For law student Ben Pullen, working on the Saskatchewan Law Review helped him learn about human rights law around the world, gain exposure to cutting-edge legal theories, and polish his writing skills. But the experience came with a big time commitment and steep learning curve.
Students interested in writing for legal newspapers or law reviews should find out the facts before making a commitment. The experience can help them hone their citation skills and beef up their resumes, but it’s not for everyone.
An editor-in-chief position entails more work than a junior editorship and is often like a full-time job, but also comes with more credit and prestige — and more contact with professors, both within the faculty and at other law schools in Canada and abroad.
Pullen worked as an editor last year and summered at Osler Hoskin & Harcourt LLP in Calgary. He’s just entered his third year at the University of Saskatchewan College of Law. “There’s quite a steep learning curve at the start because I wasn’t really familiar with the whole editing process,” he says. “We had to learn all the correct citations, and then we had to learn styles. We had our own law review guide so we had to learn the 60-page manual.”
The editors met once a week, and before each meeting reviewed at least two articles. “We had to be prepared to comment on those articles and see if we thought they were up to par,” he says. “It was like reading 40 to 50 pages every week.”
The law review is published throughout the year, but only counts as a three-credit course. Pullen chose to have it count in his second semester. “That means in my first semester I had to take five full classes on top of law review, so it was like I had six classes,” he says.
Despite this, he highly recommends the experience. “At first it seems like a lot of hassle and a steep learning curve, but even now at a summer job, writing memos, I find myself knowing most of the rules, I don’t have to look stuff up,” he says. “So it was a totally worthwhile experience.”
And there have been other benefits. At school, he didn’t have time to read anything other than his textbooks. Working on the law review forced him to read different authors he otherwise wouldn’t have been exposed to, and as a result he learned about cutting-edge legal theories. Last year’s theme was human rights, so he also learned about different practice areas around the world, from Africa to Asia. And it didn’t hurt to have it on his resume, since it came up quite often in his summering interviews.
Aside from law reviews, there are also opportunities to work on student newspapers, either as an editor or contributing writer. Ultra Vires is an independent newspaper at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law, and
Stephen Birman, a third-year student, is this year’s editor. He summered at Blake Cassels & Graydon LLP in Toronto.
“I’m doing this because I find it really interesting and I think we have a responsibility as students to look out for the better interests of the school,” he says. “If I learn skills from this that I can translate into a job, then all the better.”
Ultra Vires, now in its seventh year, is a newspaper for students where they can express their ideas about law school. The masthead consists of about a dozen people, including two students in charge of the web site. The role of editor involves more than any other position. “My role, aside from thinking about content, is basically co-ordinating people and making sure everybody is on top of their section, trying to contribute to a theme of the paper and putting together a main editorial,” says Birman.
There is often a tendency in first year to sign up for everything, but Birman recommends dedicating yourself to one or two activities rather than dabbling in everything. As a first-year student, get involved in any way, shape, or form with the newspaper and find out if it’s something you’re actually interested in before committing to a leadership role in second or third year. “It’s one of many options at the school and if you’re inquisitive and like to ask questions, then it could be for you,” he says.
But it’s not for everybody, says Mahmud Jamal, a partner at Oslers in Toronto, who worked on the McGill Law Journal from 1990 to 1992 as a junior board member and then case comments editor. “It’s dangerous to say that it’s something that everybody should do because there is no one-size-fits-all in law school or legal practice. You really have to find out what’s right for you.”
Working on a law review or legal newspaper is really the first step in a longer apprenticeship to the law. “So you should only do it if you’re interested in it, in the same way that not everybody should be practising a particular type of law,” he says.
At the same time, he does look for it when he’s hiring. “It certainly catches my eye when somebody has law journal experience. It suggests to me they have a certain scholarly approach to the law,” he says. “It doesn’t mean it’s determinative, but it’s a factor.”
For Jamal, it provided an opportunity to be involved in legal scholarship at an early stage of his career. “The goal in writing a law review article and in writing a brief are identical. The goal is to help the reader, to convey an argument and to have all the references and supporting authority accurate and easily accessible.”
With time you see the benefits, such as knowing how to do legal citations when you first show up at an articling position, says Martin Masse, an associate at Lang Michener LLP in Ottawa, who was a former editor at Queen’s Law Journal.
“At the time, though, you definitely wonder if it’s worth it when you know that your buddies are getting the same amount of credit and putting in way less work,” he says. “Only with the luxury of retrospect can you look back and say that was worthwhile.” His advice? Stick with it because there will be benefits down the road.
But as much as it may improve your writing skills, he adds, it would be a struggle if those skills weren’t up to snuff. “You would end up putting more time into an already time-consuming task. For the [person] who just wants to do business law and doesn’t have a mind for academic matters, it may not be something they want to look at. I think you do have to have an interest in broader policy aspects of law; it would be tough to get excited about it otherwise.”
For students who are excited about it, he recommends getting to know the outgoing editorial staff and supervising professor. Just putting in your application might not cut it.
Students should also ask about the time commitment, says Peter Jarosz, also an associate at Lang Michener in Ottawa. He was a junior editor at the Ottawa Law Review 14 years ago, which was a volunteer position with no credit. One should ask if there are several people working on these projects or just a select few, and how intensive it is going to be.
Projects were scattered throughout the year, but almost everybody who worked on the law review were students, so they knew how much time was required for studying and how much time was left over for other projects. “Thankfully, in my time, there were enough volunteers and editors that you didn’t get swamped with work,” says Jarosz.
Another way to get involved is through writing. This is an immediate way to start developing interest in a particular area, says Rod Hayley, a partner at Lawson Lundell LLP in Vancouver, and a former editor-in-chief of Queen’s Law Journal.
“It’s amazing how fast in the practice of law you can become an ‘expert.’ You write something and find that people come to you with questions and assume that you’re an authority,” he says. “I believe young lawyers ought to be publishing and in doing so they become quickly recognized as somebody who knows what they’re talking about in a particular area of the law. It gives you the best kind of marketing of your skills at a junior level.”
Even students or younger lawyers who write to assist a senior lawyer can benefit from the experience because they usually get their name on the article, and that’s something they can build on to get future work.
A student working at Lawson Lundell, for example, wrote a paper for the University of British Columbia on a topic of interest and won a national award along with $10,000. Not only that, he’s had numerous inquiries from lawyers and judges who are interested in the work he’s done — and he’s still a student. “He has gone from being unknown,” says Hayley, “to already having a reputation and it’s just by the dint of hard work and putting a lot of effort into research and writing.”