Law Student Life: Getting Work Experience (Outside of Law School/OCIs)

So you weren't successful getting an OCI position ('On Campus Interviews,' for my non-Canadian based readers). You're stuck for what to do for 'summering,' or you're just coming into the legal industry in Canada from outside of the traditional OCI rotation experience, either from relocating or simply returning to Canada after a long period abroad.

I'm going to be blunt- getting work experience while in law school, and being exposed to working in a firm, in-house, or non-profit setting, is what will really set you apart in a difficult market, especially a market that's recovering.

It also is a bit of a tightrope walk for firms- firms want to continue to bring young talent (and hands) in, but also have to abide by COVID-19 restrictions which may limit your ability to actually work in a firm proper (for good reason).

I've seen this addressed by having workers come into the office on alternating schedules and timelines, working three days at home, two days at the office, or just transitioning to a full-time, at home position. While safety is obviously the top priority, how can you balance building your resume/C.V. with not truly being surrounded by legal brains like you would in an in-person firm?

Some of the best ways to grow involve actually getting involved in the legal community outside of law schools and exploring ideas outside of the formalised OCI process and through the magic of online networking, coursework, or a good old-fashioned internship.

If you were unsuccessful in garnering a summer position, and feel that your life will inevitably end up with you living in a cardboard box because you were unsuccessful in a competitive market, remember two things:

1) Most people don't get chosen for OCI interviews, and have to find an articling position themselves.

2) The best way to find an articling position yourself is by making connections in whatever city or town you want to work in. All it takes is grit, creating a personal brand, and a little forward momentum.

So without further ado, these are my tips and tricks to build up your work experience when entering the legal industry:

Getting Work Experience Tips:

Network, Network, Network!

A little more difficult to do now that you can't exactly attend networking events outside of being a head in a screen, but still doable. For example, last year, through the power of both reaching out through contacts and always following up with the question, "Is there anyone else you think I should talk to?", I was able to build my network through 70+ informational interviews from 35 contacts on LinkedIn, to close to 200 legitimate contacts.

(And I put an emphasis on 'legitimate' contacts, because I'm not talking about getting LinkedIn connections through simply adding any Tom, Dick, or Harry who reaches out to you, or anyone you vaguely recognise from law school/ the law community.)

The most important thing to do in order to get real, solid work experience is to put yourself top of mind if a lawyer needs work completed or an extra set of hands. For example, I got a legal research job this past January due to a lawyer starting a project, and needing that extra set of hands, but also knowing I was looking for additional legal work and to grow my knowledge in real estate and conveyancing. A win-win for everyone. They don't have to waste billable hours doing heavy lifting through research databases, and I got the opportunity to educate myself in a certain area of law I'm interested in pursuing, but also managed to create memos and garner more experience in proper legal work.

If you make the effort to be seen, heard, and listen to other legal professionals and what they have to offer, they will remember, especially if you offer them a set of helping hands.

Please, Please, Please: Be polite:

This seems self-explanatory, but you'd be surprised at how presumptive some law students are (and I say that as someone who is currently still finishing up her qualifications).

For example, I offered to talk to the family member of an acquaintance about having grit and trying to find a work position in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. I offered them over an hour of my time, and also offered to connect them with a friend of mine who worked in their area of law.

I then followed this up with an email with all the resources I previously mentioned, as well as offering to provide an introduction to this other lawyer.

I never heard back from them, never had them acknowledge my email providing them with a plethora of resources and an introduction. I never got a follow up courtesy email for my time (always follow up with a courtesy email for someone's time, even if it seems redundant), and from one mention of this sort of circumstance on LinkedIn, I can tell I'm not the only legal professional who has been burned by a smart yet ultimately presumptive student.

The law industry is smaller than you think- especially in terms of smaller cities and towns. Your reputation will be built both on your work, but also how well you can represent a firm. Common courtesy can be not so common, and trust me- people remember common courtesy almost as much as the legal work you complete.

A reminder to students: When lawyers invest in you, they are not making any money in terms of what you may bring in. In fact, they most often lose money on a summer student or an articling student. While most are doing it with the hopes of building up another associate, How you perform is often a reflection on them and their firm.

No matter how high your grades were in law school- no matter how much you think you know about Supreme Court decisions- everyone is at least to some degree successful who graduates law school. You have the credentials, just like everyone else. What will separate the "men from the boys," as it were, is the intangible "soft skills" that will make you a solid lawyer. The ability to talk to clients- to translate something into plain English from legalise, the ability to remain calm and courteous. That all begins and ends with how you project yourself to other legal professionals, and other future lawyers.

Long story short: Be polite, be respectful, respect a lawyer and/or legal professional's time, because time is literally money.

A firm can teach you an area of law that you might not be as versed in. What they frankly, shouldn't have to teach you (and what will cause them probably not to hire you), is if they feel they have to teach you how to be considerate to others, not project entitlement, or how to not project a bad attitude. No one wants to work with someone who they want to strangle to death at three in the morning when working on a case file. Don't be that guy.

Get Properly Involved in the Legal Community:

"But I am properly involved in the legal community!" - Random Law Student who is definitely not properly involved in the legal community.

In case you haven't caught on by now, law school is a bubble. It is effectively a safe little legal womb you gestate in for three plus years. A pressure-cooker womb, but a womb nonetheless. You aren't going to have clients demanding things of you unless perhaps you get involved with an extracurricular or elective that puts you out in the world. You aren't going to have to think on your feet like you do in a legal firm and quickly come up with a solution. It's honestly a different kettle of fish.

What I know I wasn't ready to hear in law school when I felt like I was hanging on by my fingernails was that law school wasn't exactly preparing me for this different kettle of fish, that was terrifying enough in and of itself. If you're a first generation law graduate, like me, I honestly feel that there's only so much you can suss out as opposed to individuals who have previous exposure to the legal industry. It may feel as though you're involved in law, day in, and day out.

Well, until you're actually working in a firm, an organisation (usually off campus), or seeing the ins-and-outs of the industry in person, showing up to law school unfortunately is not representative of working in law, or connecting with the legal industry at large.

That's why I suggest getting properly involved in the legal community. Law school can only prepare you for so much, that you won't experience without actually setting foot in a law firm/ firm setting in COVID.

This could involve building up your resume/C.V. is to volunteer with law-adjacent roles, or event with organisations you feel strongly in, to cold-calling firms and asking if they need additional legal research handled. It takes a bit of initiative, but you only stand out all the more for that.

  • Take Leadership Positions in those Volunteer Roles: Sure, they may be unpaid- But you are building up your willingness to take on leadership roles and direct others shows that people have placed trust into you, and believe that you can accomplish whatever work they trust you with. Besides a Google search or two for volunteer legal positions in areas you may like, also try platforms like "Charity Village," which post opportunities with non-profit organisations.

  • Join associations/ conferences and learn more deeply about the areas you may be interested in: Join the Canadian Bar Association- Join The Advocates Society- join any organisation that focuses on an area of law you might be interested in- just make sure to put yourself out there and learn from your experiences.

Lastly, remember: A lot of life is timing, and the luck of the draw.

There's a classic episode of The Simpsons where Bart Simpson actually decides to try on his Grade Three English test. He actually studies, puts in the work, and shows up on time to take the exam.

He still fails.

There's another classic episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, where Wesley, a precocious kid of a crew member and who actually does have "work experience" working on a Star Trek ship, tries to apply to the Starfleet Academy to officially join Starfleet and work towards becoming an official member of the crew.

He's put in a room with four extremely qualified candidates, who all have different strengths to offer, and who, as an audience member, we could all see being accepted to the program, even though we're supposed to be most attached to Wesley.

As Wesley goes through the challenges of the exam scenarios, which test both his mental and physical abilities, he establishes himself as something special, someone who goes back for his co-candidate in a hypothetical scenario, even though it would technically detrimentally affect his score overall.

This is the biggest thing he is complimented for, but ultimately, the position goes to an older candidate with more life experience and who honestly, as a viewer, you can already see in more of a leadership role.

Afterwards, Captain Jean-Luc Picard, famously a crusty old French baguette in terms of personality, comforts Wesley. "It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness- that is life."

My least favourite 'motivational' messages on LinkedIn forget this very real true-life lesson. If you haven't garnered a position yet, you're nothing. Your life is only that culminating moment of garnering a position. The problem with this mentality, is it's all-or-nothing thinking. Because you're so focused on that golden moment, it casts everything else you've accomplished into shadows. It makes everything pale by comparison.

While you can always control how you react to a situation, you can't control the circumstances. No one assumed 2020 was going to end with all of us in our little silos, with few positions for individuals starting out in the legal industry, and many students losing jobs because of shutdowns. By failing to acknowledge this reality and thinking you can manifest your way into a position, honestly, the only way, like anything in life, for you to get a position is for someone to take a chance on you. And while you can control how proactive you are in making yourself an appealing professional, at a certain point, it's luck of the draw. Acknowledge it, be comfortable with it, and to quote The Princess Bride, "Get used to disappointment."

Get involved the best you can, build that resume, and control how you react to failure. That is what makes a good lawyer, and a good person.

Until next time,



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