For many new articling students, impressing lawyers and securing a job is their first and only concern. However, most students will soon realize that there is another professional relationship in the firm that may be just as important to your success: that with the legal assistants. During your articles you will learn a great deal more from the legal assistants and support staff around the office than you will from any one lawyer. You will receive a significant portion of your work through them; and because they almost always have more experience than you, will usually be the first person you turn to when you need help. For that reason, it is imperative that you build and maintain good relationships with the legal assistants in your firm
To give you a leg up in building these relationships, I sat down with three of the best legal assistants – Abby, Erin, and Jillian* – in the bankruptcy/insolvency, general litigation, and class actions departments, to find out what makes a good articling student.
How do you view the relationship?
Across the board, all three viewed their experience working with articling students as a positive one. The most important theme that came up was that it should be a relationship of respect: legal assistants are often our first point of contact for any file, and in terms of practical knowledge of drafting documents or running a file, have a wealth of experience that you lack (but can learn from!). The quicker you understand this and respect their experience, the better your working relationship will be.
What are the best (and worst) qualities in an articling student?
Legal Assistants are busy enough as it is with their day to day responsibilities, and anything you do to lighten that load will be appreciated. Stick to deadlines, keep the files you receive from them organized, and manage your work effectively in a way that recognizes that their time is valuable. In addition to making your coworkers happy, these are basic skills that you will need to develop to a high level to succeed in your future profession.
I cannot stress enough that you will be working closely with the legal assistants in your rotation on a daily basis. On some projects, you may only see the lawyer when handing in, or following up on, a final product. This can be a stressful job, and nobody wants to come to work with someone who brings a negative attitude with them every day. Be sociable, positive, and sincere, for your sake as well as theirs.
Ask for Help!
Without exception, all three interviewees appreciated students who ask them for help or guidance when necessary. Not only does this show that you respect their knowledge, but it often makes their life easier in the long run to avoid unnecessary errors.
The flip side of this is taking initiative: go above and beyond the bare requirements of your assignments, be creative in getting results, and respond to requests for assistance to help build a reciprocal relationship. If an assistant knows you to be hard working diligent and a team player they are far more likely to go to bat for you or help you along in the future when you’re in a jam or need an extension
Do lawyers ask your opinion of students?
Don’t worry, the legal assistants are not spying on you for the articling committee. At the same time, don’t think this means that you can reduce your effort when no lawyer is around without any potential consequences. Lawyers and their assistants talk casually all the time, and any lawyer with a good assistant will trust their judgment. If you screw up badly enough – or do an exceptional job– there is a good chance the lawyer involved will hear about it. Beyond that though, if an assistant knows that they can trust your work, your name is more likely to come up any time a lawyer says “I’ve got this interesting file for a student …”
A successful legal firm is far more than the lawyers on the front page of the website. Legal assistants are a critical element, and at least at this stage in your career, have experience and knowledge that makes them more valuable to the firm in many ways than you are (no matter how many A’s you got in school). Developing good working relationships with the assistants you deal with every day will not only make your life (and theirs) that much easier, but will make you a better lawyer as well. Treat everyone in your firm no matter what their role, title or job description with the same amount of respect and professional courtesy and it will serve you well throughout your articles and into your career.