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COVID-19 conundrums for incoming lawyers | Natalie Schryer

Wednesday, May 20, 2020 @ 10:06 AM | By Natalie Schryer

Natalie Schryer %>
Natalie Schryer
It goes without saying that the graduating class of 2020 definitely received a whole lot more than we bargained for.

I remember starting my final semester in January when my biggest problems seemed to be finding one last gust of energy to finish my law degree and containing my excitement at the prospect of entering the job market. By early March, it became abundantly clear that bigger problems were heading our way.

In addition to the standard complications arising from COVID-19, such as confinement to our homes, isolation from our friends and family, and a newly found fear of all public places, graduating brought its own set of troubles.

The first disappointment to manifest itself was the cancellation of the convocation ceremony. This is a very anti-climactic end after these intense years of study. But this is by far the least of our worries.

The Law Society of Ontario cancelling the June bar exams on April 1 was a rude awakening. I couldn’t help but hope it was just an elaborate April Fools’ prank. But as April 2 came and went, reality set it. It sent shockwaves. This was a clear indication that COVID-19 was going to impede our access to the law profession. If this virus is able to infiltrate and modify the procedures of the LSO, no one is safe.

To this day, the bar exams remain a big source of stress. The LSO has decided to administer the exams using an online format in mid-July, as of now. No official dates have been released, but the many guidelines pertaining to taking this online exam have been released.

To take these exams, we need to have the camera on our laptops activated, as well as a front-facing camera on a smartphone behind us, pointed to the screen. This requires some creative problem solving: how are we going to keep the phone up the entire time?

With this alternate method of delivery, there are many concerns regarding access to reliable computers, cellphones and Wi-Fi. As a recent graduate, I do not have the funds to purchase any new technology. I hope and pray that my old, outdated laptop will make it through the next few months and support the required software. As for the camera requirements, I hope everyone has moved past the flip phone towards smartphones with front-facing cameras.

Additional requirements are that the wall behind us is clear and that everyone else in the house be silent. This poses a particular problem for those in apartments, who may not have such spaces and even for those with small children in the home. I myself have moved back into my parents’ house, which poses different problems: I’m not sure I have the authority to redecorate rooms or demand that everyone be quiet.  

Personally, the indication that we may be asked to remove bulky clothing is cause for concern. No definition of “bulky clothing” has been provided. The bar exams are a stressful, difficult and enormous challenge that all law students must conquer. Throughout any given exam session anxiety runs high, during the long hours of intense studying and culminating with taking the exam itself. I didn’t think it could get any more stressful. Alas, I now need to worry that my clothing may be too bulky.

Articling is another way in which COVID-19 has affected law students. Articling is a huge source of stress for all students. I am very fortunate to have secured an articling position before the pandemic crisis. But the troubles do not end there.

One source of anxiety is the uncertainty regarding how much work will be available. Law firms have slowed down. The potential for a lack of work worries me. Articling is a chance for us to be eased into our careers as future lawyers. We get more responsibility than we did as summer students, all the while being directly supervised. This is a great environment for optimal practical learning. However, being that COVID-19 is reducing the amount of work, the 2020 articling students may not get as rich of an experience. It worries me to think that, although I meet the technical requirements, I might not have the practical skills required to be a truly competent lawyer.

I think the biggest source of stress concerning articling positions this year is the hire backs, or lack thereof. Having an articling position is never a guarantee of a hire back. We’ve seen with the students this year how many firms are not hiring back students. It seems that regardless of our outputs, our results and our work ethic, we may not be hired back simply due to the economic situation. The economy in general has slowed, and the law profession is not immune to it. Law firms are still businesses, with bills that are starting to pile up. Our hire back might not be in the budget anymore. I understand. Law firms have moved from business development to survival. As have we.

We’re battling the stress of studying for the bar exams, the uncertainties over the new online format, the fears that we won’t be hired back. But we remain hopeful and we will persevere.

This too shall pass. With the first stages in the reopening of Ontario being implemented, there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel. I hope that law firms will be able to see that too, and continue to hire young lawyers, in preparation for the work that will return with economic growth.

Natalie Schryer is a student graduating from the French common law program at the University of Ottawa, with an interest in commercial arbitration. Prior to her studies in law, she studied commerce at Laurentian University.

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