Ask a random group of lawyers what they wish they had been taught in law school, you’d be surprised just how random the answers are.
As law students everywhere wrestle with the ins and outs of contract law, criminal law, constitutional law and civil procedure, law school graduates say they could have used a healthy dose of another C-subject: common sense practical skills.
Kwan Loh, an associate at Bull, Housser & Tupper LLP in Vancouver, says he started to practise law completely in the dark about how to organize a system to make sure tasks and deadlines aren’t missed. He knew nothing about billing and accounting practices, business development and managing his new partners’ expectations.
“Law school didn’t teach or prepare me to handle the practical everyday aspects of being a lawyer,” Loh says.
While firms seem content to allow their new lawyers to pick up those softer skills in their first year, he wishes law school had taught those kinds of things. “I appreciate that law school is a time to learn and understand the theory behind the craft, but I feel, as a student, I would have benefitted from at least some exposure to the every day practice of law.”
That is doubly true for the practice of corporate commercial law, according to Tristan Musgrave, an associate at McCarthy Tétrault LLP in Toronto.
“The one thing I wish law schools would teach better is what it takes to be a successful solicitor from a practical perspective,” he says. “Not to unjustly criticize law schools, because what they teach they seem to teach very well, but their general approach to instruction lends itself to producing an army of litigators and law clerks for judges.”
Musgrave believes many law schools are missing the boat when it comes teaching would-be transactional lawyers by not addressing basics like how best to structure different kinds of transactions, the primary and minor documents that need to drafted, and important provisions.
He thinks there should be courses in best practices for solicitors that include “how to draft and negotiate documents, run a closing, identify client interests, and review and comment on documents provided from clients or opposing counsel.”
Peter Zed, an associate in the Halifax office of Cox & Palmer, couldn’t agree more, saying: “As a junior lawyer practising in the area of corporate and commercial law, it is hard to believe how little attention is devoted to the practical skills that a corporate lawyer needs on a day-to-day basis.”
Zed, who was called to the Nova Scotia Bar in 2011, says his legal education (including Bar Society courses) was “heavily slanted towards approaching the law from the viewpoint of a litigator."
He says a good example is mandatory first-year contracts courses. Most contract classes revolve around questions of whether or not a contract exists, or whether one was frustrated, through the lens of litigated cases.
“The reality is that knowing that we need consideration for there to be a contract is far different from knowing how to effectively craft language describing and governing the consideration being given.
“When you begin your articles you know what a tort is, how to research case law, what the elements of a contract are, and how to address the court. But the mechanics of putting security in place, drafting earn-out provisions or even basic authorizing resolutions are foreign concepts to many new grads.”
So is the understanding that the role of a solicitor is broader than simply providing good legal advice, says Janan Paskaran, a corporate and securities partner at Torys LLP in Calgary.
It may not be taught in law school but anyone who hopes to succeed in corporate law has to understand the needs of their clients, says Paskaran, chair of the Calgary student committee. That includes “the business your client is in, providing a practical assessment of the risks and rewards of particular decisions, and being a facilitator in finding workable solutions to complex problems.”
He says graduating students shouldn’t feel anxious about assuming a broader role because it can ultimately lead to the development of long-term relationships, which he finds one of the most fulfilling parts of the job.
“Knowing that you have played a key role in achieving the overall goals of your client, whether on a particular transaction or in a broader context, helps make the long hours worth it.”
Even if law schools were to adopt everything on Paskaran’s wish list and combine it with the wish lists of Loh, Musgrave and Zed as well, the dream curriculum would still be missing one or two things.
Cristie Sutherland, Director of Student and Associate Programs at Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP, says law school may never teach you this, but in today’s current hyper-competitive legal market the reality is that having solid technical skills and delivering high quality work isn’t enough.
You will need to know how to market yourself.
“You won’t find ‘How to Market Yourself’ on a law school course syllabus, but knowing how to do that is a skill that every lawyer should master,” Sutherland says from her office in Calgary. “Being an excellent technical lawyer is a good start, but you also need to take steps to be known, within your firm and externally, and to develop a reputation for consistently delivering exceptional client service.”
She says there are some very simple steps students can take to start laying the foundation for marketing and business development. The most important “is to habitually go above and beyond your client’s expectations, whether your client is another lawyer in your own firm or a ‘paying’ client.’
“Also, ensure that you maintain your network of law school colleagues and friends and keep up the business connections you make at every stage of your career. As your peers’ careers develop they will become potential sources of work and referrals — but not if you’ve lost touch.”
While it’s likely not covered in a law school syllabus, she says another common sense practice is to keep a cumulative list of your publications and speaking engagements.
“Opportunities of this sort abound for young lawyers but it makes little sense to invest the time and effort if you can’t turn those opportunities into reputational capital. Be sure to keep a list of awards and recognitions too. Often the ‘leading lawyer’ in an area isn’t the brightest or most experienced lawyer, but the one that is most effective at communicating his or her accomplishments.”
One thing that probably can’t be taught, but is key to your success, is the power of “a great attitude and strong work ethic,” says Shannon Leo, Student and Associate Programs Manager at Norton Rose Canada LLP. “I’ve consistently seen how far a fabulous attitude goes at a busy firm,” she says.
Senior associates and partners appreciate that most law students who graduate from law school have a strong work ethic and they are aware of how much juggling there is with law school, multiple extracurricular activities and personal commitments. But don’t shorten your work time, she counsels, because people will be watching.
“Students who appreciate that everything takes longer because everything is new, and put in the effort and attention required to get up to speed, are highly valued.”
You may not hear this in a law school lecture hall but, she says, “in my experience, the secrets to success are uncomplicated — just come to work with a smile on your face and ready to work hard.”