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Law Students and Young Lawyers

An Article About Articling Students

I write this from the perspective of retirement after having practiced law for four decades and having had what I believe was a successful career.

I articled in 1979 for the now defunct firm of Goodman & Carr which at the time was an excellent mid-sized Toronto law firm.

I was not a great articling student.  What a ‘not great articling student’ does not need are some exceptional articling students to work alongside so that the comparisons are easy for everyone to make.

I knew that I was in trouble on the first day of my articles when a senior lawyer on the articling committee walked right past me in the waiting room and enthusiastically greeted one of the other articling students by name, saying “Evelyn, I am so delighted to finally meet you.  I have heard so much about you.”

Had it only been Evelyn who was so much better than me, all might have turned out well, but there was also David who in addition to being bright was very personable and quite witty. 

On one occasion, David was in Small Claims Court representing an automobile repair shop alleged to have improperly repaired a transmission.  As the judge waited for the opposing counsel to finish unloading a box of dirty car parts which were to be exhibits in the trial, the judge asked David if he intended to help opposing counsel unload the car parts.  David replied: “Your honour, I came to court with clean hands, and I do not intend to get them dirty now.”   A real, honest to goodness legal joke delivered at just the right time (or at least that is how David reported the incident.)

I will spare the reader the details of why I was not a great articling student, but I will admit that when I was not hired back, I was a tad disappointed. 

Interestingly enough, Wolfe Goodman, one of the name partners of the firm and a leading Canadian tax lawyer of his generation had an interesting perspective.  After explaining that he was not involved with the hire-back decision, he said to me: “Murray, don’t feel bad about not being hired back.  It is pretty good being Wolfe Goodman at Goodman and Carr, but I wouldn’t want to be one of the first-year associates.”

Not surprisingly, both Evelyn and David were hired back and went on to do great things.

The task of telling me that I was not going to be hired back was attended to by two partners, one of whom was a very senior partner of the firm and the other of whom was a junior partner.

After the usual talk about it having been a difficult decision, and it being a matter of fit and not a reflection on me, yada, yada, yada, and telling me that I needed to develop more self-confidence, they told me the bad news and wished me the best.  I guess I was supposed to just say thank you and leave, but I did not know that, so I told them that they were making a mistake.  That resulted in them explaining things to me all over again and me telling them again that they were making a mistake.  After the third go-round, the senior lawyer finally understood that I was not trying to convince them to change their minds.  I, the one without sufficient self-confidence, just needed them to hear me say that I knew my value.

It took me a few years to realize that Goodman and Carr made the correct decision in not hiring me back.  It was in fact a matter of fit, and I would likely not have been successful in a firm which would have had me focus in a narrow specialty area and compete with others to work my way up the ranks.  My career went off in another direction which in the long run worked out much better for me.

My articling experience gave me some empathy for articling students (not enough, I have been told), and I made it a point to work with many of them in my career.  Here are my thoughts about them:

A few of the articling students I supervised were brilliant.  The type of brilliant that you cannot teach. 

There was the student who I sent off to try to register Bulk Sales Act affidavits in three different judicial districts without disclosing the purchase price in the affidavits. It did not actually say in the legislation that you could not do that, but everyone knew that.  This student got it registered in all three judicial districts by using a combination of legal acumen, advocacy, and charm.

There was also the student who developed a very technical corporate restructuring plan, led the meeting to present it to the clients speaking with confidence and without notes, and fielding technical questions better than I could have done at the time.  I was so impressed that I eventually married her.

There were one, maybe two others.

And that’s it.  Over 40 years, only a few brilliant articling students. 

There were also a few (very few) excellent students.  

Most of the articling students that I supervised were average. 

Some of them were awful.

The second to worst articling student who I ever met did all of his research by informal survey.  He would receive a research question from lawyer A and then proceed to the office of lawyer B to ask her opinion.  Then, he would check that opinion with Lawyers C, D and E and having obtained a consensus he would report back to Lawyer A.   He would not even stop at the library or login to his computer on the way. It never seemed to occur to him that the lawyers talked to each other.  He was not hired back.

The worst articling student that I ever supervised had a habit of not showing up for work in the morning.  Eventually we learned that we had to phone his mother and ask her to wake him up and send him to work.  He was not hired back either.

Another interesting observation was that for many years the female applicants for articling jobs at my Mississauga firm were usually better than the male applicants.  I had a theory about why that was the case. 

My theory was that the male students were more likely to be driven by their egos and to be caught up in the hype about working downtown, while the female students were more likely to be looking ahead to what it would be like to practice law while managing family life.  Accordingly, more of the best female candidates were interested in working in Mississauga compared to the best male candidates. 

Over time this changed, and things evened out as more men began to see the value in avoiding big law.

Based on my experience over the years, here are my thoughts about some of the factors which indicate that a candidate will make a good articling student or first year lawyer:

  1. It did not matter which law school they attended (although this might be changing as new schools are being started).
  2. Academic marks are important to the extent that no one is looking for a student whose marks are awful and generally I would prefer to be hiring from the top half of the class, but I have seen students with great academic grades fail and I have seen students with average academic grades succeed.  There are definitely more important factors.
  3. A desire to work hard is crucial.  As politically incorrect as it might be to say this, I often thought that children of immigrants were more likely to succeed.  Often, these students had seen what their parents had to do to succeed in a new country, they appreciated the opportunities that had been given to them and they did not expect anything to be handed to them.  Of course, there were often students from other backgrounds who had similar values, just fewer of them.
  4. I am sure that there are technically oriented jobs in law firms where being brilliant is a real asset and having a pleasing personality or the ability to be empathic is not required, but for many legal positions being likeable and caring about others is crucial.  Students who allow their personality to come through (provided that they are good people) tend to do better than those who do not.
  5. Which brings me to the issue of self-confidence which has special relevance for me.   Having self-confidence is an important indicator.  However, outward displays of self-confidence can be misleading.  For every Evelyn or David who has good self-confidence at a relatively young age, there are some people who have generous egos masking as self-confidence which can actually be an impediment to learning.  I would rather take someone with low self confidence and teach them to be more confident than try to work with someone with an inflated ego who is unteachable.

So, what it all boils down to is that success as an articling student (or a lawyer for that matter) has at least as much to do with a person’s values, work ethic, personal maturity, and personality as it does with their legal acumen.    Some of that cannot be taught, and as a profession we do not even try to teach the rest of it in law school.  Very often much of what a student has going into law school is what is going to reflect in their performance coming out of law school.

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