Law Clerks in Ontario: A General Overview

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After last week’s post on some preliminary information about the paralegal profession which I’m about to enter into in the near future (fingers crossed!), a friend of mine asked if I also knew what a law clerk does and how it differs from being a paralegal. As I’m listing the few differences I knew to be true, I also realized that I only have a very vague idea of what a law clerk actually does. I didn’t want to mislead anyone and to satisfy my curiosity and ensure I’m actually pursuing the right profession for myself, I decided to go to school, speak to a professional, and find some reliable sources to keep you guys informed. Here’s what I found out so far:

According to Olivio, Lawrence M. (2014) Introduction to Law in Canada, Ontario Edition, Volume 1. Toronto, Ontario: Captus Press. :

Over the past 20 years, the number of individuals working as law clerks have significantly increased, and this occupation continues to expand as lawyers in both public and private sectors realized how much more efficient it is to delegate some of their work load to someone else.

Generally speaking, a lot of the work that a law clerk does is very similar to that of an articling student and the work of a junior associate in a law firm. They may do legal research, write legal and factual memoranda for the supervising lawyer, draft routine court documents, contracts, agreements, wills, and other legal documents in accordance with a lawyer’s direction. Law clerks can also conduct preliminary interviews with clients and witnesses to gather basic information, attend to routine correspondence within the law firm, carry out land title searches, and they may also do some secretarial work, the firm’s bookkeeping and collection of unpaid fees if roles are not clearly defined in the firm.

There is no governing body for law clerks, but there is a voluntary association representing the interests of law clerks called the Institute of Law Clerks of Ontario which has been fighting for the profession’s recognition and higher standing.

What you need to know about law clerks in Ontario:

  1. Law clerks are employed in private law firms (big or small), government, corporations, banks, and insurance companies
  2. Law clerks are not licensed, so they are not sole practitioners. Instead they must work under a lawyer’s supervision, and they are insured under their lawyer/company/organization.
  3. They can work in any area of law (as opposed to paralegals who have a limited scope of practice), and can specialize in certain types of law (i.e. real estate, probate and estate law, litigation etc.) depending on what the firm specializes on
  4. Law clerks are bound by the same code of ethics and confidentiality requirements as lawyers and paralegals

What law clerks can’t do:

  1. Law clerks can’t give legal advice to clients under any circumstance, nor can they appear as advocates for a client
  2. negotiate with third parties without clients’ approval and lawyer’s supervision during the process
  3. signing or sending correspondence that is not routine without it being reviewed by the supervising lawyer
  4. Sending collection letters on behalf of a client unless reviewed by supervising lawyer

How to become a law clerk:

  1. One can start as a legal secretary and advance into a legal assistant position. After that, one can enrol in part-time studies in the evening to obtain necessary academic knowledge for the job before getting promoted to a full-fledge law clerk at the firm.  (Side note: I was in the interview process for a legal secretary position at a small law firm last year and I remember the partners asking if I would be willing to take law clerk classes at night as I become more familiar with the job, so I can definitely say this is true)
  2. Another more “straight forward” way of becoming a law clerk would be to enrol in a community college program which usually takes 2 years and a student would be taught law and procedure academically and fulfill a work-experience requirement before they graduate with a law clerk certification from the school. (If you already have a post-secondary degree, you can look into doing an accelerated program that only takes one year instead of two)

Essential skills of a law clerk:

  • analytic skills
  • HIGH level of organization skills
  • time management
  • working well under stress and tight deadlines
  • creativity and imagination
  • being able to work independently
  • good problem solver
  • able to communicate clearly and effectively with clients and staff members
  • Numeracy and computer skills

To give a more well-rounded view of the profession, I actually asked one of my professors who worked as a law clerk for over a decade before she started to teach, and her opinion was this: Legal research and being able to do draft legal documents is two of the most important component of the job. As you gain more experience a law clerk can become an asset to the firm especially when you become specialized in doing the type of work that the firm is known for, like land title search for real estate law firms, and much of the work overlaps with what a junior associate lawyer would do. It is a good fit for someone who enjoys routine, structure, and is not too interested in the business side of things, but loves the law and enjoys researching for the law. As opposed to being a paralegal, where you are basically a one-man/woman show when you’re starting out and you are in charge of literally everything from starting the business, marketing, finding clients, meeting clients, research, drafting, going to court etc and the list goes on.

My take on this is that a law clerk is definitely a more stable and routine-based, 9-5 type of career, whereas being a paralegal or a lawyer would definitely involve more risks both on the legal and financial side of things.

What are your thoughts? If you could, would you be a lawyer, a paralegal, or a law clerk? Let me know in the comment section below!

xoxo

 

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