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All onboard

Managing new students using virtual onboarding.

High angle view of Woman using laptop at table

Law students may be facing uncertain job prospects at law firms due to COVID-19, but one Ottawa-area firm has spotted an opportunity.

Momentum Law, which serves mostly small and medium-sized enterprises in the high-tech hub of Kanata, has taken on four students for 2020 — two for the summer and two for articling. Launched five years ago, the firm hired its first student in 2016 and continued to offer one placement annually through 2019. It had already decided to double its summer program this year from one student to two, says CEO and founder Megan Cornell. When offices shut down in the spring, it decided to move ahead with a virtual program. And with the cancellation of June licensing exams, it invited its articling students to start work at the same time as the summer students in May. That way, says Cornell, the firm could consolidate training and ensure all the students could work with one another.

"That's how we ended up with four students when we normally have one," says Cornell. "We operate very well virtually, so we figured we can make this work. We just have to be very flexible, plan this out, and make sure that we're creating a decent environment for them."

From the get-go, Momentum Law set up a detailed planning schedule and broke down tasks by hour and by student. Much of the firm's work involves reviewing and drafting contracts, and Cornell says they wanted an experiential learning environment for the students. "We were so committed to making this work and really thought it through much more than we ever had," she says. 

The in-person experience online

It's hard to bear proximity when it comes to fostering relationships and building trusted working relationships with law students. "A lot of what is learning is absorbing through watching how we talk to clients and what our days are like," says Cornell.

In that sense, the widespread shift to remote learning has been a concern shared by many firms across Canada. Craig Brown, a partner in the emerging technology practice at Fasken, says that while the firm mostly succeeded in moving its operations online without disruption – there are still concerns about the little time the students will spend in the office with peers and experienced lawyers. 

"That sort of spontaneous interaction which leads to all sorts of learning is lost to a large extent,' Brown told CBA National in an interview in May. "I think it will be incumbent on us to create forums where [students] can at least have some of that experience, knowing that it is going to be a shortcoming." 

Early report card

According to Cornell, the students have worked exceptionally well together and with other members of the firm. Within a couple of weeks of their start, they were corresponding with clients and doing research memos. 

However, to launch a virtual student program, Cornell says, some prep work is necessary.

For starters, a lot of documents in the office need to be scanned so that people can access them remotely.

"It doesn't have to be complicated," she says. "You just need the time to do it, and the reason to do it. In our case, we had already started some of it quite a bit. With the students needing access to that information, it certainly helped encourage us to keep up that project even when we're busy with other stuff."

Cornell has been posting regularly on LinkedIn about the student experience, and even recorded a video chat with them in May. In a recent post, she recommends developing an "chart" to describe how different software systems operate and interact inside the firm. She also stresses the importance of helping students find and use precedents so that they can more easily draft documents. 

It's also essential, she says, that the team commit to setting aside time for feedback, even if it takes additional hours. Above all, set expectations for the onboarding program, and don't hesitate to set them high.

Momentum Law's experience with virtual onboarding could serve as a template for firms thinking of hiring students, but who have balked in the past because they lacked physical space or had concerns about the effectiveness of remote interactions.

Says Cornell: "Virtual onboarding creates an opportunity for solo and small firms who maybe have avoided having students before."