Alex Redinger (2L) and Rona Ghanbari (2L)
Previous editions of the Ultra Vires 1L guide have professed to be definitive, or at the very least “definitive(ish).” We opted to use the indefinite article for a reason. Most upper year law students will be eager to give you advice and answers to your questions, but you should take it all with a grain of salt – this guide included. Use this guide as a source of information with which you can make your own decisions and create your own path for 1L!
While 1L is inevitably stressful, do not let it damage your physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. The law school and university provide a variety of services including athletic centres, personal counselling, subsidized yoga classes, and prayer spaces. The services are listed on the law school website or you can contact Student Programs Coordinator Sara-Marni Hubbard at 416-978-4908 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Make sure to exercise regularly, keep engaged in hobbies, and spend time with friends (especially non-law friends and family you might have in Toronto). Make time for things you enjoy doing and that make you happy. It is possible to do this and keep on top of your work (more or less). In fact, you will find it increasingly difficult to succeed in 1L if you don’t maintain your health.
It is also easy to fall into the trap of second-hand stress, feeding off the stress your peers may be feeling. It is great to be around peers as a form of comfort and source of support, but if you find that others’ stress over exams or assignments is adding to yours, don’t feel guilty taking a step back and spending some you time. On a related note, it is normal to be amazed and humbled by the brilliance of your peers, sometimes giving rise to “imposter syndrome.” You might feel that you managed to finagle your way into this prestigious group of students. Don’t let it get to your head. You were admitted for good reasons and you deserve to be here!
Making Friends and Networking
One of the best things about attending U of T Law is the quality of the student and alumni base. Getting involved in law school events is a wonderful way meet friends and make valuable connections. Who knows, maybe you’ll meet your Bill or Hillary here. It can be helpful to attend social events (e.g. SLS pub night is every Thursday), play sports, and join clubs to meet people and make friends. You may wish to pay particular attention to events held at firms, or with practitioners as speakers—they provide great exposure to the actual practice of the law and are nice to mention when you’re writing your cover letters. But don’t panic if networking isn’t your thing. You will organically develop a “network,” it’s often off-putting when students try too hard at networking, and plenty of students get lots of interviews (and offers) without putting much explicit effort into networking.
Grades and Studying
Your grades certainly play a role in determining which employers will interview you, though you can do absolutely fine with a transcript full of Ps. The typical law student has a mix of Hs and Ps, with perhaps an HH or two. This is fine for most law firms. (You generally need more HHs to work at a New York firm or to clerk at appellate courts.) Work experience, extracurriculars, and cover letters will also make a difference, especially for more specialised opportunities.
It is worth keeping in mind that once you get an interview, your grades are unlikely to be mentioned again. At that point, certain nebulously defined soft skills will determine whether you are hired. Law firms ultimately want law students (and lawyers) who are good with clients and pleasant to work with in the office. Public interest employers are also concerned with whether you genuinely care about working in the public interest.
Your study habits got you into U of T Law, and should suffice to get you through law school. We have a few suggestions, but they should by no means supplant your current habits, and you should feel comfortable finding an approach that works for you. There is no right way or wrong way to study.
If you generally study alone, it may be worth studying in a group, particularly come exam time. Study group members can often answer your questions, and will sometimes ask questions you might not know the answer to and might not have considered before.
Try condensing your notes throughout the semester, occasionally adding them to your course summaries and maps every now and then when a few units are complete. As you refer to your summaries and maps to update them, you can revisit old material. It will make exam season much more efficient and manageable.
What are summaries and maps? Answers differ, but here are some of the core elements. A summary is the entire course, condensed into the vital information that you will need to know for exams. A map is an even shorter document, providing quick references to material in a form that makes it easy to memorize or refer to during an exam (if the exam is open book). The Students’ Law Society (SLS) keeps a database of old maps and summaries to download, and upper year students will usually be happy to provide you with their old maps and summaries. It may be helpful to get upper-years’ maps and summaries early during the semester, so you have something to follow along to during the semester. Keep in mind that different people include different things in their summaries. And don’t rely entirely on an upper year map and summary! It’s important to understand the material and write it in a way that you understand and can access quickly during the exam.
The legal clinics at the law school offer you an early opportunity to experience the actual practice of law. The responsibilities variously entail: phone intake, legal research and writing, handling clients, oral representation, and advocacy.
Advocates for Injured Workers (Kaley Duff, 2L)
Volunteering at AIW as a caseworker was my favourite experience of first year. The clinic specializes in [Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB)] claims, and caseworkers guide injured workers through the WSIB appeals system. As a caseworker, you are responsible for communicating with the WSIB on your client’s behalf, developing case strategy, and representing your client in written or oral submissions. Though this may seem daunting, upper year volunteers are extremely supportive, and help you adjust to your new responsibilities. As well, everything is done under the supervision of a lawyer. The lawyers at AIW are extremely generous with their time and expertise, and are committed to ensuring you produce high quality legal work. When I started last September, I was given two files and I was responsible for them throughout year. This meant conducting medico-legal research, writing memos, interviewing clients, and much, much more. The work itself is incredibly rewarding, not only because it helped hone my legal skills, but because it gave me the opportunity to make a difference in my community.
Artists’ Legal Advice Service (Amanda Bertucci, 2L)
Volunteering with ALAS was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my first year. The clients scheduled at the clinic are grappling with entertainment law and intellectual property issues, including copyright disputes, trademark protection, licensing agreements, and contractual concerns, among others. As a result, volunteer shifts are an incredible way to gain real-world exposure to areas of the law that aren’t necessarily covered in depth during 1L. The whole team is incredibly friendly, and the lawyers are genuinely concerned with ensuring that the students understand the legal issues being discussed. Since shifts are split between shadowing the lawyers and conducting client intake, ALAS provides students with a great opportunity to learn how to engage with clients without the pressure of taking on any client files.
Downtown Legal Services (Amir Eftekarpour, 2L)
Downtown Legal Services is U of T’s in-house legal clinic. It serves students and community members, many of whom would be forced to go without legal representation otherwise. DLS has five divisions – Criminal, Refugee and Immigration, Tenant Housing, Family, and University Affairs. Between these five divisions, students have opportunities to litigate trials, assess and assemble evidence, write factums to support arguments at court, and meet with clients, lawyers, and other stakeholders. While DLS’ application period is now closed, students can volunteer or take the credit program in their 2L or 3L years. Above all, DLS represents the opportunity to do something tangible in between reading all of those two-hundred-year-old contracts cases.
Pro Bono Students Canada (Debbie Wang, 2L)
PBSC is a national organization that was founded at U of T in 1996. Our students volunteer with a broad range of clinics, organizations and courts working in family law, human rights, immigration, LGBT rights, health law, business law, among others. When you volunteer with PBSC, you develop the kinds of skills will serve you well for the rest of your career, and precisely the skills employers want to see in a student. You get exposure to areas of the law you might never encounter otherwise, meet practitioners devoted to those fields, and work with like-minded students to help people who really need it. It doesn’t stop with 1L, either. Our upper year placements provide opportunities to work with small claims court judges, the Law Society of Upper Canada, and even to personally represent the underrepresented. As a returning volunteer, you get priority in these exclusively upper year projects, so I highly recommend that you join in 1L and stay on board for your 2L and 3L years!
The U of T Faculty of Law has five law journals that welcome student editors, the: University of Toronto Faculty of Law Review, Journal of International Law and International Relations, Journal of Law and Equality, Indigenous Law Journal, and Critical Analysis of the Law. The Law Review publishes legal scholarship on a variety of topics, while the other journals each have a particular focus.
Working on a journal as a 1L entails reading submitted papers, commenting on each paper’s strengths and weaknesses, performing background research, and verifying that citations are properly formatted. I (Alex) found that the most interesting aspects of working on a journal in 1L were researching legal topics not covered in 1L courses, and debating the merits of papers with fellow editors. Law Review is a time commitment of about twenty hours each semester, but you will get free food at the meetings. The time commitment for other journals tends to be less.
There is a large number of clubs at the law school, and it is easy to create a new one if you have an idea. This is a non-exhaustive list, meant to give an idea of the breadth and variety of the clubs at U of T Law.
Business Law Society (Michael Stenbring, 2L)
Let’s face it, a good chunk of law students show up at U of T with the goal of working on ‘Bay Street’ with only the vaguest idea of doing this amorphous thing called ‘business law.’ The BLS aims to give people a window into what business law actually is and also prepare them for a career in that area. We run discussions panels, firm tours, events on OCI and in-firm preparation, in house tours (last year we visited Coca-Cola) and a bunch of networking events with lawyers practicing in all areas of business law (including the ones you didn’t even know existed). Join BLS and at the very least when 2L OCIs roll around you’ll be able to believably assure firms that you really are interested in their ‘premier securities law practice.
International Law Students’ Society (Kartiga Thavaraj, 2L)
The ILS encompasses all areas of international law and aims to promote an understanding of both public and private international law. This year, the ILS plans to host speaker events with professionals in the field, as well as firm tours to give students an opportunity to network with real-world practitioners. In late January, ILS will also host the 21st annual Canadian International Law Students’ Conference (CILSC), in collaboration with Osgoode Hall Law School, an event for which past keynote speakers include Denis Halliday (former UN Assistant Secretary-General) and the Honourable Roméo A. Dallaire.
Law Games (Michael Cockburn, 2L)
Law Games is an annual national law student athletic competition bringing together 700 students from across Canada. The Games themselves are four days of sports, talent competitions, and well-watered evenings. Law Games presents an amazing opportunity to meet law students from across Canada and also to build a sense of community with your fellow UofT Law students who attend. This year the games will be held at Sherbrooke University in Quebec from the 3rd to the 7th of January, with sports ranging from rugby to waterpolo to basketball to dodgeball. An information session will be held for interested students soon. This year there are 40 spots available.
Law Follies (Rona Ghanbari, 2L)
By far my favourite memory of 1L was the feeling I had getting laughs and claps from my peers, professors, friends, and family at the annual sketch comedy show Law Follies. Picture Saturday Night Live meets the law. Can you act? Sing? Dance? Write skits? None of the above? GREAT! Law Follies has a place for you! Everyone is invited to participate in the show in whatever capacity they are comfortable. You don’t need any prior experience. This annual tradition happens in February, and is a highlight for all those who watch and participate. I promise you a super fun time!
Out in Law (Jessica Kras & Benjamin Hanff, 2)
Out in Law is the Faculty of Law’s group for LGBTQ folks and their allies. The group hosts monthly social events (often with other LGBTQ groups at U of T or from other schools), organizes academic panels, and updates members on local networking opportunities. Involvement in the group is very flexible, and confidentiality is always respected.
Students’ Law Society (Rona Ghanbari, 2L)
The SLS is the Faculty of Law’s student association, that deals with social and political issues relating to law students. There are two branches of the SLS: Social and StAG (Student Affairs and Governance). The SLS provides support for students in a variety of ways such as planning social events, doing advocacy work on behalf of students, providing funding for students groups, and more! If you want to have a hand in organizing fun social events, or perhaps even sit on faculty committees and advocate on the students’ behalf, the SLS may be the place for you! As a 1L on the SLS I learned a lot about what the school had to offer, what supports there are for students, and what issues are at the forefront at the law school. It’s a great way to get engaged, familiarize yourself with the school, and meet upper year students!” –
The Supreme Chords (Rona Ghanbari, 2L)
The Supreme Chords is U of T Law’s premier a cappella group. If you like to sing (even in the shower), perform, or drop a beatbox, the Supreme Chords may be the group for you! We perform a diverse repertoire from Bastille to the Beatles. Prefer watching acapella Pitch Perfect style rather than singing yourself? That’s still cool! Come out to a variety of acapella shows throughout the year and be serenaded by magical harmonies!
Trivia (Alex Redinger, 2L)
Myself and my fellow organizers form teams of students, staff, and faculty, which then compete in trivia over one lunch period. Successful teams advance for several additional rounds, with the winning team facing both a team from Osgoode and a team of UT Law alumni. Our team defeated both Osgoode and the alumni last year, so hopefully we will successfully defend our titles again. There’s minimal time commitment, it’s a good way to meet new people and see staff/faculty outside a pedagogical contest, and it’s fun.
U of T Law Union (Riaz Sayani-Mulji, 2L)
The U of T Law Union is a group of rabble rousers interested in social change, both on campus and out in the broader community. At the Faculty of Law we’re been involved in advocacy around issues like tuition and mental health, host talks on subjects like police violence in Canada and the detention of Omar Khadr in Guantanamo Bay, and trek out to Yale for the Rebellious Lawyering Conference every February. If you came to law school as an activist, or came to law school wanting to use your law degree to pursue justice, you’ll find a home in the Law Union.
Ultra Vires (Brett Hughes, 3L)
In a survey conducted by Ultra Vires, Ultra Vires was voted the best extracurricular at U of T. It’s the best platform for keeping up-to-date with what’s going on at the law school and the legal world at large. Writing for UV is fun (and being an editor is not required). Our content spans from practical-minded articles like this one, to more serious investigative journalism, to our ever-popular annual results for summer positions, to hilarious satire and humour.
Overall, 1L has so much to offer you and your experience will be whatever you make it. There are countless paths to success, and countless conceptions of success, so please just take this guide as a starting point and feel comfortable forging your own path! We hope we have at least given you some information to make your decisions easier.