerous ways to build a network: through charities, book clubs, legal-networking groups, and cultural groups. However, she cautioned it is important to genuinely care about the cause, for both personal balance and in the interest of building relationships.

A thought-provoking panel of lawyers closed off the afternoon. Each was from a different legal perspective — a municipal lawyer, a sole practitioner, in-house counsel, and a Crown attorney. Their varying perspectives and experiences truly emphasized the wide range of choice students have in this profession.

I wish I could have stayed after the conference to meet some of the other articling students attending (surely a great opportunity to network). Instead, I motored it back to the office to tackle three looming Friday deadlines. As much as I had enjoyed the conference, I would need to stay late Thursday night to make up the lost time.

Welcome to the articling year, friends.

Lindsay Scott is a student-at-law with litigation boutique Paliare Roland Rosenberg Rothstein LLP in Toronto.

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