Friday, 31 July 2015

One Actual Day as a Summer Student

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8:00 am: I arrive in the office. We aren’t expected in until closer to 9, but I happily get up a little earlier so not to spend my commute squashed in a crowded subway car; plus it’s quiet around the office at this time of the morning and it gives me an opportunity to get some work done before the emails and phone calls start coming in.

At least once a week I get a new type of assignment that I’ve never done before...

First line of business – Email: My inbox has an email from a Foreign Ministry of Justice. I had put together the affidavit of documents and damages brief for an action against a foreign defendant earlier this summer and I had been asked to arrange for service of the statement of claim to that defendant. The emails back and forth are clarification of forms sent.

Next up: I summarize the documents the opposing side produced for an action. These summaries are usually the basis of letters to clients providing the lawyer with the information they need to form an opinion going to the client on damages and liability. Sometimes the lawyers will go a step further and have us draft the opinion, which they reassuringly will review and revise if necessary, or ask us to give them our opinion informally, but today it’s just a summary. Thankfully, there aren’t too many documents and I manage to get through them and draft the report in a couple of hours.

Switching Gears: At least once a week I get a new type of assignment that I’ve never done before and this weeks’ new task is to create a brief. This involves going through the other side’s productions and after identifying the individual documents, organizing them into pre-determined categories relating to their purpose. Not having broken down documents into these categories before makes it slow going.

Interruptions: The phone rings and it is the adjuster representing the opposing parties on one of my small claims files. We had spent a few days exchanging settlement offers and it was my turn to respond. I had gotten instructions from our client regarding the latest offer yesterday, so I relay the information to the adjuster who says they will discuss it and get back to me. Given our offer, I’m 50-50 about whether we’ll settle or the discussion will break down entirely, but, cautiously optimistic, I get back to work on the brief.

Lunch: Inevitably, at some point in the late morning someone will call, pop by, or message and the question is always the same; “when’s lunch?” The summer students try to get lunch together, unless on field trips, running errands, or other lunch dates; 3 or 4 of us do manage on any given day. Today, lunch is at one and we decide to eat in the food court of our building. In the end, we all are able to make it.

Post Lunch: I receive an email from the adjuster to whom I made the settlement offer this morning. They’ve agreed! I let the supervising lawyer know. After replying to the adjuster, I draft a subrogation release and send it to the client along with the good news. Once done, I start work on a second summary and then continue working on a research memo I started a couple of days earlier.

New Work: At 4:45 a new assignment comes to “The List”. The student who is up next is swamped and looking to switch places. Sometimes students will get a lot of big assignments in a row; as a group we’ve learned to work as a team to handle this. I respond that I have time, and then arrange to meet with the assigning lawyer the next morning.

Closing Time: At 5pm with nothing pressing, I decide to call it a day and head back to the now much busier St. Andrews station to catch the subway home. Most of the other summer students make their way home too. It was made clear to us that no one expects us to hang around the office for the sake of being visible. We stay as long as we need to in order to get our work done. Although I might (and did) receive a couple of new assignments after I arrive home, I know they will keep until tomorrow…

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Legal Practice versus TV Legal Dramas

Many of you may be following this blog because you are wondering what it’s like to actually work in a law firm. I know I was. And if you’re like me, many of you are also fans of Suits, The Good Wife and How to Get Away with Murder. There was an earlier blog post titled Comparing Reality to the Suits TV Show…, which talked about how legal practice is similar to the legal dramas. Here are the major differences.

Working in a law firm
is (usually) not that dramatic.

“Civil” Litigation
One of the things that shocked me the most when I attended examinations for discovery, pre-trials and settlement conferences was that lawyers are actually very polite and civil to one another. This is in stark contrast with the cutthroat, irrational and unreasonable behaviour that is often depicted on television.

One reason for the civility may be the relatively small size of the Ottawa bar. I’ve personally run into my professors five times now! Lawyers often oppose the same law firms or counsel on numerous occasions. Acting courteously, therefore, maximizes the potential for cooperation in future cases, paves a foundation for a professional relationship and protects your reputation.

In mock trials and moots, law students often practice proper decorum by referring to the opposing side as our friends. In legal practice, lawyers might literally be friends with their opposing counsel outside of their clients’ conflict.

And Action… (where’s the camera?)
Depositions are referred to as examinations for discovery in Canada. Examinations for discovery are not filmed. The audio is, however, recorded and a written transcript is produced by a court reporter, so lawyers have an opportunity to catch the person being examined in a lie if he/she changes his/her testimony by the time the case goes to trial ;)

And Cut…
Don’t expect disputes to be resolved within a one-hour episode. Litigation can span months or years, since there are many steps within a legal action. Television shows often glamourize and focus on various proceedings, but rarely show the research and preparation that goes into preparing for a trial.

That’s a wrap!
Because the whole process can be very time-consuming and costly, the parties to litigation often settle the dispute before the action goes to trial. For those reasons, lawyers do not appear in court as often as it is depicted on television.

All in all, I am relieved the legal practice is not as dramatic as how it is depicted on television. The “behind the scenes” work have also made my first summer working in civil litigation interesting, challenging and realistic! However, I am looking forward to my first day in court.

Friday, 17 July 2015

OCI Applications: Finding a 'Good Fit'

As the application deadline for the On-Campus-Interview (OCI) process approaches, second year students begin to eagerly research firms and speak with fellow students. As an applicant, I found it easy to gain superficial information, but difficult to decipher what exactly makes each firm unique.

Here are seven things to consider when gathering information about the firms that interest you.

A heavy emphasis is placed on finding a “good fit”. The OCI and Summer Student Program is, for everyone involved, an investment of time, effort, and resources. So, in the search for compatibility, here are seven things to consider when gathering information about the firms that interest you, the applicant:

1. Practice Areas
Check each firm's website for information about their practice areas. Looking for a niche? Or just want to keep it general? How about litigation? Are students exposed to all firm practice areas? Or restricted to a few?

At MB: As the website indicates, McCague Borlack is a civil litigation firm that focuses on insurance defence. Our cases pertain to any and all losses that would be covered by insurance. This includes motor vehicle accidents, fires, floods, and other property damage. Plus the firm has over 30 listed practice areas, and there is work to be done in all of them. If a student is interested in a specific field, the lawyers are more than willing to get the students involved.

2. Students' Work
Ask current students or check their program materials to see what type of work is assigned. Are you going to be doing mostly research? Sitting at a desk all day? In the library? Working online?

At MB: We are asked to prepare motion records and affidavits, client letters, and memos. We conduct engaging research and compose summaries of our findings. There is a balance of mindful work, administrative tasks, and exciting assignments. The deadlines are often very reasonable, allowing us to manage our daily schedule and allocate our time accordingly.

3. Field Trips
Do students get to leave the office? Perhaps to watch motions? Attend meetings? Go to court? How much interaction is there with the firm's clients? Do you spend a lot of time on the phone?

At MB: Students do not spend all day, every day at our desks. We are given the opportunity to attend out-of-office discoveries, mediations, and settlement conferences. We are also included in client information sessions, Professional Development seminars, and Practice Group meetings - all of which typically come with catered treats… ;)

4. The List
Ask how work is distributed to students. Do they follow a list? Is it a ‘round robin’? First come, first served?

At MB: Our students receive work from lawyers through a list - an email group - through which we take assignments in alphabetical order. The list ensures that each student receives a variety of work, from a variety of lawyers. It bolsters team work, and helps to eliminate competitiveness among the group.

5. Open Door Policy
You need to know about the environment of the firm. Where do you go if you need help or have questions? Can students approach lawyers directly? Or do students speak to lawyer's assistants instead? It is one thing for a firm to say they have an open door policy, and another to actually put it into practice.

At MB:  Our lawyers encourage students to drop by their offices with questions or comments, or even just to chat. It allows everyone to build relationships and establish connections with formal and informal mentors. Since many of the lawyers were once articling and summer students, they are empathetic and very supportive. This speaks to the atmosphere of our office.

6. Hire Back Rates
Does the firm typically hire-back their articling students? Is there competition to get hired-back? What does it take to stand out?

At MB: Our firm is inclusive, supportive, and uncompetitive. This is evident in the firm’s attitude toward hiring back their summer students for articling positions and then as associates. As it was explained to us, we are invited to become long-term members of the team. We are not treated as visitors because we are here to stay.

7. Work Life Balance
Ask current students what a typical week will look like? What kind of hours do they keep? Do they work on the weekends? How often?

At MB: The lawyers and students at McCague Borlack recognize and practice a work life balance. This is somewhat uncommon to come across when speaking of a Downtown Toronto firm. As students, our workload allows us to take advantage of our well-deserved summer break, and to have personal time on the evenings and weekends.

If any potential applicants have follow up questions, please feel free to contact me > Marla R.

Monday, 13 July 2015

Litigation: Yours to Discover

As we cross the midpoint of our summer at MB, we’ve definitely dipped our toes into the cool waters of civil litigation and have learned some useful things over the past seven weeks - including how much we still have to learn! We’ve all fallen into a rhythm of working on assignments, interacting with lawyers & clients, and chatting up a storm when we’re together as a group (trust me, we’re just as friendly as we come across in Mel’s earlier blog).

My first trip to the
magical place of the
“real legal world” ...
a discovery for a slip
and fall case.

But, once in a while, our work rhythm hits a wave and we get an opportunity to leave the confines of the office. Whether it comes through the list, or whether we’ve been approached in-person, each of us has been offered a chance to go outside and experience law in action.

My first trip to the magical place of the “real legal world” came in the form of an invite to attend a discovery for a slip and fall case. I arrived bright-eyed and bushy tailed the very next morning, eager to take note on every word spoken.

For those of you who might not know, a discovery is a pre-trial process during which both parties are supposed to lay all their cards on the table. Unlike in TV legal dramas, the Canadian civil system doesn’t want big, dramatic courtroom revelations; instead, the pre-trial process is meant to focus on settlement and avoidance of going the expensive trial route. The main goal for each party at a discovery is to extract as much relevant information as possible in the hopes of understanding all parts of the other side’s case.

At my discovery, there were multiple parties involved. And so, it was fascinating to watch the tactics each counsel used to obtain the information they wanted. Even though the atmosphere was collegial (unlike in a courtroom setting, everyone sits around a table in a boardroom-style office) it was easy to distinguish the different approaches of the various counsel present. Each lawyer had their own questioning style, and it only became more apparent what objectives each party had once we reached the nitty-gritty details of the accident. Some were friendly while others were more hard-line with their style of questioning. Unsurprisingly, each was successful in its own way; namely, getting the information they wanted. There can also be nerve-wracking moments at discoveries. At one point, we were all stuck waiting for more than two hours because of an unavoidable delay. Thankfully, there was amazing food and the great company of lawyers at the top of their game to make the time fly by. (Tip: When attending a discovery, go with an empty stomach. I can’t tell you how much I regretted eating breakfast after seeing the huge variety of delicious foods available.)


So, what was the most important thing I learned at my discovery? Don’t underestimate its importance! Because of significant inconsistencies in the answers provided about the accident, the case was no longer rock-solid, and there was talk of dismissing the action altogether.

Each part of the civil litigation process is like a puzzle piece, with its own role in anchoring the outcome. So, over the remaining five weeks, we’re all excited to learn more about how all those puzzle pieces come together and form a complete picture!

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Hands-on Learning Approach

We have approached the halfway point into our summer, so it is a great time to check in on how the summer is progressing and specifically give an insightful snap shot into the day and life of a student at the Ottawa office.

The open door policy we were promised during our interviews is definitely widely practiced and an important value of the firm.

The Ottawa office is located right in the heart of downtown Ottawa’s financial district. Each morning on our walk to the office, it is always nice to grab a coffee in one of the many coffee shops, and even stop and appreciate the beautiful views of the parliament buildings before making our way to the 14 floor of the Sun Life building.

Upon arriving to the office, there is no shortage of friendly faces. Everyone in the Ottawa office has been welcoming to the new students. Whether it is sharing laughs in the boardroom over lunch hour, or honouring the departure of a fellow colleague over pizza; the students have been included in each event. From the assistants, to the lawyers, to the law clerk, everyone is approachable and willing to help us with (what seems like) our never-ending questions. The open door policy we were promised during our interviews is definitely widely practiced and an important value of the firm. The collegial atmosphere is particularly conducive for us students to learn because we feel comfortable to ask our questions, seek out direction, make and learn from our mistakes, and seize opportunities.

We have had the opportunity to work with each and every lawyer in the Ottawa office, and many lawyers in the Toronto office. I have found that the lawyers are genuinely interested in teaching and mentoring us students. They are also happy to assign us important and extremely interesting tasks. For example, I have already had the opportunity to personally correspond with clients, conduct extensive research, draft pleadings and even write a client reporting letter, to name a few! The great thing about our office and the firm in general, is that it takes a very hands-on learning approach. There is a great balance between having the freedom to learn how to complete the assigned tasks independently and having the support and resources required to succeed.


This summer, we have been provided with the opportunities to participate in areas of litigation we could only read about in our civil procedure class! It is so fascinating to see what we learned from the pages of our textbooks practiced in real life. For example, I have been lucky enough to observe examinations for discoveries conducted by several lawyers, and I am excited to be attending a mediation next week.

The first half of the summer at McCague Borlack has been both challenging and rewarding. I have already been afforded with invaluable practical litigation experience and I am excited to see what the second half of the summer holds!

Monday, 6 July 2015

Five Habits of Highly Effective Law Students

It is that time of year where many eager first and second year law students begin putting their job applications together. In preparation of your cover letters and practicing for interviews I give you The Five Habits Law Students should aspire to develop. I can confidently say they will assist you, as they have me and my colleagues, with the transition from 'law school' to 'law firm'.

These Habits will assist you with the transition from
'law school' to
'law firm'.

Habit #1- Organization
As any other student of MB will tell you…you do real work here. This means that you are given a great deal of responsibility on a number of files from the get-go. For example, a student’s typical to do list will read:

  • Complete an Affidavit of Documents, 
  • complete a Motion Record, 
  • call client, 
  • get an invoice, 
  • write a briefing letter to expert, 
  • research this issue, 
  • summarize medicals and of course, 
  • write a blog post.  

As you can imagine, without a game plan this list would be a nightmare and you would easily be lost, confused and inefficient. However, if one is able to chart out the above list and check their timelines and due dates with the assigning lawyer for the purposes of prioritizing assignments, the list becomes more manageable. In turn, you become more effective as a student.

Habit #2- Time Management 
As a student you will soon become familiarized with the concept of “capturing your time”. Ultimately, what this means is that you should strive to make every minute of your work count. In accomplishing this, it is helpful to create a self-imposed timeline for your tasks (when one isn’t already given that is). For example, when a lawyer assigns something without telling you when they want it back, you should ask “how long should something like this take me”? Even if the task was assigned on a no-rush basis, this will allow you to stay on track with regards to managing your time.

Habit #3- Be A Good Mentee But Don’t Forget To Be A Mentor As Well 
As a new student you will quickly learn how little you actually know. This is normal (or so they tell me). At MB, everyone will be your mentor in one way or another. For example, you will always have guidance whether it is to show you the particular office you are looking for, how to use a particular machine, or to explain how to properly do a damages brief after already asking three times. That being said, as new student you should always seek out opportunities to be a mentor yourself. This could not be truer of the students at MB, where we relish the opportunity to assist and guide each other.  This in turn will contribute to the collegial atmosphere of the firm.

Habit #4-Be Curious
As a student you will see that it is easy to simply complete an assignment without really knowing the case or delving into the issues. For instance, a common assignment can be to ensure that opposing counsel has provided all of their undertakings. However, you will learn much more much faster, if you take the time to be curious. For example, after examining the undertakings, go back to the file and take a minute to read the Statement of Claim, Statement of Defence, or even the discovery transcript. This will allow you to see how the pieces of the puzzle fit together, and how your role as a student contributes to the assembly of that puzzle.

Habit #5-Trust Yourself 
You should probably come to terms with it now; as a student you can expect to sometimes be lost or confused. In these instances, from time to time, after you have asked all the right questions and got all the right answers, you should simply rely on and trust your intuition. It has led you to where you are now and through many obstacles (LSAT, 1L, OCI’s to name a few) and it will continue to do so (so I hope).

To the prospective students: these are some of the skills and habits I have found helpful in my transition from school to the workforce. Hopefully they will help you too. Good luck with your applications.