How a well-developed articling plan contributes to your firm’s success

  • April 10, 2014
  • Deborah E. Gillis

Law graduates and firms across the country are preparing for the beginning of articles. As we all know, some articles are a positive experience for the clerk and the law firm while, sadly, others are a less than ideal experience for one or both parties.

In this article, I provide some tips and suggestions to both the clerk and the firm on how to make the articling experience a positive and rewarding one.

For the clerk

For the clerk, this is your opportunity to show the firm what you’re made of and what you can bring to the firm and its clients in the short and long term. It is your chance to learn both by observing and by doing. Be mindful of the fact that you own your own career and that from the beginning you will be assessed daily on how you present yourself, how you interact with others and the work you produce.

In preparing for your own articles, consider the following:

Come to your articles with the realization that law is a business as well as a profession, and that it is important that your work add value to the firm and the lawyer(s) to whom you report.

Always dress and act professionally. Lack of professionalism in dress is a common complaint heard from senior practitioners and the judiciary about clerks and junior lawyers.

Maintain the highest degree of confidentiality. Don’t discuss clients or client matters outside the firm.

Accept each assignment with enthusiasm, even if it seems mundane. There is always something to be learned from each assignment and interaction with others. As your principal becomes more comfortable with you and your work, it is likely that your projects and assignments will become more interesting to you.

When you are given assignments, be sure that you understand what is expected of you and when. Take good notes and ask for clarification if necessary. If you already have a number of other assignments from someone else that might affect your ability to deliver this assignment on time, make this known so that the assigning lawyers can discuss your assignments among themselves and let you know which ones take priority.

In assigning work to you, the lawyer has placed his/her trust in your ability to deliver quality work in a timely fashion. Remember, the lawyer has a client or the court to report to on this matter. Therefore, it is important that you deliver as and when expected. If at any time it appears that you might not make your deadline, let your lawyer know right away so that someone else can assist.

As you progress in your articles and complete assignments, ask for immediate feedback from the lawyer(s) you are working with. Do not wait until your articles are almost finished to hear how you could improve. Accept feedback without becoming defensive. This will encourage your mentors to provide timely and regular feedback to you.

For other suggestions as to how you can ensure that you get feedback, see the 2009 ABA publication Connecting with Your Colleagues, by Martha Miller and Martin Camp.

Strive to provide excellent quality work – not something that is just good enough. Develop good listening habits, and pay attention to what is going on around you. Be courteous and respectful to all persons you deal with on a file. If you follow these few suggestions, you are well on your way to a successful articling period and legal career.

For lawyers/ law firms

For the firm, there should be firm-wide recognition of the benefit successfully mentoring clerks and junior lawyers. Time and resources must be committed to both recruiting and mentoring.

Your articling plan should be well thought out and then clearly communicated to your clerk(s) at the beginning of the process. It should not be created on an ad hoc basis, as the articles proceed.

Take the time to orient your clerk(s) to office policies and procedures and to key personnel. Don’t leave clerks guessing at what is expected of them or how they will be evaluated. Have a process in place to deal immediately with concerns that a clerk may have about workload, assignments, lawyers they are working with, or other issues that may arise.

Articling does not have to be an endurance test, just for the sake of endurance. When possible, include clerks on your client meetings, discoveries, negotiations and court appearances. This provides invaluable experience in communication and advocacy styles and will instil a sense of confidence in your clerk and a sense of belonging to the firm and to the file he/she is working on.

Take the time to debrief your clerk and discuss what worked and what didn’t on a particular matter. Having this “hands on” experience makes the lessons learned much more meaningful and memorable and lays the groundwork for the development of sound professional judgment by the clerk.

Show courtesy and respect to your clerk. There is no need for, or benefit in, rude or insensitive treatment when interacting with your clerk and assigning him/her work. Do not assign work that you say is urgent and must be completed overnight or on a weekend when this is, in fact, not the case and you do not even look at it for a week, if at all.

When assigning work, explain the assignment and what will be expected. Don’t just hand over a file on your way out the door, providing few facts and fewer instructions, telling your clerk to “handle this.” If you don’t provide sufficient guidance, you will quite likely be disappointed with the work you receive back and will spend more time correcting what you receive than it would have taken to properly assign the work in the first place.

When assigning work to a clerk, indicate all critical dates, timelines, the approximate amount of time that should be spent, and the form of the expected work product. Provide examples of the style and format of what you consider to be an excellent brief or memo, so that your clerk can adopt that format.

Give feedback on a timely basis. Take the time to explain what you liked about the work, what more you would have wanted, and suggestions on how there can be improvement. Behaviour can be changed to the benefit of you, your clerk and the clients you serve, but only if there is communication and direction from you to your clerk.

Providing your clerk with the solid foundation that results from a well-developed and well-executed articling plan should help to develop a lawyer you would want to retain, and one who wants to continue working with your firm and contributing to its continued success. Good luck to you both!

Deborah E. Gillis, Q.C. is a lawyer and consultant in Bedford, N.S.., providing professional advice to lawyers on Risk Management and Practice Management matters and on Succession Planning. She can be reached at