Moving up during lockdown: What it’s like “articling from home”
Congratulations, you finished law school during a pandemic. Here’s your J.D., your mortarboard, and your computer screen and Zoom account through which you will spend most of your first year in the legal profession.
This probably isn’t what you were expecting. Lawyers are supposed to take meetings in boardrooms, not at a desk in their bedroom. They’re supposed to wear suits and gowns, not slippers and sweatpants. They’re supposed to shake their client’s hand, not wave at their frozen and glitching image on screen.
And now, as this pandemic seemingly carries on longer than Jarndyce v Jarndyce, you are starting a career that is quickly transforming for the entire profession. But like most lawyers, you have an open mind and are ready to adapt to these new challenges.
Like you, LAWPRO’s articling students are not only meeting these challenges, they’re learning from them and thriving, as they prepare for a career in law that may not initially be exactly as they expected.
We sat down with Alexei Batten and Kristen Steele, who both joined LAWPRO as articling students in 2020, to ask them about their experiences so far.
Even outside a once-in-a-century global pandemic, an open mind and flexibility would be good descriptors for how Alexei is approaching his legal career. To begin, he says, “I knew I wanted to be a lawyer, but I had no idea where that would take me. So much of it requires a realistic appraisal of the actual practice of law, and not just the academics. So, I knew from the start that I needed to be flexible.”
When Alexei began at LAWPRO, COVID-19 guidelines prevented most employees from working in the office. As such, onboarding into an entirely virtual articling experience called for flexibility. Alexei describes working from home as “you don’t have the same access to your colleagues. Networking is not as easy as it would otherwise be, so you have to be very proactive about finding ways to include those ‘office experiences’ into your home environment. I can’t just walk down the hall or pop over my cubicle and ask the person next to me ‘how do I solve this problem?’ I have to set up more formal meetings to address these things. It’s difficult, but it’s also an opportunity to clear your own roadblocks, in a way.”
To capitalize on that opportunity, Alexei recalls that “one of the good things our articling principal did was encourage us to reach out to someone new every week, either within the company or outside of it, to set up a conversation with them. You need to ensure you’re making contacts and getting advice from those with beneficial experience.”
Reaching out and building these relationships, even virtually, has helped Alexei’s comfort and confidence when working with more experienced lawyers. He’s found that “the more you own your opinion, are confident about your analysis, and explain why you take that position, the more useful you are to other people. It’s okay to be wrong. It’s better to be confident and do your best and maybe get it wrong than quibble about everything forever, because otherwise you will never be able to contribute your best.”
The purpose of the articling period is to build the practice skills new lawyers will use throughout their career. To that end, the current work-from-home environment has helped Alexei develop skills used for working in an entirely digital environment. He observes, “It’s important to take notes on everything. I’ve found there are very useful tools within our digital file creation engines, where we can record notes on every file we work on. So I record any development. Things like ‘I spoke to this person on the phone at this time about this topic.’
Sometimes you think you can hold all these things in your head, and then five days later you regret that you didn’t write it down.”
Kristen was always attracted to a career in law because it’s about problem solving. So, it’s no surprise that she was ready to start solving the problems associated with remote working. She says “we’ve been forced to get much better at virtual communication. It can be difficult, because you’re missing out on non-verbal cues that you would be getting in-person, but it’s so important.” For her, the pandemic brought an opportunity to develop and improve these sorts of communication skills that will be beneficial in the future.
Kristen notes that even though she can’t physically approach any of her new colleagues, it doesn’t mean they’re not approachable. She says, “the lawyers you work with in your articles have been in your position and they’re willing to help or give advice when you need it. I’ve found that everyone I’ve worked with has been willing to help and an invaluable resource.”
However, it’s clear from working at LAWPRO that one thing the pandemic hasn’t changed is the need for all lawyers to exhaustively document their workflow. Kristen says, “one thing you notice, seeing the claims that come through, is how important it is to keep a paper trail and write down everything you do. You need to eventually provide reasons and documentation for every decision you make and provide evidence that you’re fulfilling your responsibilities every step of the way.”
According to Kristen, the LAWPRO opportunity particularly appealed to her because she would not only learn from these “best practice” observations but would also get hands-on experience with both solicitor and litigation work. She notes, “at my law school, there was a really big emphasis on the formal recruitment process, such as OCIs. I wish I had known how many opportunities there were outside those processes, because most people find their articling positions elsewhere.”
Now, even working physically distanced from her new LAWPRO colleagues, she says “the biggest surprise has been the level of responsibility that we are given early on. When you see your work has an impact it feels pretty good.”
And while Kristen acknowledges that the pandemic has prevented them from experiencing things like in-person hearings for themselves, she has taken it upon herself to ensure she still knows what to expect from that aspect of a legal career. She notes that “practicePRO has quite a few resources for new lawyers that are really helpful and supplemented our more ‘virtual’ experiences. Things like the ‘The first timer’s going to court cheat sheet’ are really useful for getting a better sense of the rest of the profession.”