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This article was originally prepared for and published by the Canadian Bar Association – Alberta Branch
Many lawyers early in their careers have moments where they think “I really wish someone would have taught me this in law school…”. It was this idea that led to the development of the new Early Career Lawyering course at the University of Alberta Faculty of Law.
In early 2021, Adam Cembrowski and I were approached by Eric Adams, the Vice Dean of the university’s Faculty of Law, to develop and teach a new course that would focus on the early years of legal practice. Professor Adams felt that a practical course was needed that would also give students an opportunity to feel comfortable asking the tough questions about practice.
Adam and I worked throughout the Fall of 2021 to develop a new course that would help introduce practical legal skills while encouraging discussion and debate about facing those hurdles that inevitably arise in the first 5 years of practice. Some of the legal topics we covered included: preparing opinion and demand letters, drafting a chambers application, appearing in chambers, preparing and running a questioning, preparing for trial, and settling a file. We also scheduled discussions about client and practice management, and every class we presented the students with a real-life challenge that Adam or I had encountered in the first few years of our own practice. These real-life scenarios allowed us to explore dealing with opposing counsel, managing client relationships and expectations, and finding your place and fit within your firm or workplace. Students also raised thoughtful questions that led to many meaningful discussions.
As two litigators, Adam and I have tailored the class primarily to a civil litigation practice, but in the middle of the term we invited a panel of guest speakers to discuss the realities of a criminal practice, government practice, and solicitor’s practice. Our students have varied backgrounds and are headed to a wide variety of professional environments and our hope is that we can give each one of them some practical tips that they will take into their articling year and their first years of practice. The panel discussion was very well-received, and many students commented on how they appreciated the honesty and openness of the panelists. As instructors, Adam and I were also pleased to see the students so engaged with the issues raised by the panelists, including issues like mental health, work-life balance, and movement between firms in the early years of practice.
We had our first seminar on January 11, 2022, with a completely full class list. The class concluded on April 5, 2022 and is scheduled to run again in the Fall 2022 term, with another full roster of students.
The goal for the course was to provide students with a practical introduction to the tasks and challenges they are likely to experience during articling and their first years of practice working in a firm or government setting. Students were given the opportunity to practice drafting, advocacy, and learn techniques that will be helpful on a day-to-day basis and discuss “firm life” with junior practitioners. One of the main motivators for this class was providing students with the ability to gain an understanding of the day to day of working as a lawyer, including about some things that may not be obvious until you are well into articling or practice. We relied heavily in this course on the participation of the students, and they did not disappoint. The students brought thoughtful insight to practical legal problems and were not afraid to ask hard-hitting questions.
With the first semester of this course complete, we hope these students will enter practice with the confidence to complete the tasks asked of them and the knowledge to ask the right questions. We realized it is easy for lawyers to quickly forget what it was like to not know how to negotiate a settlement or what a demand letter is, or where to find the forms on the court website, and we have also appreciated this reminder from our students. For our next iteration of the class, some of the topics we will explore include working with assistants, firm culture, business development and building client relationships.
As one student said to us, “you don’t know what you don’t know,” and our goal is to narrow the gap of the unknown. I am certain that these students will still experience moments of “why did no one tell me this in law school…?” and they can blame us for forgetting to tell them, but ultimately, we hope that they have this thought much less and at the very least, are better prepared with the tools necessary to seek out the answers and find the guidance they need.
Lauren Chalaturnyk is an associate at Reynolds Mirth Richards & Farmer LLP in Edmonton, practicing primarily in the areas of employment and municipal law, as well as a sessional instructor at the University of Alberta Faculty of Law.