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Co-op students bring fresh perspective to downtown law firm

Submitted on Friday, May 29, 2020

Over the past decade, Lisa Douglas, a librarian turned lawyer, has been in charge of a practice increasingly focused on information governance – the legal and compliant handling of information and data. To find information specialists to work on multidisciplinary teams tackling issues like data management and cyber security, she often turns to the Faculty of Information and its work integrated learning (WIL) programs.

Along with lawyers and law clerks, Douglas’s team at the Baker McKenzie law firm includes specialists in records management, knowledge management, legal research and information technology. Among the latter group are a number of Faculty of Information alumni.

When the Faculty introduced its co-op program in 2017, Douglas signed on almost immediately. Baker McKenzie had already had success bringing in “practicum” students, who completed specific unpaid work assignments for academic credit, and Douglas was keen to try out something longer term, where students would be working full-time hours.

The conclusion was that co-op was much more effective in getting students to play a significant role with the law firm. “It takes the relationship to another level so the students can become much more integrated in our work flow and our team,” says Douglas, who received an Arbor Award from the University of Toronto in 2018 for her contributions leading and mentoring Master of Information (MI) students.

What’s more, she says, the law firm’s ongoing participation in WIL helps prevent tunnel vision as it “brings a fresh outside perspective. Students tap into their course work and infuse what we’re doing with their ideas.”

Class of 2020 graduate Zahra Vassell says the experience she gained through the Faculty of Information’s co-op program was the highlight of her degree.

That infusion of new ideas works both ways, according to Zahra Vassell, who recently completed her MI in the Knowledge Management and Information Management concentration. She did her co-op posting at Baker McKenzie and continued to work there on contract while finishing her degree.

When employers get involved in co-op and other work integrated learning programs, says Vassell, they can communicate back to the university what they find especially valuable. “They get an opportunity to say, ‘This is what we’re working on and this is important in the field.’ That can be funneled back into the school. It keeps both parties up to date on what is really happening out there.”

Douglas and Vassell concur that Information professionals are not as well known as other co-op participants such as engineering and business students, and often feel a need to demonstrate the kind of contribution they can make. Vassell says co-op allowed her to really see “who we are, what we do, and what’s valuable about us a professional group. I feel confident saying I am a professional.”

Vassell enrolled in the Master of Information program in the fall of 2018 after doing a double major in ethics, society and law and criminology for her undergrad, and then working for two years in fraud management at TD Bank. In that job, she was struck by how much her department relied on systems, policies and procedures. “I got really excited about processes and how they could be improved,” she says. That, in turn, led her back to school at the Faculty of Information.

During her first semester, Vassell checked out a co-op poster presentation where she met Lisa Douglas, who had graduated from the Faculty of Library Science before it evolved into the Faculty of Information. A few phone calls and an intense interview session later, Vassell was hired for her four-month co-op semester at the downtown Toronto law firm. She completed it the summer after her first year in the two-year MI program.

“I feel like I’ve been able to explore and learn and supplement what I’m doing here at the Faculty. At Baker, there’s a lot of room to get on different projects, ” says Vassell, who especially appreciated how Douglas helped accommodate her class schedule once the co-op position was finished and she switched to working on a contract. In her co-op term, Zahra worked on a range of assignments from data and records retention mapping to developing client deliverables. More recently, she has been involved in research and business model development, expanding her knowledge while contributing to the team.

Douglas says Faculty of Information students and alumni are schooled on new technologies and “very well equipped to act in a liason role with techies, who can lack many of the skills a true knowledge specialist has and often don’t understand user needs.” She has spread the word about the benefits of hiring Faculty of Information students to her contacts at other organizations.

As for Vassell, who’s preparing to graduate and return to the workforce, she says, “The co-op program and experience was the highlight of my degree. I think it’s changed the trajectory of my career.”

Covid-19 Update: Zahra finished her contract with Baker McKenzie at the end of April 2020. Given the uncertainties resulting from Covid-19, Lisa and Zahra plan to keep in touch and hope that they may have an opportunity to work together again in the future.

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