Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Advice For The Third-Year Law Student Without An Articling Position

So you've gone through two years of law school already.

You've written exams. You've written papers. You've (hopefully) gotten a little bit of practical legal experience under your belt. You've gone through the on-campus interview process: three or four extensive interviews every day, some of them (like Crown office interviews) quite rigorous.

And when it came time for firms to call you back and offer a job, nothing happened. No call, no job, no nothing.

Okay: not good. Nobody likes being the person who doesn't have a job; you're going into third year having a lot of additional stress and extra work to do, while your classmates who all have jobs already get to sit back and do the third-year-coast. (It is generally about this time that you realize that so many law students are, in fact, insufferably smug. Not you, of course. You don't have a job yet.)

So, how do you get a job?

1.) Ask your professors - or anybody else you know - if they know anybody who's looking. You will get this advice so often it will become incredibly trite to you, but it's not a bad idea, so let's get it out of the way: networking is just part of being a lawyer. Not just finding a job, but having a circle of contacts who can pass along referrals, who can offer advice or consultation when you're out of your legal depth, knowing people who know people who can help your case (sometimes in esoteric ways).

Do not get your hopes up about this tack. The reason everybody will suggest it to you is because everybody knows to do it - especially with regard to your professors. By the time you go ask them "er, do you know anybody who might be hiring?" you will be, at a minimum, the twenty-first person to ask them, and probably at least the twentieth they'll have to tell "no" because after the first person their friend who was considering hiring told them "please don't send me any more of your students." Your professors still won't get angry with you for asking - you're a student without a job and if you're polite about it then it's the responsible thing for you to ask. But the odds that they can help you are very low.

Your odds of professional contacts being able to help you are a bit better, if only because they aren't being constantly beseiged by other job-seeking students - but only a very small bit of better. The simple truth about getting an articling position through networking is that articling positions are a very specific sort of job and, unlike other sorts of jobs, don't generally flourish with more practice popping up. Small firms are reluctant to hire articling students because of the cost.

A clever applicant can sometimes work around this by arranging a dual article via your law society, working five months with one practice and then five months with another - but as a general rule you'll need to have good contacts at at least one of the practices and preferably both. Many careers offices at law schools will confidently tell you about how a dual article is the answer to a prospective graduate's job dilemma, but the truth is that a dual article means you have to sufficiently impress two interviewers rather than one, and just because they're hiring you for half the time doesn't mean you only need them to trust you half as much. In practice a dual article is often harder to achieve than your basic single article: only bother with it if one practice really likes you but is really worried about the cost of hiring you.

(I haven't mentioned family connections. If a close relative of yours is a lawyer in a practice where they have some influence over hiring and you haven't thought of asking them for help yet, maybe this law thing is not for you. Consider becoming a shepherd.)

So after you've talked to everybody and nothing's happened, what do you do next?

2.) Apply to job notices and postings. I really hate that this is my second option, but they're there and you're going to use them, so let's discuss them. You're primarily going to rely on two sources for these: your law society's job postings and what your school's careers office provides. The former is usually a fairly steady stream of notices; the latter will vary widely, depending on how proactive and talented your careers office is. (They range from "extremely dedicated" to "well-meaning but inept," and size and/or reputation of the law school generally has nothing to do with how good its careers office happens to be.)

Of course, those won't be the only areas you'll find articling postings. Some of the other legal job sites occasionally have articling postings other than large firms' annual OCI announcements, and I memorably once found a solo criminal defense practitioner advertising for an articling student on Craigslist. But generally your law society and careers office will have almost all of the advertisements for jobs.

Do not apply for every job, no matter how desperate you might be. You're simply not going to be the candidate for a lot of positions: if you're interested in business law and securities and have no litigation background at all beyond taking Evidence because everybody takes it, you're not even going to get an interview with that criminal practice, and the same goes for you criminal law specialists and business firms. Applying for this sort of job wastes your time and more importantly theirs; there's no sense in irritating somebody you don't even know, especially since it can only hurt your networking down the line.

The average job notice generates about ten interviews at most. (As a general rule: nobody wants to interview more than ten people for any job ever. OCIs are a special case.) But those ten interviews come out of an immense stack of applications. When I interviewed with one small estate litigator earlier this year who had posted a job notice, he told me that he had received over 150 applications, and that about a quarter of those were from out of province. Practices outside of large cities will get less applications, obviously, but even one practice in the Kawarthas (three or four hours' drive from Toronto) where I interviewed got over a hundred.

Personally, I am not a big fan of the "just apply to things" school of finding a job. A generation of kids have come out of high school convinced by guidance counsellors that the best way to get a job is to check want ads (or the online version thereof). If you get a bit of experience in the real job market, you quickly come to learn that most positions never get mentioned in want ads: they get filled before there's ever a need for one. Articling positions are no different. So what do I endorse?

3.) Cold calls. I know you hate making cold calls. So do I. Everybody hates making cold calls; they make you feel awkward, uncomfortable, intrusive, even rude. However, one thing is undeniable: cold calls work. This is not because they are brilliant or especially effective for what they are; they work because you can do a lot of them in a short period of time. If you know another student or two who's also looking for a job, you can set up a cold-call team, each of you calling certain segments of the list and then each of you sending your application packages to all the "yes" answers both of you get; this can make it less soul-destroying, as well as quicker and more effective.

When I began cold-calling, I set up a system. I went to the law society's directory of lawyer's contact numbers and began copying and pasting. The LSUC's directory doesn't have a "browse" option, but it lets you search by postal code; thus I put together a big spreadsheet of postal codes and began sorting out redundant numbers from lawyers working at the same firm or practice, as well as identifying out-of-date information (of which, unfortunately, there was quite a bit). I also made sure to do a bit of research on each practice with Google and Quicklaw to figure out what each firm actually did so if asked questions about the firm I could appear engaged and interested.

This took about a week to set up, but once I finished, I had a call list for pretty much every firm, office, chambers and solo practitioner in Toronto, the GTA and outlying communities in southern Ontario. I started with those areas closest to me geographically and started systematically working outwards.

I put together a pretty basic script for the calls: greeting, inquiry as to whom handled hiring, then a simple straightforward "are you planning to hire an articling student within the next X months?" (X was usually six; sometimes I went to eight.) About nine answers out of ten were "no, sorry," in which case I thanked them and moved on. The remaining ten percent were either "no" followed by a lawyer being very friendly and asking how it was going, if I had tried asking my profs for help or going to the LSUC, et cetera; or they were "you can send us your resume and cover letter." Sometimes they were actively hiring and just hadn't put up a notice yet; sometimes they weren't openly hiring but were open to the idea of the right candidate. One or two lawyers told me apologetically that they weren't hiring but then directed me to another practitioner they knew who was thinking about it.

At a rough estimate I'd say I made about fifty calls per day. Fifty calls per day meant five applications going out per day; of those applications, I'd say about one in twenty led to an interview. This sounds terrible, but in context it's pretty good: that's one interview generated by every two days of cold-calling. (The last one, which I got about a week before Garry hired me, was from an application I had sent over two months beforehand; their previous articling student had quit and they needed an immediate replacement. They called me for a second interview after I'd accepted a position with Wise Law, which gave me the welcome opportunity to politely reject an employer rather than vice versa.)

Cold calls can be dispiriting and mentally fatiguing; it's hard to hear "no" so many times in one day. But if you grind away at them, they will eventually get you a job you want; you can say this about no other method of looking for work.

- Christopher Bird, Toronto

A brief note:

As a quick add-on to Chris' extensive comments, students should note that law firms' requirements can and do change as a year progresses. Often, particularly in smaller firms, positions may come available in June or July that weren't even contemplated in the months preceeding.

Thus, it never hurts to check back in with firms that are of particular interest to you - you never know....

- Garry J. Wise
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