My Top Three Tips for Articling Students
Articling season is upon us and we have an articling student that will soon be joining us at the firm. This had me reflecting on my articling year and how much I’ve grown and changed since then. I remembered how terrified I was to make a mistake; how unsure I was about everything I knew; and doubting if I would ever get to a point where I just knew things off of the top of my head (or at least at a point where I didn’t have to research every single legal question asked of me). When I got to thinking of this time in my life, I thought it would be neat to write about three things that I learned from that experience as I enter my fourth year of my practice.
1. Keep Things in Perspective
Like many of you likely are, I was a perfectionist when I started articling (and like to say that I’m now a recovering perfectionist). When I was articling this made me terrified of making mistakes and it was something that I tried to avoid at all costs (spoiler: I still made them). However, when I made them, I felt like it was the end of the world and I would be really stressed about fixing the mistake. On one occasion where I was particularly anxious about a file and was in my principal’s office rambling about this file, my principal stopped me after watching me pace back and forth in front of their desk and we had the following exchange:
R: “Okay, let’s take a breath. Have you behaved inappropriately or had inappropriate relations with a client?”
R: “Have you stolen trust funds?”
R: “Did you miss a limitation date?”
R: “Okay, then if you haven’t done any of those things, anything else that has happened or might happen can be fixed.”
In the moment, it didn’t make me feel any better, but after I left their office and really reflected on what they’d said, I realized they were right. While I hated making mistakes (and still do), reminding myself that so long as I didn’t commit those three big mistakes, everything else could be fixed, and it made me feel like not everything was a mountain and most things could remain molehills. Fixing the mistake might be embarrassing or time-consuming, but chances are, whatever it was, it could be rectified. From this point forward, any time I would get worked up about something, I would remind myself of this conversation and it would help me to stay grounded and keep the situation in perspective.
2. It’s Okay to Feel Overwhelmed and More Importantly, It’s Okay to Ask for Help
Articling is not a walk in the park. I’m sure many people have told you this and I think everyone’s articling experiences differ. On a whole, I believe that articling is a year full of learning on an extremely steep learning curve and it’s going to be full of moments that test you but also full of moments where you triumph and experience many “firsts”. There will be moments where your workload feels light and other times where you feel like you’re drowning. I’m here to tell you, it’s okay to feel overwhelmed. To be quite frank, I think if you asked any lawyer whether there were any moments in their articling year where they felt overwhelmed, every single one would be able to say yes (and the ones that don’t, are likely lying). This doesn’t make you a lesser person, nor a lesser lawyer to have those moments.
When you’re feeling this way, the only thing that matters is what you do next. No one can help you if you don’t share how you’re feeling. I used to wish that people around me would just be able to notice that I was “off” or would come to check-in on me in a private setting just so I could admit that I wasn’t doing well. I came to realize that most people are much more focused on what they have going on in their day-to-day lives that unless you approach them, they’re not going to be able to read your mind and give you the help you need.
There is no shame in speaking up when you have too much work; taking a personal day when you need a break or some time to reset; or engaging the services of the Alberta Lawyers Assistance Society to talk through how you’re feeling with a trained professional. In the Province of Alberta, lawyers, articling students, law students, and eligible family members can receive 4 free sessions per occurrence, per year and their crisis line is available 24/7.
3. It Really Does Get Better
You may hear people tell you that if you can just stick it out for a couple of years, things will get better. When I was articling and even in my first year as an associate, when I heard this I would think to myself that it was some kind of bullsh*t excuse that some out of touch lawyer was telling me; but now as I enter my fourth year of practice, I can say it actually wasn’t bullsh*t. While I’m not an advocate for feeling miserable for years of your life, there is no way around the part of articling and being a junior lawyer where you just have to commit to the learning process and get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Being an articling student was the first job that I’d ever had where there wasn’t a finite list of things that I needed to know in order to be “trained” and then just perfect that list of things. Articling was a whole new league where there seemed like there was an infinite number of things that I needed to know and at times it felt like I’d never know them all (and I definitely still don’t!).
However, there does become a point where you see a similar factual issue to one that you’d dealt with before or research that you’d done on one file which was able to help inform other research that you needed to do on another. Processes like residential real estate, drafting estate planning documents, demand letters, or certain kinds of pleadings begin to become easier and feel less onerous than they once did. Even court applications begin to become less anxiety-inducing and begin to feel more natural and routine. Although there will be moments where it doesn’t feel like it, I promise, it does get better.
Throughout your articling year, just remember to keep things in perspective; it’s okay to feel overwhelmed and ask for help; and it really does get better. Articling can be a daunting experience, but it’s also a year of tremendous growth and learning. So take a deep breath, buckle up, and get ready for a wild ride.