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“There are known acquaintances … there are known unknowns … but there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know, those we don’t know … it is the latter category that tends to be the difficult ones . “” – Donald Rumsfeld, former US Secretary of Defense.
Law students and young lawyers often find themselves in the world of unknown strangers. And that is a dangerous and very stressful place to live.
That was the case with Zack Silverberg when he started his professional journey.
Zack, now an associate at Mills & Mills LLP in Toronto, spent his 2L summer negotiating large contracts internally. Law school hadn’t prepared him for this at all, and he had to study on the fly. Without formal training, Zack learned by watching. It was – in his words – the only way to learn.
He got a job with an insurance defense company. Even though he had graduated from law school, he still had no idea what he was doing on the first day. Six years later, he vividly remembers a partner who came into his office on his first week and asked him to prepare a simple form. Of course, Zack had no idea what that was and turned to the trusted resource of all young lawyers, Google, to find out what to do.
In the beginning, he was outside of his comfort zone every day. On his fourth day, he was put on trial to argue a Wagg motion. In an ideal world someone would have told him that a Wagg application was named after a court case: DP versus Wagg,  OJ No. 3808 which specifies the procedure for submitting police or crown documents. But of course that didn’t happen.
Despite the lack of formal training, Zack was lucky enough to find a junior associate to direct things from, and that person became an unofficial mentor who played a huge role in making the articulation experience less daunting.
This is a far too common story: a younger attorney empathizing with the students and helping fill the gaps in a law firm’s formal training and mentoring programs.
Unfortunately, attorneys who take on this role are rarely compensated for their time. Your non-billable time, which means it usually has little (if any) impact on your compensation or future development within the company. Indeed, attorneys who assume this role often act directly against the extrinsic incentives of their employers.
When Zack became a full-time employee in a litigation boutique, he was fortunate enough to gain a wide variety of experience during his early years of practice. He performed at all levels of the Ontario courts, the company had a real open house policy, and mentoring was rampant. However, there was no formal training. Everything was learned in the workplace and each training session was reactive rather than proactive.
What lawyers often fail to consider are the practical realities of articulating students. The students are precariously preoccupied with an 8-10 month contract which is really a long interview process. As a result, they don’t want to look stupid, they don’t want to rock the boat, and they don’t want to ask more than their colleagues.
While businesses of all sizes make good faith efforts to help students (whether through mentoring, training, or other resources), they are not always able to take full advantage of these opportunities.
To counteract this, Zack turns to his company’s students several times a week to ask what questions they have and how he can help. This way, students will know they are not a burden and will be more comfortable asking for help or guidance.
Zack also recalled his civil litigation experience in law school. After completing the course, he had little understanding of the “big picture” of litigation and no understanding of the “why” behind the various steps involved.
To help younger lawyers, Zack walks students through every step of the litigation process, from filing claims to litigation, for the first week of articulating each year. He explains the different steps parties can take, the timetables, and why these steps are important. In any case, during their tenure, the students will come to him to thank him for providing this context – which has been extremely helpful to them as they are doing tasks throughout the article that touch different steps in the process process. It’s the same approach Zack took when he trained freshman law students at Ryerson University.
Often times, lawyers forget that they are operating from a place of knowledge. When you’ve handled dozens of cases and have a decade of experience, it’s easy to solve problems in no time because you have an extensive pool of knowledge to draw on. But college students and younger lawyers generally have no idea what the options are and how the pieces of the puzzle fit together. These unknown strangers make it difficult to negotiate effectively, feel safe, and do quality work.
A more practical and formal education would greatly reduce the stress for young lawyers and students. After all, it is much easier to do your job safely and effectively when you understand the “why”.
This article was originally published by The Lawyer’s Daily (www.thelawyersdaily.ca), part of LexisNexis Canada Inc.
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