How to Survive and Thrive at Summering and Articles

  • April 24, 2017
  • Kate Stephens

As she approaches her articles, Kate Stephens speaks with a hiring partner and an associate to get the inside scoop on student hirebacks, evaluations, advice and more.

If you’ve gone through it, you don’t need me to tell you that the process of applying for summer and articling positions is stressful. You squeeze your resume into two pages, master the art of the custom-tailored cover letter, participate in on–campus interviews, then firm interviews, and finally, wait by the phone for the offer that will make it all worthwhile. Not to mention that, throughout the entire process, you’re continuing to go through the daily rigours of a legal education. It’s no surprise then, that with all the focus on simply getting a job, students have little time to consider how to succeed once school is out for summer (or forever).

The employer perspective

Lawyers are a great resource for law students, not only because they make those all-important hiring decisions, but also because they have been through the process themselves. I spoke with Ian Hull, co-founder of Hull & Hull LLP, a small Toronto estates firm, and Josh Hanet, associate practicing in the area of advocacy at Gowling WLG Toronto, a large international firm, to get their perspective on summer student and articling programs. 

What advice do you give to summer student? Do you give different advice to articling students?

Josh Hanet: There is a steep learning curve for summer students – that first assignment will be difficult and take far more time than expected.  However, the same assignment at the end of the summer will be a breeze and take a fraction of the time.  The advice I always give to students at the beginning of the summer is the same as the advice I give at the beginning of articling – get as much out of your time at the firm as possible.  As much as it is important that we do our best work for our clients, students should selfishly use the firm’s resources to learn as much as possible.  Work with as many lawyers as possible.  Go to discoveries, motions and trials.  Attend client meetings and explore whatever industry groups you find most interesting.  I find that most students who heed this advice have a pretty good sense as to what they want to do by the end of their articling year.

Ian Hull: The big difference is in my view that a summer student needs to be much more flexible as to the nature of the tasks that they are going to be asked to perform.  For example, a summer student is always going to be required to take on some of the more menial tasks as opposed to an articling student.

What are some common mistakes students make?

Josh Hanet: One common mistake that I see is students taking too passive an approach to their summer experience.  It is easy to be intimidated by new surroundings and to wait for work to find you (it always does!).  However, identifying the lawyers and their practice areas is one of the first mentoring tasks; using this information to then go introduce yourself to the lawyers who practise in areas you find interesting is the best way to get involved and gain the experience you want.
Another common mistake made by summer students is over extending themselves at the expense of the quality of their work. It is far better to do a few things very well than try to do everything but not have enough time to do your best on any of it.
Ian Hull: Not asking enough questions around the office as to how you actually do the task and being afraid that you look like you don’t know what you are doing.

How does your firm evaluate students?

Josh Hanet: Summer students receive both informal and formal evaluations. Lawyers are encouraged to give feedback on a regular basis as work is being done on files. As a mentor, I also try to speak with the lawyers that my mentee is working with to see how things are going. This helps inform our regular mentor meetings.

Towards the end of the summer, the students are provided with a more formal evaluation completed by the lawyers with whom the student worked throughout the summer. Our constructive evaluation system aims to give insightful feedback that will help prepare students for articling.

Ian Hull: The best way to evaluate a summer student is to ask the staff how he or she has been with them and how they have performed their tasks. Often it is hard to know precisely just what the summer students have achieved and the staff is an excellent resource.

What is the philosophy behind your student program? How do you feel your student program adds value to your firm?

Josh Hanet: Gowling WLG’s student program aims to provide students with what they need to excel as a student and train as a lawyer.  We provide our students with a well-rounded and practical work experience that gives them an advantage over their peers and a leg up in their education.

The biggest value our students add to the firm is our future. Students represent our single greatest source for future associates and partners, so we have a vested interest in giving our students a rich and rewarding learning experience and the foundation for a successful legal career.

Ian Hull: I have always felt that the student experience needs to be rewarding on a business and personal level.  Providing as many opportunities as we can to students is a priority. We are a small firm and the student program is consequently very hands-on and our students tend to be exposed to a wide variety of matters and more extensive client contact.  Students provide tremendous value to our firm from many levels. They are an excellent resource for both long term and short term responsibilities. The student program is very much a part of the practice of law for our firm in that it allows us to give back to the profession and at the same time work with energetic and eager new lawyers.

The Student Perspective

I have been fortunate enough in my own life to spend six summers at three different law firms, both as an undergraduate and a law student. From my first summer as a nervous undergraduate student collapsing boxes in the copy room to my last summer as a full-fledged law summer student, I have developed some personal practices that have helped me make the most out of my summer employment. While they are far from exhaustive, I hope that the tips below get students thinking about strategies for thriving as a summer and articling student:

1. The little things matter. In the rush to complete assignments and prepare for hearings and meetings, it’s important to remember the little things that will help you stand out from your peers. Write handwritten thank you notes. Take the clerk who stayed late to help you put together materials out to lunch or coffee. After meetings with clients, outside counsel, or colleagues, jot down a topic you discussed or their kids’ or pets’ names so you have something to ask about the next time you speak. Get to know the building staff on those late nights in the office. Organize a dinner for your fellow students. Simple actions such as these will help you to make a good impression at your summer or articling job, and also help you build relationships and a reputation, both inside and outside your firm, that will benefit you over the course of your legal career.

2. Take time to develop personal goals and reflect on your progress. I had a boss who was fond of saying that no professional evaluation should come as a surprise because you should not only be asking for regular, informal feedback from your employer, but also evaluating your own performance. One way to do this is by setting concrete personal and professional goals. For example, developing your written communication skills by summarizing a legal issue or case you encountered each week. A goal can even be as simple as committing to organizing your desk before you leave every night.

Every few weeks or so, schedule time to reflect on how well you have adhered to those goals, what progress you’ve made, and the overall quality of your work over the period. Then start the process again. Regular self-reflection will not only assist in your professional development, but also help you anticipate any issues that could pop up in future evaluations.

3. Observe the different ways of practicing law as much as the different areas of practice. Knowing what type of law you want to practice is important, but knowing what kind of lawyer you want to be is equally as important. During your summer or articling employment, try to observe how different lawyers go about their job. How do they interact with clients? How do they collaborate with their colleagues? What are their business development and marketing practices? What strategies do they use when interacting with outside parties? It’s important to think about your own professional style and how it fits (or doesn’t) with the practice areas and firm you want to work in. 

4. Remember to turn off. It’s obvious advice I know, but law students and lawyers, in my experience, seem to need frequent reminders that it’s OK not to be “on” all the time. Yes, you will work long and stressful hours, and yes, those hours are essential to your professional growth and advancement, but you won’t be able to keep it up if you don’t take care of your most important asset: you. Whether it’s going for a run, practicing meditation, watching a movie, or cooking a meal, find an activity that helps you relax and takes you out of “lawyer mode”, even if it’s just for fifteen minutes. If you find yourself slipping, schedule relaxation time in your calendar as if it were a mandatory meeting. Self-care is essential to staving off burnout, and will help you to survive the stresses of a legal career whether you’re a 1L summer student or a senior partner.

About the author

Kate Stephens is a law student currently completing the final year of a JD/MBA at the University of Windsor. Kate will be articling at WEL Partners beginning in August 2017.

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