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CrossRoadBlues

At a Crossroads with Articling

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I'm sure many would consider it nuts to terminate Articles, but I am considering it.

The work I'm doing is basically good.

The problem is that the work environment is making me depressed to the point of being unwell, and I could use some advice.

I also am wondering some stuff about the firm that seems kind of shady, but I'm not sure. I'll start with that:

1. Is it weird for students not to docket their time? My principal can I guess estimate the time I've worked on something but I never report it. I'm not supposed to, ever. Do firms normally bill for student time as just rolled into a lawyer's time?

2. I'm definitely not supposed to sit through online CPD for my principal while working so they can claim the hours. But I know the rules get bent along the way and you have to play ball sometimes. But it's unethical and I feel weird being bound by the Rules of Professional Conduct just like a lawyer but being totally subject to what my principal instructs me to do. Or I am overreacting?

3. How long is reasonable to sit on a client's file before initiating work? 

On to the work environment:

It's chaotic because there are so many files. I understand law is busy, but there are limits. My principal's philosophy basically amounts to "just do it". But the crazy thing is, I'm on an hourly wage and I'm not supposed to work overtime unless it's like a really special occasion that I need prior approval for. Staying an extra hour to make something good is not allowed, unless I do it on my own time. I'm just supposed to make it happen. If I got a half-decent salary I would be happy to stay late. Overtime in lieu is of no use to me as if I ever took the time it would just tack on to my articling term. My impression from others is that long hours are pretty common during articles, and also it's the only way to deal with time and accuracy/quality-sensitive work. So, I feel whipsawed.

I got a great result in this case I worked on right off the bat. I probably did take longer that whatever the optimum is because I got thrown in with no knowledge of anything that was going on and little guidance. I figured it out. Everyone was thrilled with the result, but my principal told me that I can never take that long on something again. But how long is too long? I just feel like my principal wants what she wants with little regard to any complexity. There are only so many corners to cut, and if I cut them too short I will get clipped for that too. I hate this constant pressure to just magically make things happen.

I also just don't know if I am getting a reasonable amount of mentoring or even direction. It's obvious that she just wants the work done as cheaply as possible - there is no mentoring going on here. Well, there is some when there's time. Those have been rare good moments. She rarely has many revisions for most of my work - I don't know if it's because it's actually good or we're just chucking stuff out the door at this point.

The other student makes a lot more money than I do. I got interviews for about 1/10 jobs I applied for; I don't feel like I had no other possibilities. I feel like my principal tossed a lowball offer and I took it, and that's all fair in her books. I wouldn't bat an eyelid if we were paid the same low pay, but I can't shake this disparity, not in light of the overall conditions being what they are.

I used to say that I could live with the pay gap since the other student was basically being bullied. All the talk of the office was her allegedly glaring mistakes and how she couldn't be trusted. I am concerned that I am about to be the next target, and the fact that my principal has telegraphed that I work too slow and she won't accept my current productivity in a couple of months when we have to deal with this backlog of files.

I realize this is a ranting overshare. I tried to make it more concise but couldn't really capture how I'm feeling. I'm driving my partner nuts complaining about work, as well. 

I have loads of other work experience to draw on, at least to survive while I look for another articling job. I have a pretty good professional network. I foolishly barely drew on that bank when I was looking for articles because I have this huge complex about putting people out or something in any way - it only applies to advocating for myself, not my employer or clients, and yes, I know I need to get over that. It's not easy, but I'm ready to do it now. So, I'm maybe not as bad off as some others in my situation might be.

I am trying to decide if I:

1. Just need to press on, get over it, because life sucks sometimes

2. Demand a decent salary and the freedom to work extra hours to feel comfortable with the work I do, and that my boss make time to check in with me properly.

3. Terminate, handle the short-term unemployment and later bar call. Have the confidence that I'll find something else and be picky, because honestly there were red flags with this one. 

 

Thoughts? I'm especially wondering what the lawyers out there would think of hiring an articling student who left a previous articling placement.

 

 

 

Edited by CrossRoadBlues
At Hegdis's suggestion, I probably put too much identifying detail in that I may regret later now that I understand the editing rules!

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Just a quick note that after one hour you can no longer edit your post - and there is no delete button. You might want to curtail any identifying info because the mods will not remove this later!

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21 minutes ago, Hegdis said:

Just a quick note that after one hour you can no longer edit your post - and there is no delete button. You might want to curtail any identifying info because the mods will not remove this later!

Thanks. Edited

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Sounds like a shitty articling position. I would stick it out so you can get called with minimal disruption. Learn as much as you can, good and bad, while looking for jobs elsewhere.

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I hate to say it, but this doesnt sound that bad. Is your hourly wage minimum wage? Atleast there is some pay. I found the overtime comment weird. They don't want you to ask for overtime pay, sure, but they won't let you work for free either?

I do have a recommendation about the docking/using too much time point. Docket your time anyway. Then if the issue arises again you can show them exactly how you spent the time. I did this for my summer job when I had a similar issue and it really helped. 

I think you should stick it out. Articling positions are so hard to find these days. 

Edited by WindsorHopeful

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The part about compensation and hours needs to be a conversation between you and the principal, either way. If they agree to alter your arrangement then maybe that is reason enough to stay. Maybe it's a small thing like permitting a small amount of overtime each week. If they are not flexible then at least you will have tried to fix the situation head on.

It's not necessary for students to docket their time in all types of practice. In some areas of law lawyers won't even docket their time.  

"How long is reasonable to sit on a file" -- this depends on the file. Some things don't need to be done right away or any time soon. Files will always get triaged in a busy office, either deliberately or naturally. As you practice you will develop a feel for your overall business and file urgency. As a student right now you probably don't have this sense of urgency and workflow, frankly. 

On the CPD part - if the way you have framed this is true then it is unprofessional but ultimately it is your principal that is doing something wrong. If the principal has asked you to watch CPD material and you do so, that's just you performing a simple task that aids in your learning... you don't necessarily need to be concerned about what your principal ends up logging on the LSO website. Perhaps your principal does watch the material on replay after hours.  

Quote

I got a great result in this case I worked on right off the bat. I probably did take longer that whatever the optimum is because I got thrown in with no knowledge of anything that was going on and little guidance. I figured it out. Everyone was thrilled with the result, but my principal told me that I can never take that long on something again. But how long is too long? I just feel like my principal wants what she wants with little regard to any complexity. There are only so many corners to cut, and if I cut them too short I will get clipped for that too. I hate this constant pressure to just magically make things happen.

Welcome to the profession. Your principal is probably, perhaps harshly, just teaching you some tough but important lessons about practice. "You can never take that long on something again" might translate to "if you take that long on everything you'll never make money in this business". There is constant pressure to get results quickly and efficiently. As a student some things that might look like corner cutting from your perspective (read: bad) might just be efficiencies the lawyer has decided make sense. Yes it is entirely possible your principal is cutting corners that no lawyer should cut, but in cases like this I tend to assume the law student is just naive and an unreliable narrator. 

Look, I'm sorry you are having a negative experience right now. Yes it's possible your concerns are all valid and you should get out of dodge... but I think there's a better chance you are being (mostly) too cynical about the work environment. Quitting articles can be a pretty big deal. I'm sensing a lack of critical communication between you and the principal and at the very least you need to talk about this stuff with them first.

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OP, since the forum is not a suitable place for sharing personal details, I think you may want to consider calling a service like the Member Assistance Program offered by the LSO (or the equivalent of your jurisdiction) to talk through the more specific interpersonal struggles you are experiencing with your principal, co-worker and general work environment in a confidential setting. It's probably a good idea to make sure your overall mental health and state of mind are in a relatively good place before making a big decision like finding alternate articles. 

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I'm just a lowly articling student, but I would tell you not to quit unless its your absolutely last resort. Like you have suicidal thoughts on your way to work, or you are thinking about self-harm etc. Don't worry about the money right now. Your main goal should be to get called, and try to learn as much as possible along the way. There is a lot of uncertainty in the market right now due to the pandemic, and this is not the time to take a risk on finding another position. Never mind the difficulty in finding an articling position after you terminate one.

Articling sucks. I have a friend who had to seek psychological counselling due to their articling experience. I'm not going to tell you to suck it up, because I don't know the true reality of your situation. Maybe you can set up one of those calendars that tells you how many days you have left (helped me). Or draw on your support network to get though it. If you started late August, you are already done like 25%. 

Keep in mind my assessment is based on the information that you provided. I personally don't see your situation to be so far from the mean that terminating the articling is a reasonable option. Unfortunately in this profession, your boss being unhappy, demanding, or yelling at you is a reality. 

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At some point the other thing you need to realize is that you are ultimately in charge of your own boundaries. As long as you are working diligently, and aren't seeking hireback at any cost, then it is fine to say no. 

Articling is genuinely a difficult experience. Lawyers work hard and they tend to not manage stress well which unfortunately often ends up in borderline abuse to those under them. This is especially difficult because articling students do make mistakes and they do take a long time to do things. But that is par for the course. They are paying for an articling student, learning takes a lot of time, if they wanted someone who could hit the ground running they should be hiring someone who is several years post-call. 

You should keep track of the time you spend on things. It is part of being in private practice and it will assist you if there is ever really a problem with your principal. It is worthwhile to have a conversation about compensation in order to do over-time, but don't expect much. 

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Hi OP,

I'm sorry you're in a tough spot right now. I sympathize with you because I also had a really bad articling job and ultimately decided to quit. I was being paid minimum wage for 40 hour weeks but actually working more than 80 hours a week. There was no supervision and a bunch of unethical things happening at the firm. The worst part, however, was the toxic environment and abusive boss.

In no particular order, here are some points to consider:

- Mentoring: I wouldn't be too concerned about a lack of mentorship/supervision. While mentorship and supervision would be ideal, you can learn on your own. I have a friend who articled in real estate but really wanted to practice immigration. She went solo after articling and had to learn everything on her own. She's now really well known in the field. When I was articling without supervision, I tried to think of it like having my own practice and learning on my own.

- Quality of work: It's incredibly frustrating to feel like you're not doing the best you can on a file. However, this can be an unfortunate business reality for many law practices. It's just not always possible for lawyers to dedicate all their time to making one file perfect. This is especially true for legal aid firms that might need an insane volume of files to be profitable. Are there steps you can take early on to ensure that you're going in the right direction with a file? I used to bring coffee to one of the senior lawyers and ask for 5 minutes of her time to discuss the case I had been assigned. That being said, if you're forced to cut corners and really don't have time to do a complete job, something is definitely not right.

- Quantity of work: If you don't set boundaries for yourself, no one will. When I first started, I would just work all day and all night to finish my work. I quickly realized 16 hour days were not sustainable so I started printing out a list of work I had to do (and I'm talking like 3 appeal memorandums in one day). I would bring the list to my boss and say "Yesterday, you assigned me these 3 things that are due today. I can only finish one of them. Which one would you like me to do?" If the expectations for how long you should be spending on something are not clear, don't be afraid to ask your principal how long something should take you.

- Pay: Before I quit my articling job, I told my employer exactly why I was not happy with my job. He offered to give me a huge raise even though I didn't ask for one. Once you have demonstrated your value, it may be possible to ask for a raise.

- Habits: Some of the bad things (like cutting corners) will become habits after months and months of doing them, even if you actively acknowledge how bad they are. It's going to be tough to change bad habits later on.

- Law society: I'm in Ontario and I was worried about how the LSO would respond to a student leaving an articling position. Once they were aware of my situation, it was largely administrative. I had to notify them that I terminated my articles and file the certificate of service - and that was it. They were very responsive and supportive. Don't listen to the people who are all "it's unethical to quit articling and the law society will investigate!" The LSO laughed when I told them people said that. They told me I can absolutely quit if I want.

- Articling jobs in general: Lots of employers take advantage of articling students who really need to get licensed. They shouldn't. But they do. I spoke with a lawyer who quit articling, only to end up at a firm that was even worse than the first one. The grass isn't always greener. To be clear, I don't think it's okay that some employers exploit the articling program for cheap labour that ignores basic employment standards, but I don't think it's going to change any time soon.

- Getting licensed: Once you get your license, you can even start your own practice and work for yourself. Only you can decide what is worth getting your license and whether you can wait to get it in order to find a better articling job.

- Employment prospects: The lawyers I spoke to said that a student leaving an articling position would raise some concerns for hiring managers. That being said, so many lawyers and firms I spoke to assured me that it's not the end of the world and I would definitely be able to find something else. I actually got two offers to finish my articles with lawyers I spoke to seeking advice about my articling situation. It is possible to find another articling job. Quitting your articling job will not end your career. You can find a way to use it to your advantage - "I got to experience two ways of running a legal business by articling at 2 different firms. I'm excited to bring the best of what I learned at both practices to my next job."

Once you consider these points, here is my advice:

(1) Think about whether your current situation can be improved. Is there anything you can do that would make your current job better  (whether it's talking to your articling principal, setting boundaries, asking for more feedback/support)? If you don't want to get hired back, can you start saying no to work when your workload becomes too heavy?

(2) Consider all of your options. Talk to your law society. Reach out to lawyers. If you're in Ontario and you've articled for 4 months already, you can talk to the LSO about doing the LPP with your 4 month articles counting as the placement.

(3) Map out all of the worst case scenarios. When I did this, I realized that my worst case scenario (not being able to find another position for that licensing term and getting licensed a year later than I had planned) was still WAY better than staying at my articling job.

(4) Focus on your mental health. Use your law society's resources. Talk to the people who are closest to you. Talk to friends and family who are outside of the law bubble and can remind you that there is a whole world outside of the legal one.

Everything is going to be okay. You are going to get licensed. You are going to be a lawyer. You are going to find a job that is right for you.

I know I've already hijacked your thread but please send me a PM if you would like to chat more!

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The replies here have been really helpful and I appreciate them a lot. 

I've realized that my problem basically comes down to respect:

I don't respect my boss and the way she runs her business (common though it may be for many firms). I don't respect someone who wants articling students purely because they're cheap and can be pushed around in a way lawyers can't necessarily be. I had a toxic boss is a past job, so I just left after I realized it couldn't be fixed. Articling is different. I feel trapped, and I don't like being trapped. And so stupid stuff - like my boss being pissy about stuff that is really her problem or fault, or just because she's having a bad day - it gets to me more than it should. And I'm annoyed with myself for maybe discounting red flags or not doing enough to get a better job. I should have seen the writing on the wall.

There are of course aspects to this story I didn't share because they are way too specific. But it really amounts to pretty usual complaints: lousy environment, lousy pay, lousy boss. It's an old story.

But, looking at it more objectively, there are things I can do to bring some clarity to my situation and try to make things better. I definitely have booked counselling offered through the Law Society, I'm going to talk to lawyers I know, and of course hash it out with my boss. 

Thanks again for reaching out to the anonymous articling student shouting into the void!

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The most difficult thing about becoming a lawyer is getting an articling job. So no, you shouldn't quit. Get called and then move on if you don't like it there.

Most of what you describe sounds to me like "small firm practice", where it's frequently a volume practice. Humungous Law can have lawyers with 2-3 clients billing crazy dollars. Middle class people have very tight budgets and the only way to service them is to have oodles of clients.

I did not docket my time as a student and was not expected to. The lawyer is probably building your salary into his overhead.

Don't do anything that would sour your relationship with him. No reports about alleged "cheating" on CPD, or of being overworked and undersupported, etc. Leave on good terms and there's a good chance the lawyer will send you all of the "junior files" that come in that he doesn't want to do. 

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I don’t like to write a lot or waste time on adjectives so I’ll be concise :-

1. You don’t have to respect your boss. You don’t even have to like your boss. All you have to do is finish your training and become a lawyer. Then thank your principal and be grateful and always remember your experience so you will be a better boss one day.

2. Don’t worry about money. Finish your training first (unless you already have a job offer on hand). Start looking at the same time, but don’t quit until you have an offer.

3. Don’t argue with your boss. Stay in good terms. She gave you a low ball offer and you took it. You should have known this would happen. The fault isn’t hers but yours (with expectation). 

4. A lot of shady things happen at law firms. I’ve seen worse. It happens at every profession. 
 

We all go through this in life (lawyer or not) one time or another. It’s called being an employee. Good luck.

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