From the Practice Advisors: The Principled Principal

It’s funny what lawyers think the role of articling students is. Here are a few examples of only some of the things Practice Advisors have heard. For the sake of clarity, Practice Advisors would  say these are inappropriate ways to treat students:

  • Taking a dog to the vet to be “put down”
  • Holding tables at a Stampede event for the entire morning so that the lawyers can arrive much later
  • Hand-delivering chocolates in -30 weather
  • Paying for and picking up the principal’s groceries (even if later reimbursed)
  • Doing landscaping at the principal’s residence (this student complained that they were not provided with appropriate safety equipment, having arrived at work in a suit)
  • Agreeing to look after the principal’s pet for a weekend, only to learn on arriving to pick up the pet, that the student would be looking after the principal’s young children as well
  • Dictating the house in which the student may live, when the student may see their family, and threatening to fire the student for going home to family over the holidays

Unfortunately, none of these issues is isolated,  nor are they even the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The list goes on with everything from comments about appearance (“don’t wear high heels, they are distracting”), to what can only be constructive dismissal (the firm agreed to pay for CPLED, then backed out at the last minute, advising the student they were too stupid to pass the course, and unilaterally trying to impose a year as a law student before allowing the student to begin articling).

With many of this year’s students now being several weeks into their articles, it seemed like a good time to remind the profession of what makes for an effective and appropriate article. Essentially, the over-riding principles are setting the student up for success, and in doing so,  serving the public. Here are ten suggestions:

  1. Think long-term: Try to think of the student as a colleague, not as someone who will be gone after a year and is therefore disposable. The legal community is a small one and it is likely that you will encounter the student again in the future on files or within organizations like the CBA. Maintaining a respectful mentoring relationship during the articling year will ensure positive relationships in the future.
  2. Check in regularly with your student: Remember that the student is there to learn. Be approachable and discuss what is going well and what could be better. Provide constructive feedback, and give the student an opportunity to ask questions about anything from substantive legal issues to practice management. Give your student your time. Schedule regular meetings. Be present. Students cannot and should not function as “cheap labour”. Be present to supervise them and encourage them to join organizations (such as the CBA Students section) where they can network and learn from other members of the profession.
  3. Involve your student in files: Even better, if possible,  involve them in a file from start to finish: Law school does not and can not fully prepare a student to run a file. Involving students in running files gives them the opportunity to learn office procedures (procedures that are standard to practicing lawyers like opening files or dictating are foreign to students), legal concepts, legal strategy, how to work with difficult opposing counsel, and client management. This contributes to providing them meaningful and challenging work that contributes to the development of a professional.
  4. Send your student to court to observe: Observing court gives students better understanding of court processes, who the judges and clerks are, how lawyers engage with each other,  and what works (and does not work) when lawyers are making submissions. It also gives the student an opportunity to appreciate different practice areas (eg. criminal, bankruptcy, family, civil litigation). It is not billable time, but it is time well invested.
  5. Review the Code of Conduct with them: Too many lawyers do not consider the Code until they have to, usually when something has gone awry. Incorporate the Code as an essential element of ethical practice, and as fundamental to practice as the Rules of Court, or the Criminal Code.
  6. Do not impose unreasonable billing requirements: While it is beneficial for a student to learn about billing and to practice recording their time, forcing them to meet onerous billing targets will compromise their ability to learn. Give them the “space” to learn.
  7. Do not treat articling as a right of passage: Articling is a place to learn how to be a good lawyer. While it is and should be challenging, it is not meant to be an ordeal. Do not perpetuate the cycle simply because your own article was poor. A bad article really did not make you a better lawyer.
  8. Be kind: Kindness is not weakness. Today’s students may have stresses that you may not have dealt with as a student (eg. considerable student loan debt, the rapidly changing world of legal services delivery, responsibilities for children, aging parents, or both).
  9. Be willing to learn: Mentoring can go in two directions. Lawyers can learn from students – especially with respect to technology. Be open to new ways of doing things.
  10. If problems develop, be fair and realistic about the cause of the problems and the best way forward: If the student starts to make mistakes, evaluate the situation to determine the cause of the errors: too much work? Too much responsibility? Discuss the problems with the student (and do not let the problems pile up). Only once you have done that evaluation, if the problems and resulting conflict seem insurmountable, consider parting ways.

Being a good principal is not for the faint of heart, nor is it for the lawyer who wants someone who can work completely independently (consider whether an associate might be a better fit if that is what you need).  Mentoring articling students is an important and challenging process, but ultimately it should be rewarding for student and principal.

Elizabeth Aspinall is a Practice Advisor and the Equity Ombudsperson at the Law Society of Alberta. Prior to joining the Law Society, she practiced at JSS Barristers in Calgary. Elizabeth is a member of the CBA Alberta Editorial and Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Committees.