Law Students and Young Lawyers

Alone Again, Naturally

I speak to many lawyers who strike out on their own soon after being called to the Bar. They have various reasons for doing this. Some cannot obtain positions at established firms. Others get positions that come with no mentoring and abominable working conditions and decide that they would be better off on their own. And then there are those who are entrepreneurial by nature, distrusting of established law firms (often for good reason) and eager to build something for themselves.

Unlike medical schools which actually teach their students how to cut straight and give them corpses to practice on, most law schools and Law Societies do precious little to prepare young lawyers to practice law. The result? Many of these newcomers are unleashed on the unsuspecting public quite ill-prepared to practice law competently.

It is not their fault. They can certainly be forgiven for assuming that for the low, low price of up to $34,000 a year in tuition (in Canada), they are going to know how to practice law when they graduate. Nobody told them that it does not work that way.

Some of these new lawyers take it slowly. They limit their professional activities to a narrow specialty. They build their expertise by reading materials and taking courses. They find mentors to help them learn the practical things that they have to know or to brainstorm problems with them. They take on simple matters until they develop some experience. Sometimes they find more seasoned lawyers to work with them on their files so that they can learn from them.  They only take on a few matters at a time so that they can learn as they go without too much pressure. Over time they develop experience and confidence and can eventually stand on their own.

All of that is easy to do if you are still living with mommy and daddy, are being supported by a spouse, or have a pot of money from a previous career, an inheritance, or a lottery. Those are the lucky few.

As for the rest of them, they feel pressure to take on whatever work comes their way to pay their rent and repay their student loans. They have limited time and resources to learn their craft, other than by trial and error.

Over the years at my firm, many lawyers came and went. Some were brilliant. Some were not. The very worst was a fellow who I will call Don, because although he was truly a terrible lawyer, he could probably still figure out how to sue me for defamation.

We also had many articling students of various levels of competence. One exceptionally nice guy, but really awful student, was a fellow who I will call Sid, for similar reasons.

I ran into Sid a few years later and was horrified to find out that he had started his practice as a sole practitioner immediately after his articles. I asked him if that was difficult and he replied that it was not because Don was mentoring him.

The public has good reason to be concerned about how the legal profession trains and supervises lawyers. Very concerned.

This article was originally published by Law360 Canada, part of LexisNexis Canada Inc.

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