Alberta Lawyers' Assistance Society

News & Events

Welcome Summer and Welcome New Students and Lawyers

Welcome Summer and Welcome New Students and Lawyers

It has been an unusual spring. Edmontonians, along with many other Albertans (i.e. me!), cheered on the Oilers in their push for Lord Stanley’s Cup, only to feel the sting of defeat in a hard-fought game seven. In Calgary, we experienced water rationing due to a “cataclysmic” water main breakdown, learning to make do with less. In Northern Alberta, wildfire evacuations occurred and in Southern Alberta, winds roared.
You may have noticed that you did not receive Assist’s weekly newsletter last week (on Friday, June 28th.) Due to staff vacations and illness, I was the only Assist staffer in the office, and it seems that I do not have a sufficient command of the programs we use to generate out newsletter. We try to schedule absences so that this type of situation doesn’t occur, but illnesses happen—not much we can do about that.
I tried to tackle the newsletter on my own, starting with a pep talk as I logged into Mailchimp and brought up the previous week’s newsletter. How hard can this be, my lawyer-brain questioned. Just make a few little changes and then drop the new blog in. I remember having done this in 2019 once or twice! But 2019 was four years and a pandemic ago, and after three hours of frustration, my blood pressure and stress hormones were in overdrive, and I decided to employ a well-being strategy: is this a required task that justifies the expenditure of health resources (a “need”) or is this more accurately a “want”?
Many people hope to leave their offices early, if possible, on the Friday before a long weekend, and we weren’t hosting any events the following week. I realized that my primary purpose for sending out the newsletter was because we send it out each Friday. I had hoped to share the invitation to our Hand-to-Hand event complete with a ticket purchase link, but I had no idea how to create the link. Putting in an invitation that essentially said “link to follow” didn’t feel like a message anyone needed to see heading into the Canada Day weekend. So, I decided that we would skip the newsletter—this is the first time that we have been unable to publish it as scheduled in more than four years, although there were times over vacation periods when we had announced that we would be on a bi-weekly schedule.
Some people have told us that they like receiving our newsletter late on Friday afternoons because it signifies the end of the work week. We like getting to be a harbinger of downtime! I hope no one was inconvenienced, and I apologize for not letting you down.
I am sharing this story for two reasons:

  • First, because new articling students often commence their legal careers at the beginning of July and they will be navigating the how-tos of fulfilling assignments, and
  • We all need to consider our strategies when our work commitments become unmanageable.

When you are a senior lawyer, you generally know how to gently tell a client that they will receive something on Monday instead of on Friday because you have seen it done—and have done it yourself on occasion. We often can do this because we know the larger picture with our clients’ situation and that we may have suggested a delivery date that we know was earlier than our client actually needed it. And we likely have the relationship with the client, having established ourselves as credible and reliable, that they know that we take our commitments seriously.
The National Study on the Psychological Health Determinants on Canadian Legal Professionals  supported this. Having ten to fifteen years of legal experience is a protective factor (i.e., something that helps you ride out storms), while being a junior lawyer is a risk factor (i.e., you are at greater risk of experiencing psychological distress, depression, anxiety and burnout).
I remember being a junior lawyer and trying to exceed expectations as a strategy for making my way in the legal profession. But I can count on one hand the number of times a senior lawyer told me that I had exceeded their expectations. The nature of being a junior lawyer is that you are in learning mode, and you often do not have the whole big picture that would enable you to knock the socks off a work supervisor. The best we could generally hope for was for them to be happy that we more or less hit their expectations—rising to the occasion but not soaring.
And as I became more senior, I don’t remember articling students and junior lawyers “hitting it out of the park” very often, and some of the juniors I supervised have become excellent lawyers. Being a junior, trying to learn as much as possible about the context of law and legal work as well as performing it, is hard and stressful.
One thing that is particularly hard for articling students and junior lawyers is realizing that you can’t complete all of the work on your plate to the best of your ability by the specified deadlines.
When I was a junior lawyer, I wanted to take on whatever work I was asked to do, showing keenness and being a team player. So, my initial response to a new assignment was to embrace it eagerly, being prepared to do “whatever it takes” to deliver excellent work on time. But sometimes, intervening events change our timelines.
For example, we may say that we can take on a large research project in addition to a busy workload, believing that we have completed another large project, only to have our work product, that we thought was complete, come back with requests to expand or pursue a different direction. And sometimes a transaction that had stalled comes back online. This happens in the legal world, and it is inherently stressful.
At Assist, we tell students and juniors to let assigning lawyers know as early as possible that you need more time and present constructive solutions. We hear about situations where juniors have competing priorities due to assignments from different lawyers. It is definitely best to speak to at least one of them (perhaps the one who is the least scary) to explain that you are overcommitted. You equip yourself with viable alternatives (“I know that one of the other students has capacity” or “I can get this to you for Monday but not for Friday") and you work your nerve up for the conversation.
While it is theoretically possible that the person you speak to, or potentially both people, will insist that you complete both assignments as originally scheduled, you may be surprised by the flexibility that exists when you put forward a workable alternative. Many of us spend too much time worrying about how the conversation will actually go, and we dwell on worst case scenarios and procrastinate, as if that will help. And sometimes procrastination causes our worst-case scenario because we wait too long to talk to the work assigners about the constraints we are facing and then have no choice but to pull an all nightery, and perhaps do not do our best quality work on both projects.
It is important to manage expectations at the earliest possible opportunity. So, when Partner B asks you for a research memo as of a specified date, and you already have an extensive memo due that day for Partner A, consider telling Partner B that you have another deadline that day and ask if there is any flexibility in their deadline. Explain how your time is committed leading up to that deadline and ensure that you don’t do this every time work is assigned. You can tell Partner B that you are very interested in this area of law or this project, but you want to ensure that you can do the best possible job.
The reality is that many deadlines are porous and reflect a lawyer’s preference for when they want to see a completed work product rather than a deadline with consequences. Most lawyers who are assigning work to students and juniors do not intend to file a statement of claim the next day based on the work product—they know that they need time to read the memo, ask questions and perhaps direct you to further research.
Partner B may tell you that they need your work product on the specified date because it has to go to someone else who has a deadline and that they cannot be flexible. Consider whether you can ask Partner B to ask Partner A to grant you slack on the other deadline—you will know whether this would fly at your firm!
This brings me to the topic for today. We often hear people say, “it is easier to ask forgiveness than permission.” This may be true in many contexts, but it does not apply to legal work, both when you are a junior or when you are managing client relationships. Expectation management is the order of the day, and not producing the work is expected on its deadline and invoking “it is easier to ask forgiveness than permission” can be a career limiting, perhaps even career ending, error.
If you are a junior and you realize that you have an impossible combination of work, here are some steps you can take:

  • Is there an associate at your firm whose judgment you trust that you can discuss your issue with? The more senior associate may be able to suggest strategies or provide background about previous situations—what worked for others and what did not work.
  • Do you have a mentor who can provide suggestions? There are many mentoring programs in the Alberta legal community with different foci. Some firms and corporate law departments assign mentors, but these organizations also provide external mentorship:
    • Assist has a peer support program. You can ask to be matched with a more senior lawyer volunteer who can share insights into their experiences.
    • Join Assist for Red Mug Coffee Circles, each Monday at noon (online) except for statutory holidays. A team of our senior peer support volunteers are available to answer questions or share strategies. We always have a designated topic, but conversations can go in whatever direction participants need.
    • The Law Society of Alberta operates a mentorship program called Mentor Connect where lawyers are connected with another lawyer who can help them with career-related issues

This is how the Mentor Connect program defines its goals:

  • Become the kind of lawyer they aspire to be.
  • Develop practical skills.
  • Discuss career management issues.
  • Contribute to their sense of integrity.
  • Increase their knowledge of legal customs.
  • Use best practices and highest ideals in the practice of law.
  • There may be a waiting list for being matched with mentors through Mentor Connect (if you are a seasoned lawyer, please consider volunteering!) so you may want to put your name in as early as possible.
    • The Law Society also operates a program called Mentor Express where a junior lawyer or articling student can arrange meetings with a number of mentor volunteers over the course of the Mentor Express season. Mentor Express mentors may tell juniors that they can call them if they run into issues, so building a rapport with short-term mentors is a good strategy.
  • Attend a Table Talk session operated by the Law Society.
  • The Association of Women Lawyers operates Mentoring Circles.
  • The Advocates Society offers both one-on-one mentoring and group mentoring.

Some mentorship relationships arise organically, so please attend legal community events with a view to meeting people—this is networking, and it is an important part of practicing law. You can also view a networking webinar offered by Assist and Legal Education Society of Alberta.
Remember that everyone who comes to events is happy to meet new people. Walking into an event can be intimidating, especially for introverts like me, so I try to look for people who appear to be alone and would be grateful for someone to include them, and I can overcome my introversion in order to make other people comfortable.
Assist will be offering its popular articling student webinar called How Assist Supports Articling Students again this September where lawyers will share strategies that helped them survive and thrive. Watch for information about this—and lawyers of all vintages are welcome to attend!
So, welcome summer. Welcome another season of new articling students and newly called lawyers. Know that Assist is here to support you and help you build a community of colleagues.