In this article, Alina provides additional insight about what law school classes are like, the material law students study, as well as what law students do when they’re not in the classroom (or the library). She is currently articling at a firm in Toronto.
“With so little feedback on whether you’re actually understanding the material, first year is indeed stressful. Students end up spending 95% of their time reading and summarizing their readings.” —Alina Preston, University of Western Ontario law school graduate
Q. What do you learn as a first year law student?
A. At Western, and I believe most other law schools, first-year law courses are all mandatory and students have no say in what and when they are taking courses.
First year provides you the basic foundation in several areas of law, including criminal, torts, property, constitutional (or public), contracts and a legal writing class.
Western also requires students to take foundations of law (history of law) and legal ethics in first year.
The main courses are full year courses, with midterms in December and finals in April. The legal writing class is the only one that involves writing assignments. The other two classes, foundations and ethics, are each half a year course so their finals are in December and April respectively.
With so little feedback on whether you’re actually understanding the material, first year is indeed stressful. Students end up spending 95% of their time reading and summarizing their readings.
At Western, class sizes are small. Some of my classes only had 17 students, and one or two classes had our entire grade (165 students). This smaller class size was very beneficial in learning from the professors and being able to ask questions. It also facilitated getting to know everyone within our year. By the end of the three years, I knew by face, if not by name, every person in my graduating class.
Q. What do you learn as a second and third year law student?
A. In second and third year, all the classes were only half a year in length. While there were a few core courses that had to be taken at some point in second or third year, the rest of the courses you were able to pick on your own. Some courses were paper courses, where there was no final exam and just a 30+ page paper, and others had a midterm or assignment and a final.
During these upper years, it is a mix between second and third year students in the classes.
There are also less classes to take in a given year – between four and five courses per semester, rather than the seven courses required in first year. As a result, upper years are much easier and less stressful than first year.
Q. What is “summering”?
A. The process of getting a summer job at a law firm after second year, termed “summering” is a competitive, stressful and often disappointing process. Students ready their resumés and cover letters during the summer after first year, to be submitted to law firms the first week or so of September. Students usually end up applying to any and all law firms, because first year does not provide enough specific information about what type of law students actually want to practice.
“The actual summering at a firm is quite enjoyable. You get paid pretty well (if you’re at one of the bigger firms) and they try to take it easy on you because they want you to come back.”
As a result, firms are inundated with applications, which makes it that much more competitive to get an interview, never mind the job. Once applications are in, firms let students know who gets an interview.
The interviews last from Monday through Wednesday, with cocktails and dinners thrown in on Monday and Tuesday nights, making the long days that much longer.
Wednesday at 5 p.m. firms make the call to offer job(s). By 5:30 p.m. everything is over and you know whether you have a job for the following summer (six months down the road).
If you were unable to secure a job during this crazy process (which is regulated by the Law Society), then you spend the rest of second year trying to avoid talking about summer jobs and hope that you can find something in the mean time.
The actual summering at a firm is quite enjoyable. You get paid pretty well (if you’re at one of the bigger firms) and they try to take it easy on you because they want you to come back, since they’re spending all this time and money training you. Then of course you cross your fingers that they do indeed want to hire you back the following summer, which ends up being the articling term.
Unfortunately, some firms don’t hire back all of their summer students and a lot of in-house counsel positions don’t have an articling position at all, only room for summer students.
Q. What is the process for finding an articling position?
A. Many of the big firms don’t do any external recruitment, which means they only rehire some or all of their summer students to fill their articling positions. There are lots of firms that only hire articling students, but those are generally smaller practices.
So now you’re going through the articling recruitment process, which is very similar to the summering process. Students send out their applications, and three weeks after the deadline find out at 8 a.m. on a Friday whether they have any interviews, as firms (hopefully) call you.
The interviews are scheduled on Monday through Wednesday, with 5 p.m. on Wednesday as the time that firms call to make job offers – for articling positions that start nine months later. Once again, students try to avoid talking about articling for fear of mentioning it to someone who doesn’t yet have a position.
[S]tudents who haven’t yet secured a position then try to spend their third year of law looking for an articling position. The Law Society is actually fairly helpful, with an articling registry set-up for firms to post their positions on, which law students have access to.
Q. What do law students do for fun? It seems like there is a lot of studying involved!
A. In order to not go crazy, there are a lot of extracurricular things organized and there is a pub night every other week. There are tons of sports teams and clubs that help students unwind.
Also, due to the small class sizes, you inevitably know people who are having a party any given weekend. In first year, there are also a lot of non-drinking or laid back events organized, such as games night, so that students can still wake up the next morning and get some readings done.