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- Rising to the Challenge
The sparse availability of articles is a nationwide concern for law students eager to commence their legal careers. The bustling Alberta economy makes our province an attractive option for students across the country to try their luck at securing an articling position.
The elation of finishing law school can be quickly overshadowed by the seemingly disproportionate law student to articling position ratio. As a result, students are finding creative ways to meet the articling requirement. One of these students is Ben McConnell.
While Ben’s story is similar to many students struggling to find articles, there is one major difference: Ben is blind.
Though being blind affects many aspects of Ben’s life, he refuses to let it be a barrier to success.
After earning his Bachelor of Humanities from Carleton University, Ben was accepted to the University of Victoria to pursue his law degree.
“Law school, from purely the blindness perspective, wasn’t all that different for me,” explained Ben during a visit to the Law Society offices.
Equipped with the screen reading technology Job Access With Speech (better known as JAWS) and a braille note taker, Ben managed to maneuver his way through PowerPoint presentations, online research and other digital components.
“When [JAWS] reads me something that is really tedious, for example, case law from the early 20th century, it can be really easy to tune out. I did my best to digest all the information.”
Alongside his academics, Ben did not delay in his search for an articling position.
“I started out looking for a summer job after my first year that would lead to articles later on. Similar to other students that I knew, I was unsuccessful.”
Second year law school also came and went without the prospect of a summer job placement.
“I once again participated in the OCI process (on-campus interviews) to find a summer job. I applied to firms in cities across the country: Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, Ottawa, Swift Current, but I didn’t get many interviews.”
At this point Ben admits that an overwhelming feeling of skepticism entered his once rosy picture of what he envisioned a career in law to be.
“I was thinking to myself, ‘What happened to this career stability in law that so many talk about?’”
He acknowledged that he received good suggestions and advice from professors and students along the way but nothing was panning out.
Finally, in his third year of law school, Ben wrote a letter to Burke Vindevoghel. Burke is a fellow law student and friend who had already commenced his own articles. In the letter, Ben detailed his struggle to find articles and his fear of not being called to the Bar.
“Burke suggested the idea of composite articles. He said ‘As a blind student, you are likely facing more challenges then most when searching for a 12-month articling position. But, if you approach multiple firms with the idea that you are only looking for three or four months of work and that is a great opportunity for both parties, you may have a greater chance of success.’”
Burke put Ben in touch with Deb Leslie, the Law Society’s membership representative tasked with transitioning law students into members of the Law Society.
Deb recalled, “My initial conversation with Ben was to bring him hope – he stated he was feeling anxious about not having an articling position. I explained what composite articles were and how I believed they would be a better fit.”
While the idea of composite articles appeared promising, Ben needed to find multiple prospects as opposed to one 12 month articling term. Ben proved up for the challenge and began contacting multiple people from his extended network.
A lawyer he knew was unable to act as a full time principal to Ben largely due to other commitments including another articling student, a summer student, a first year lawyer and the prospect of retirement. However, this lawyer agreed to act as Principal for Ben while seconding him out to other lawyers.
Although Ben was overjoyed to have the first piece of the puzzle in place, there was still a lot of planning that remained. The next prospect appeared through what Ben thought to be the most unlikely of sources.
“I was talking to my mom about this whole thing and I mentioned the idea behind composite articles,” explained Ben. “To my utter surprise she said that she was having a discussion with someone and they know a lawyer who is willing to take you on.”
That conversation led him to connect with two other lawyers, who agreed to supervise Ben at their firms for another six months.
With just three more months left to cover, an earlier connection landed him a three-month position at Alberta Justice. “It finally all fell into place for me. It was a big relief.”
Despite the trying and character-building experience, Ben recognizes the value of the diverse experience he is set to gain as he begins his articles in July.
“I think working with multiple lawyers is going to expose me to different aspects of law and I can learn a lot from the different areas that each firm focuses on.”
What does Ben have to say to other students facing a similar battle?
“If you want it bad enough, something will work out. I know for me, I was extremely disappointed when I realized I wasn’t going to get a job using the normal route. I had been led to believe that everybody got a job and it was very frustrating and a lot of work. Finding a job can be a lot more work than a lot of the courses you took in law school.”
“Don’t always take the path of least resistance. Don’t always take the path that the career office wants you to take.”
Those, like Deb Leslie, who are well aware of the current challenges of finding an articling position, echo Ben’s sentiment. “Don’t give up. Be willing to compromise and think outside the box. Traditional articles have to change with the times and so does the student’s approach.”
If you would like more information on composite articles, as either a student or potential principal, contact the Law Society’s Membership Department.
Originally published: September 4, 2014
*Edited January 11, 2019*