Monthly Archives: February 2011

First Year, Second Semester

It’s hard to believe, but this semester is almost half over— I am two months away from finishing my first year of law school! Incredible! When I returned to classes after the winter break, I noticed this semester felt different than the last. My classmates were now friends. I was down with much of the technical lingo. I had survived my first taste of law exams.

Now that I’ve got a decent handle on school, I’ve turned some of my attention towards what comes after I graduate. I know—it does seem fast! I mean I’ve still got two more years of classes ahead of me! But next September, I plan on interviewing with some firms and government departments to get a second year summer position, which I hope will turn into articles. In other words, things move quickly around here.

This has got me asking 2 big questions: “What type of law do I want to practice?” and “What type of firm would I like to work for?” The last few weeks have given me a little more insight to help answer both of these questions.

Our first major assignment this semester was the moot—which both Andrew and Graham have talked about. It was a pretty big deal, if you ask me. My class did a sentencing appeal, which was a fascinating experience. The assignment had two parts to it: the written submission (the “factum”) and oral advocacy (when you actually plead your case to a panel of lawyers acting as judges). I underestimated both how difficult writing the factum would be, and how much I would enjoy the oral advocacy aspect.

While I am pretty sure I don’t want to go into criminal law after I graduate, litigation in general is looking more and more appealing. With that in mind, I’m thinking I’ll take advantage of some upper year opportunities. There are competitive moots to try out for, plus courses in trial advocacy, psychology and litigation, and mediation— which all sound very attractive.

I don’t mean to say that I’ve made up my mind and I will be a litigator in three years, but it’s nice to have my interest piqued.

As for the second question—what type of firm would I like to work for?—I’ve gotten some insight on that too.

I didn’t go to many of the firm sponsored events at the beginning of the school year, but this semester I’ve had several occasions to get different people’s perspective on life as a lawyer.

Each year Career Services hosts all the “big” Vancouver firms for a wine and cheese. It’s like a classy trade show! Each firm has a booth with their recruiters/ articling students/ lawyers to answer questions. This was a great experience. I talked to firms about their areas of law, their approaches to mentoring and training articling students, and what they look for in students they hire. I got really useful answers!

Also, my Bar Association mentor, a civil litigator in a downtown firm, got me in touch with two women she went to law school with. One is a federal prosecutor who focuses primarily on drug trafficking offences, the other works at a small family law firm. It was good to hear what they enjoy about their jobs. I also got a better sense of the differences between working at a big firm versus the government or a small firm.

While I am still short on definite answers as to where I’ll be in three years, I’ve got a better idea of what my options are. That’s pretty good for now.

Are you coming?

For all those undergrads / other applicants who have been reading this blog:

  • Have you decided where you’ll be attending law school?
  • If so, where?
  • What criteria are you using for your decision?

Last week, I was talking to a student from my alma mater. He was finishing his final undergraduate term, and had started to receive acceptance letters from various law schools. UBC was one of them, but he hadn’t made up his mind where he wanted to go (Queen’s was also high on his list).

If you haven’t heard back yet either way, don’t feel too bad. Because I’m a “discretionary applicant” (I had earned master’s degree before I applied), I didn’t hear from UBC until mid-June. And then, it was a one-sentence email that essentially said “please call us; we don’t seem to have your proper address.” So the process may simply take some time.

Why it pays to be involved

Yesterday, my section of criminal law had its moot event. Andrew explained about how it worked back in January; they gave us a set of facts taken and modified from a real criminal case that went to the Supreme Court, the highest and most authoritative court in Canada, whose decisions set a binding precedent on how all the other courts in Canada apply the law. In this moot the UBC Supreme Moot Court pretended to be a higher authority than the Supreme Court. We had to file and serve factums, which means that we had to make written arguments and send them to the other side and to the judges in front of whom we would be arguing. Then we prepared oral arguments and had about half an hour each last night to make these submissions in front of judges.

Groups of four students argued on the appeal. The two appellants representing the Crown (the state power that lays criminal charges in Canada) argued that the man should be convicted because they were dissatisfied with the Supreme Court decision. the two respondents representing the accused argued that the previous decision was correct and that the appeal should be dismissed. I was one of the respondents, who were all delighted to win our case.

Some people were terrified about the impending moot. But I saw it as it was: a straightforward way of trying out what in upper years is called appellate advocacy without any possibility of losing marks as long as we turned up. One thing I have really felt lacking in is instruction on procedure. We are learning about how to apply the law to fact patterns and how to write about it, but not so much how to argue it in court or how a trial actually works. But after all there wouldn’t be much point in our learning about it without knowing enough about the law.

I was very glad to have this opportunity to argue my case and respond to questions that the three judges asked. I thought of it as something a little more than my thesis defence of last year. I know I did well at some things and that others in my group did other things much better than I did. According to the judges’ evaluation of me, I was fairly good at speaking and answering questions. One mistake that I made was suggesting, or implying, that a judge might have decided a case in a certain way out of prejudice to the heinous conduct of the accused, saying which, I showed disrespect for the judiciary. But I quickly realised I had said the wrong thing without meaning it and quickly backtracked and then moved on when a judge pointed out my intolerable error.

There is one thing that I found especially funny. A bit of background is necessary here. A few weeks ago I was at a committee meeting of the Law Students Society, where we were discussing our constitution. I listened to the details only half-heartedly because I was annoyed with our constitution for a reason that I knew no one was going to bring up. I finally pointed out that the constitution contained several grammatical errors, which I found irritating to no end, and asked whether they would please give me leave to correct them as amendments. They said yes. I went home that night and marked up the twelve pages with little comments such as, “‘hereafter’ needs to be consistent with ‘hereinafter’, used above”, or, “problem with adverb clause”. I didn’t really know what happened to that document after I sent it away, feeling content with the day’s work.

But after the moot, one of the judges, who was on the committee where we had the discussion, said that she had known it was me when she read my factum, because to interpret an offence I went into a good page on its grammatical makeup. I was intrigued. Apparently she had seen the entire document and was rather amused at all my comments. I was just glad she had taken it well.

Whom does it serve?

In Arthurian legend,* a young knight of the Round Table named Percival once visited a place where a castle, and the ruined land around it, were ruled by a wounded king. While in the castle, Percival saw numerous miraculous things, including the king eating from a glowing chalice that was surely Holy Grail. Percival was amazed and curious by what he saw, but kept silent. His training as a knight instructed him not to ask questions, and instead to rely on available information for decision-making.

When Percival left the castle, both castle and king (and Grail) magically disappeared. According to legend, had Percival asked the right question, he would have obtained the Grail, and both king and land would have been healed. He was later asked, “How could someone appearing to be so successful fail to use common sense and distrust his intuition by not questioning what might be occurring?”

Eventually – after many long years of trials and challenges – Percival re-discovers the castle, and finally is able to ask the king the proper question about the Grail: “Whom does it serve?” King and land are healed, Percival wins the Grail, though many long years had needlessly passed between.

In law school, the question I find myself asking the most is “whom does it serve?” Not because I’m afraid that my legal knowledge will be put to ill use, or because I think I’m on the quest for the Holy Grail (literally or metaphorically). Rather, it’s a question of logical organization: as Nikki noted in her previous post, law students deal with a massive amount of information. Understanding why we’re studying something can help us relate lessons to each other, put pieces in context, and ask the right questions. At a cognitive level, knowing what we’ll do with information can help us to store, process, and understand it.

For some, the answer seems to be informed by desired career paths. If I want to be a litigator, I might focus carefully on my moot assignment. If I’m interested Charter challenges, I’ll pay close attention to constitutional, criminal, and transnational law readings. Still, that’s not a sure bet: UBC Law’s Career Services Office has been fantastic at setting up lunch-hour career panels, but one thing I’ve learned from them is that legal career paths often take unexpected turns. One panelist from an environmental-focused public interest law firm had never taken an environmental law class in his life; another, a federal court judge, told us that being a justice was never his career goal. You don’t always know where you’ll end up after law school, we’ve been told, just as we’ve heard “it doesn’t matter what classes you take” from multiple panelists. While wading through piles of reading, I find myself on shaky ground when trying to figure out “whom does it serve.”

One thing is clear, though: at this point, the information is in great part being learned to “serve” our April exams. Wading through hundreds of pages of reading each week, it’s important to figure out what we’ll need to know for the tests (since those tests, in turn, decide our all-important grades). Practical considerations can be secondary; more than one assignment has edited out real-world aspects. Still, I’m not sure that I’d go as far as to repeat what we occasionally hear from legal practitioners, that “what you learn in law school won’t apply in your legal career.” At the very least, we’re getting a background in theory and knowledge of the law. We’re learning to sharpen our minds, work hard, and hopefully – just like Percival – ask the right questions.

(* Like most legends, there are many variations of this story of Percival and the Grail. This is simply the version I’m most familiar with.)