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graduation caps and robes

After the congratulations, after the regalia, after the degree that’s been rolled and tied with ribbon, what comes next?

It’s important to keep an open mind when starting your legal career. Many lawyers end up in positions very different than they were expecting, but still very rewarding.

Remember that every role is an opportunity to learn, improve, and set yourself up for additional success down the road. The best legal job is the one that’s right for you. We asked some recent graduates what it was like for them to find their first positions out of law school and what they learned along the way.

From the public sector to private practice

Allison P. Williams always had an interest in public service. Throughout law school, she was drawn to positions aimed at assisting vulnerable people. She acknowledges that it can be challenging to feel like you’re “picking your path early in your career,” and “this meant my choices would be a lot more limited.” But Allison believes her narrow search was to her advantage, as she only applied for positions where she had a “demonstrated and authentic interest,” and therefore could thoroughly prepare and show commitment to the prospective position.

Her search led to an articling position at Ontario’s Office of the Children’s Lawyer. She says one of the best aspects of the job was “being exposed to larger issues while also having the opportunity to do legal work on specific files. For example, I had the benefit of helping the Children’s Lawyer prepare presentations and reports on incorporating the call to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report.”

Allison found that her articles allowed her to build key skills, saying, “in government, you learn important habits regarding papering files, taking notes, sending follow-up emails, and documenting any attempts you make to communicate. You’re constantly writing memos about the path you take, because you never know when a file will be picked up by someone else. It’s the hit-by-a-bus principle. If I were hit by a bus, I want my files kept in a way where I wouldn’t be embarrassed to have someone else look at them.”

Allison now uses these same skills every day in her current private practice, where she continues to help vulnerable groups in the areas of immigration, refugee, and family law. But she acknowledges moving to private practice was a transition. “The biggest shock for me was having to deal with billing, docketing, and charging clients for your time. When you’re drawn to law specifically to help people, that can be a bit of a challenge,” she says.

Allison’s advice for other students looking for their first position is simple: “It’s important to get in touch with what’s going to make you happiest. Everyone is always just figuring that out all the time. It’s a work in progress over the course of your career.”

Striking out on your own

Carissa Wong came to law after working for a number of years in environmental management in the United States, and that perspective helped guide her choices.

Her path to an articling position began before her first day at law school, when a senior contact at the Ecojustice Clinic at the University of Ottawa convinced her to return to Canada and enter law. That same contact then helped her secure her articling position at the Ecojustice Clinic and acted as her articling principal.

“I found it was important to be proactive as an articling student and to drive my own experience,” Carissa says, “because you have to get the best practical training you can while you’re there. Having a mentor can be critical in helping you navigate this, especially a mentor with whom you can connect, because mentorship is friendship.”

That practical training became especially valuable when Carissa decided to start her environmental law practice as a sole practitioner. She explains, “I was called to the bar at 38, so I had different work-life balance needs than younger entry-level associates, such as an intention to settle down and have a family. But I also had different skills to offer than what was being sought in traditional law or policy posts. So without seeing a better fit for myself, I embarked on my own. As a sole practitioner, you have some of the best opportunities for self-determined schedules and balance.”

Starting her own firm was a challenge, with a constant need to keep costs low and stay out of debt, but Carissa points to her supportive spouse, previous experience in environmental management, and contacts in the relevant field as helping her get off the ground. “My articles were a stepping stone,” she says, “from which I built relationships and connections. For anyone starting out, you are finding your community of practice, so you have to look for positions where you can build a family.”

Carissa found that the skills she developed during her articles helped her build her practice from the ground up, especially her interpersonal and relationship skills: “Clients end up working with you because they trust you. You need to build this trust and become the best lawyer for them. You also need to develop and leverage relationships with colleagues and mentors. Treat colleagues as clients and find a mentor whose practice is well-established in your area of interest. Because giving and receiving support is almost the only way to build a client base in a saturated legal market.”

Carissa encourages other young lawyers looking to make a difference or start their own firms to follow their dreams, but urges them to remember the importance of protecting and maintaining their health and wellness, saying “no one is going to be there to help you if you fall down, so you need to vigilantly support and nurture your mental health in order to succeed.”

Working in criminal law

Ben Elzinga Cheng also entered law school as a mature student after pursuing a career in the
hard sciences. For him, it was a desire to work with and advocate for others that led him to transition to law, saying “in grad school, I often had more enjoyment teaching or collaborating than working in a lab.”

Ben knew there was a good chance he would end up in criminal law. Before starting law school, he took time off to raise a family and work in a drop-in help centre for low income and marginalized persons. He says, prior to law school “it was criminal law issues that were the most fascinating to me, so that’s what I wanted to do.”

During his legal studies he pursued that interest through clinical and volunteer opportunities. “I can’t emphasize enough how important clinical experience and working in places like the Downtown Legal Services is while in law school,” he explains. “While there, I had the opportunity to work on a project with a lawyer from the firm I would later article with. I got a really good vibe from him and learned that his firm was the type of place I wanted to work at, and he liked my work as well. Getting that sort of experience with practitioners and meeting people is very useful.”

Even with previous clinical experience, Ben still found his articles provided valuable skill development. He says, “for example, learning client management, in terms of how to explain and talk about the process, was very important. People who come to our firm are charged with criminal offences, so it’s important to be realistic about what’s going to happen. But you also need to try to alleviate some of their stress and learn how to read them, so you can ensure everyone understands each other. A lot of that just comes with experience and is an ongoing process.” He adds, “the other thing you learn is to be very careful about instructions and taking notes. You have to make sure everything is in writing, because if you’re going to be depending on something someone said, or an agreement with the Crown, it’s best to have a contemporaneous note or written communication.”

The LAWPRO experience

In 2018-2019, the LAWPRO team was joined by three recent graduates as part of the Law Society of Ontario’s licensing process: Niveda Anandan, Chantelle Dallas, and Arlind Selimi.

Niveda took a broad approach in her search for articles. She explains, “I knew I wanted to do litigation but I didn’t know exactly where I wanted to go. So, what I liked about LAWPRO was being exposed to many different areas of the law. That was a key consideration for me.”

During her articles, Niveda found one of the key skills she developed was communicating with both colleagues and clients, saying, “with co-workers or your principal, you have to communicate expectations very clearly from beginning to end. You never want to just assume that others know what you know. And you need to also communicate your own understanding by confirming instructions by email, in case you misunderstood.” She goes on to explain that this applies just as much to senior lawyers, saying “when you work in the claims department, you see the kinds of mistakes other lawyers make, and communication failures are a big part of it. That, and missing deadlines,” she adds with a laugh.

Niveda is happy she obtained the position at LAWPRO, because, as she explains, “I’m glad I’m starting my career knowing what not to do. You have to report a potential claim as soon as you can, because if we can repair a claim, that’s better for everyone. Admitting you made a mistake is hard, but this is about squashing hubris and knowing you’re human and there’s a responsible way to deal with it.”

Chantelle, for her part, took a narrower approach to her search for articles. “I was primarily focused on finding a positive work environment,” she says. “I asked around about the people, the work-life balance and the general atmosphere at each potential firm or workplace. I’m very happy to say that this fit the positive profile I heard about.”

Chantelle found the articling experience surprising in some ways, saying “you really see that lawyers don’t know everything, and it’s important for all of us to always be learning. Good lawyers aren’t afraid to say ‘I don’t know, but maybe I can look into it.’ LAWPRO is constantly providing tips about practice management and risk management because even lawyers who have been practising for many years aren’t aware of certain things and can improve their practices.” At the same time, she found that not knowing everything is not equivalent to having nothing to contribute, saying “as students, we shouldn’t be afraid to share our opinions. If something doesn’t make sense, or seems incorrect, our instincts are valid. We all have a solid education and bring a fresh perspective, so we have to be confident and believe in ourselves.”

Arlind joined the LAWPRO team during the work-placement portion of the Law Practice Program, after completing the training portion at Ryerson University. He was particularly interested in joining LAWPRO because of the variety of work and legal experience he would be exposed to, saying, “my number one priority is gaining the skills I need to be an excellent lawyer. Every position and opportunity is always what you make of it. If you put in the work, you will learn a lot.”

Arlind explains that the fast pace of his LPP training has been a crucible for developing organization and time management skills that will serve him through his career: “We are given numerous projects to work on simultaneously, with short deadlines, so it is necessary to become adept at using scheduling, organization, and communication software to plan and docket everything that is going on.” Arlind explains that these experiences have positioned him well: “I definitely feel more confident now that I understand what it takes and how to succeed as a lawyer.”

Stay happy and keep learning

A legal career is a work in progress. Every lawyer, regardless of seniority, is always learning and looking for new opportunities. But an opportunity is only valuable if it’s taking you in the right direction. Remember to keep asking yourself what type of legal work you want to pursue, what type of clients you want to work with, and what kind of environment you want to work in. Each job is an opportunity to learn how to be a better lawyer, and, perhaps more important, learn what kind lawyer you want to be.

Shawn Erker is Legal Writer and Content Manager at LAWPRO.