Letter to a Future Lawyer . . .

Spring is upon us. Law school exams are over but students are still in law libraries, studying for the bar exam. These students are looking forward to becoming articled students and then lawyers. Others have received acceptance letters and are looking forward to starting law school in the fall. It is the circle of law.

I recently met a future law student, full of enthusiasm and excitement at the prospect of soon beginning law school. He was kind enough to write to me after the brief meeting and seek my advice on what to read to prepare for law school; he had already read my earlier blog on this subject and was looking for more. My advice was simple: read novels in the summer before law school because most law students (& lawyers) don’t have much time to read much of anything outside of the law. This advice did not satiate the future law student’s intellectual appetite.

He further asked me: “do you have any advice for someone about to start their law school journey? Specifically in terms of the best way to get the most out of the experience and excel in the course work. I do appreciate the kind words and advice.” I feel duty bound to respond to him but also inspired to write more generally.

To begin, I am impressed by the questions that this student is asking. In my experience, there are two types of students: those who are out to get a degree and those who are out to get an education. I am not judging – students pay a lot of money for law school and they have the right to choose their law school experience. Certainly for me, teaching the second type of students is far more interesting and far more rewarding but it is not about me. For students, investing in their legal education has become a virtual necessity towards investing in their legal future.

University of Ottawa alumnus Heather Douglas offers great practical advice to law students. Here’s what I think.

First, establish and protect your reputation.

Your legal career starts the first day of Orientation. It actually starts before – with your very first interaction with your future law school, its administrators, its faculty and your future colleagues. You start building your professional reputation before you even walk into your first class. That reputation is perhaps your most valuable commodity.

The words of the late Austin Cooper, QC continue to ring in my ears almost 20 years after he lectured to my Bar Admission class (as it then was) on “Ethical Advocacy”. Cooper told us: “you spend your entire career building your reputation, but you can lose it in an instant. So don’t cut corners.” Cultivate a reputation as someone who is reliable and trustworthy.

As a law student and an articling student and a lawyer, be a giver not a taker. Support your colleagues; be generous to opposing counsel.

Second, don’t abandon yourself and your passions for The Law. There are a number of clichés which I really don’t like. These include: “The law is a jealous mistress” and “thinking like a lawyer”. Together, these give the impression that law squeezes out all outside interests and that you need to abandon how you used to think in order to become a good law student/lawyer. This is bunk.

Drawing on your experience before law school and outside of the law can make you a better student and lawyer. Sports teaches teamwork. Music demands discipline. Working as a Starbucks barrista requires dealing with difficult customers (some of whom are probably lawyers). A former flight attendant had to engage in problem solving and conflict resolution, at 25,000 feet up in the air.

Third, invest in yourself and in your own career. Get involved. Join the local bar association as a student or as new lawyer. It is a great networking opportunity. Participate in mentorship programs. Take the opportunity to meet lawyers in fields that you are interested in. At law school events, bar association programs or online

Be entrepreneurial. The path of the law is no longer linear, it is dynamic. It zigs and it zags. You need to pursue opportunities and take chances. This is a scary statement for the historically conservative legal profession. But that profession is changing and those who are unable to change with it will be left behind. Those who are able to effect the change will become the leaders of a new legal profession.

Fourth, develop and promote your own “brand”. Law school and the practice of law are becoming more and more competitive. It is not enough to simply do well. Get involved. Participate (in legal, trade and community organizations). Present (papers, new developments, ideas). Publish (updates, blogs, articles, social media). In recent years, I have noticed law students becoming risk averse to having a digital presence. This simply does not mesh to the modern practice of law where digital engagement is an imperative.

Good luck. I’m cheering for you. And for us.

Postscript: This is my final regular column for Slaw as a regular ethics columnist. I have been privileged to be able to share my perspective on the legal profession with Slaw readers over the past seven years thanks to the generosity of Simon Fodden and Steve Matthews. I hope to continue to contribute from time to time to the vibrant discussion on Slaw.


  1. Thank you Adam for this piece but also for your contributions to Slaw over such a significant period. I always enjoy reading your columns which are filled with valuable insights, wise observations and helpful tips (plus a good dose of humour). Warmest regards.

  2. Thomas Harrison

    Good advice.

    Your regular presence here will be missed. Your thoughtful and positive perspective on these issues is always greatly appreciated.

    I look forward to your occassional contributions down the road.


  3. Adam,

    I’m not familiar with your other posts here but I think this is excellent advice and if this is representative of your other posts then Slaw will feel your absence. I’d second the idea that you should continue to pursue outside passions. My most rewarding work has been when my legal work and my outside passions have intersected. If I had abandoned my outside passions, the opportunity to do that work would never have come up.

  4. Mandatory skills for lawyers and law students:
    Learn well the skills for creating and re-using texts with speed and accuracy, i.e., develop the habits and procedures that maximize your re-use of previously created work-product. That means:
    (1) become a very good typist (keyboarder) able to use all keys on the keyboard without having to look at them;
    (2). learn your word-processing program very well, able to use all of its features with ease. Use the latest available word-processing program;
    (3) maintain a database of pieces of writing, and information that have any possibility of your wanting to re-use them, and be able to find them quickly–always assume that your memory will be inaccurate as to which was the text in which you first used a particular block of writing, and where in that text did you use it. Make those chunks and blocks of writing separate indexed texts, and for context, state the text in which the block was first used or composed. There is hardly anything that I write that cannot re-used. Sometimes it is re-used merely to provide information or to re-fresh memory.
    (4) therefore, learn how to index everything you write, and pieces of information that you will want quick access to. Write a separate index string for all the ways that you think you will look for it. Everything I save for re-use is given more than one index string. Memory deteriorates with age–your age and that of the texts.
    Learn indexing from this article entitled, “Indexing” at: (pdf)
    (5) For every article that I write for publication, there are several passages that I index and store as separate texts for re-use. As a result, to a significant, and often to a large extent, writing new articles is like constructing a wall of prefabricated bricks. There is no piece of writing that doesn’t contain something that I believe is re-usable.
    For example, if you spend half an hour writing a complex footnote, save it as a separate indexed text in a separate alphabetical file or folder of such texts. Thus you avoid the frustration of not being able to find it 6 months later because you can’t remember the text for which you wrote it.
    And do the same for information you will want to find quickly in the future—save each such piece of information as a separate indexed text.
    Also, when you write a succession of drafts of a text, save the ones before the final draft. They will often contain versions of passages that are more useful than that used for the final draft. Therefore, when I save a particular piece of writing and later edit it when I re-use it, I will add the edited version to that original text so that I have different wordings for expressing the same arguments, ideas, and facts.
    And so, always adopt procedures that maximize your ability to re-use previously created work-product. Develop those habits, refine them, and you will use them for the rest of career and thereafter.
    Working in a high pressure profession such as lawyering requires great cost-efficiency. Re-using your previous work is the single most effective way of maximizing your cost-efficiency.
    I have stored this comment as an indexed text, including the date of its creation and the Slaw article for which it is a comment. One of its index strings is: Law professors-basic skills they should be teaching.

  5. The practice of law (litigation practice primarily) consists of 50% reading, 40% writing, 7% listening and 3% talking. For students who want to know what it’s like to go through law school, read One L and watch the Paper Chase (original movie). If that doesn’t transition them to Stephen King over the summer, nothing will.