Choose Your Own Adventure: Articling Edition
Updated: Sep 2
By Heidi J. T. Exner, CFE
At first glance, law school seems like it is a regimented journey. This might especially appear to be the case in 1L, as students are placed in courses they do not choose, must adhere to schedules they do not choose, and learn from professors they do not choose. After 1L things begin to open to some extent; students have more latitude about the courses they take, when they take them, and the professors who teach them. However, even throughout upper years, the process might seem stiff to those of us who enjoy more autonomy. I admit in retrospect that I found it a bit suffocating at first, but I came to realise law school is more like a “choose your own adventure” book than most of us understand. The things that interest us lead us to join clubs, go down rabbit holes with research, and meet various actors in the profession – both on and off campus. These are all choices that we make, and they are meaningful. These choices ultimately lead us through to where we article, in which areas of law we practise, and what sorts of opportunities come our way.
Articling seems like it’s a lifetime away on 1L Orientation Day. Indeed, in some ways it is. I will tell you a secret, though: it’s really just the next chapter in our “choose your own adventure” books. Where we article is an important choice, as this environment is where we hope to sink our teeth into work that excites us, and is where we become lawyers. Therefore, it makes sense to understand different firms’ approaches to the articling process, the types of formal and informal support available to articling students, and whether we feel particular environments will truly equip us for success as new Associates.
True to my “choose your own adventure” analogy, different firms go about structuring articles in many different ways. It is up to us to dig beneath the surface to determine whether an environment is optimal for our growth, which is an important decision point in our adventures. I think a lot of law students are so insecure about getting hired by any firm that whether the firm is right for them might not get the attention it deserves. In the right team and environment, we can grow and flourish for years to come. In one that is less than ideal, we might find ourselves unhappy, unmotivated, failing to realise our potential, or making poorly-considered lateral moves. Choosing unwisely shortchanges ourselves, our employers, and probably our loved ones. Talk about pressure, right!?
Let’s hit the release valve before someone has an aneurysm. I am writing this article to show you that sometimes the solution is as simple as asking the right questions. The sooner we begin to dig, the more certain we will be that a firm is truly the right fit for the articling and Associate chapters of our adventures.
I had the pleasure of chatting with UCalgary Law 2021 JD Aya Taher, who was a 2L summer student and is currently completing her articles at Stikeman Elliott. We spoke on Aya’s last day of articles, and she will be a freshly minted Associate at Stikeman Elliott after her bar call. I know quite a few articling students, and I can say that Aya is on the calmer, more confident, and more poised side than others. What is her secret? Simple: she feels she is set up for success within her team. Her happiness is something from which we can all learn, and naturally, I had questions!
“I think you get a much better sense of things when you’re articling than when you summer,” Aya explained. “For the most part, [summering] is a little snippet of what you’ll be getting later on. I think what I could tell from summer and from interviews at Stikeman is that I really enjoyed the people that I met. I found everyone super personable, and I wanted to work with the people I was meeting.” For Aya, this is her golden ticket. “They did a really good job of making me feel integrated and as though I was part of the team.” When asked to elaborate, she said, “I feel like for most students the work is not as substantive when you’re a summer student as when you’re articling, but I had people really guiding me through. It made me enjoy the work more.” She described how this was the case from the outset at her firm, and as a summer student she received guidance through her first time drafting documents for a financing deal that planted the seed for her to get into the solicitor end of corporate law.
In the right environment, this seed was able to grow and flourish naturally. “At Stikeman, you are not in a practice group at the start of articles.” Instead of making students decide on an area of law from the outset, this firm encourages students to obtain exposure in a variety of areas so they can decide through the process of learning. When work comes into this bull-pen style group, “we decided amongst ourselves who had the bandwidth and who is interested.” However, there are plenty of avenues to take initiative, which Aya found rewarding as well; even during her 2L summer work, some of the most interesting and helpful learning experiences were the ones she intentionally sought. “Specifically reaching out to lawyers for work that you want to try out – when I expressed that interest, I received good responses. If they didn’t have anything in the moment, they said, ‘I’ll keep you in mind,’ and they really did keep me in mind and followed up.” Collectively via those avenues, “we got quite a range of work that we were exposed to. It was cool that we got such a diverse range.”
“As my articles went on and I got a better sense of where my interests were in terms of where I planned to take my career, I was able to be more intentional,” Aya said. She said this allowed her to feel that placement in her current practice group felt more like “a natural progression” based on a more fulsome picture of what that type of work entails.
“It was good to see other aspects of a transaction. It gives you a better understanding of the scope of a file.” While Aya has landed in the solicitor side of corporate law now, she noted that her exposure to other facets of files, such as employment and other areas, gave her a better sense of how the work she does today fits into the broader scope of a client’s needs.
As for when this decision point took place for Aya? “Those conversations started maybe six months in,” and they were approached with support and guidance from everyone at the firm. It wasn’t until the final months of articles that she was placed into a practice group. The Stikeman Elliott approach to deciding in what area of law an articling student wishes to land is more guidance-based than structure-based, though the framework is certainly there to support. Aya noted that more exposure to different aspects of files has allowed her to have more of an impact in terms of the work product that clients receive. “It’s made it easier to do work that I find meaningful; feeling a sense of ownership of the work is what makes the difference for me.”
To be clear, my conversation with Aya was not a typical “ask/answer” style interview. Much of our discussion required real thought and reflection, and because of the depth of answers this produced, I left our meeting with the impression that this firm is doing a lot of things right. This is the digging I referenced earlier, and it matters. Aya’s candour was appreciated, and I hope it can be helpful to you.
Aya noted that her environment, colleagues, and her sense of contribution are “a good sign of your enjoyment in life and your motivation.” She feels fortunate that her work consists of more than “piecemeal tasks,” and she might not feel the way she does if this were the case at her firm.
A lot of what I look forward to are the opportunities to do meaningful work, and my sense of contribution. Meaningful to me means that I am actually doing something that is a service to a client. Generally, I am not just working on one small aspect of something that is going to various lawyers, who change it, and then to a partner who changes it again, and it ends up being like 1% of a transaction.
Aya is entering the new Associate chapter of her adventure with a sense of agency. Her articling experience at Stikeman Elliott has protected the integrity of the “choose” function in her “choose your own adventure.”