6 Strategies for Transitioning from Student-At-Law to Lawyer

  • August 30, 2021
  • Oksana Romanov

“Try to find something that would make you happy, although we want the job immediately.

- Yadesha Satheaswaran, Court of Appeal for Ontario

While intently listening to the panelists at a recent OBA program on Navigating the Transition: From Student-At-Law to Lawyer (an illuminating online session jointly hosted by the Student Section and Young Lawyers Division), I could not help myself but think about the great metaphor of the metamorphosis. Read, “The caterpillar transforms into the butterfly.” Think, “The student-at-law transforms into the lawyer!” 

Although I am just entering 2L this fall, I found this event extremely timely and enlightening. Akin to a hungry caterpillar, I am currently applying for 2L summer internships. In addition to munching through the digital application paperwork, as a law student at Lincoln Alexander School of Law, I must secure a 15-week professional placement in the 5th semester in 3L because of the Integrated Practice Curriculum and associated licensing requirements. So, for me, the time to start thinking like a student-at-law or even a junior lawyer is now. 

In a nutshell and mindful of the pandemic-influenced environment we find ourselves in, this program offered the following tips and associated strategies for a successful transition from academia to law practice.

  1. Networking & Mentorship. In this bucket, the panelists mentioned several strategies for success such as 

(a) Join mentorship programs offered by the OBA and the LSO;

(b) Reach out to Facebook-based professional groups and NCA exam study groups;

(c) Lean on your colleagues, supervisors, and friends from law school;

(d) Do not underestimate the power of your peers to share precedents with you or make referrals (“horizontal mentoring”);

(e) Apply broadly;

(f) Be active in different organizations and volunteer; and 

(g) Get to know people outside of the legal profession.

“Know yourself, what it is that you want, what area of law. Find a firm that interests you, a good fit. Network and keep going!” - Chanelle M. Flash, Flash Law Professional Corporation

  1. Overcoming Imposter Syndrome. Get comfortable with the idea that you are a lawyer now rather than a law student or a student-at-law. Although the immediate safety net might be gone, you still have your mentors and senior lawyers in the profession to support you. 

“Moving the files forward, [it] is one of those things that we need to figure out and navigate. It is not supposed to be easy.” -  Alana Robert, McCarthy Tétrault LLP

  1. Time Management and Work-and-Life Balance. Budget or “diarize” (an LPP term) your time for hobbies, friends and family. Set boundaries, talk to your boss and talk to your co-workers. Be cognizant of your mental health. 

“It is important to consider a positive work-and-life balance.” - Jonathan Kiang, Hummingbird Lawyers LLP

  1. Managing Your Workload. Gone are the days when, as an articling student, you were working on different parts of the file. As a new lawyer, you are building your practice, that is, doing the file from beginning to end. The workload has changed. You must consider the big picture, the clients, and the repercussions. In the words of Spider-Man, “With great power comes great responsibility.”   
  2. Communicating with Clients. Relationships with clients and good customer service become a significant part of a lawyer’s work when delivering legal services.

“Communicating with clients, setting the tone, setting the boundaries - one item to be aware of as a junior.” - Kadiata Kane, Momentum Business Law Professional Corporation

  1. Managing Professional Obligations. As new calls and junior lawyers, practice management and compliance may seem daunting. Not knowing all of the rules and obligations is scary and overwhelming. To quote Jonathan Kiang of Hummingbird Lawyers LLP: “Consequences are huge. Build good habits from Day One. Make a checklist, consider joining [professional] associations. They have tons of resources.” You can reach out to the LSO’s practice management helpline, where staff lawyers “can provide you with pros and cons and direct you to specific rules,” as Chanelle M. Flash mentioned. Finally, everyone makes mistakes. According to Alana Robert of McCarthy Tétrault LLP, “it is a part of the process; it can be fixed and mitigated.”

The four panelists also shared their legal career journeys: how they ended up in their current professional settings and positions. There are different paths to becoming a lawyer: from an articling student at a full-service firm to an associate, from an internationally trained lawyer to a small firm practitioner, from a Law Practice Program graduate to a sole practitioner, to name a few. Regardless of the path each lawyer chose, there were commonalities in what they advised the up-and-coming licensing candidates and similarities in challenges they faced throughout their individual journeys. 

Angela Ogang, AngeLAW, and Yadesha Satheaswaran, Court of Appeal for Ontario, facilitated the discussion by steering the panel to some of the must-know items essential to the successful transformation.

In the end, the metamorphosis is complete, and a caterpillar is now a beautiful butterfly. To follow Chanelle M. Flash’s advice, proudly say: “I am a lawyer,” lean in, spread your wings, and move forward!  

About the author

Oksana Romanov, 2L, Lincoln Alexander School of Law, is an OBA student volunteer and frequent contributor to the OBA Student Section articles page and newsletter.