Law students focus so much on getting an articling position that many never ask themselves: what happens then? Hundreds of articling students aren’t offered hireback by their firms, while hundreds more do get the offer — and have no idea what they’re supposed to do next. Here’s a guide to life after articling — for both those hired back and those who aren’t.
By Amy Jo Ehman
Dirk Silversides looks back fondly on the day he wasn’t hired back.
It was the early 1980s, and the economy in Regina was in a slump. Silversides had done well during his articling year at MacPherson Leslie & Tyerman, but the economic state of things prevented the firm from hiring him back as an associate.
That’s every student’s worst-case scenario, right? You throw yourself into your work for a year, do everything you can to impress the firm in hopes of getting a great job at the end of it — yet when the fateful day comes, you’re told your services won’t be required, and suddenly you’re a few short weeks away from unemployment.
“A lot of articling students are disappointed if they’re not asked back, but I saw the door opening. It was not a traumatic event.”
Dirk Silversides, Silversides & Co., Regina
And sure, Silversides was disappointed; he had hoped to work for a few years to establish himself as a lawyer. But what he really wanted was to be his own boss. So why wait? He and a fellow articling student, Daniel Tapp, struck out on their own, and Tapp & Silversides was born.
"We were told by several lawyers in the city that we were — how did they phrase it? — quite out of our minds," recalls Silversides, a graduate of Queen’s Law School in Kingston, Ontario. "Neither of us had any roots in Regina or business contacts or a single client to speak of."
Call it the audacity of youth, or the desperate act of a young lawyer without a job. (In fact, Silversides was offered a couple of positions in law firms in his hometown of Saskatoon, but turned them down). Not only did Tapp & Silversides hang out its own shingle, it survived to prove the skeptics wrong.
The two partners began courting real estate work by visiting realtors and their firms. They believed that by winning clients in their first legal transaction — the purchase of a house — they would see them again as other legal matters arose in their lives. The groundwork paid off. Within three years, recalls Silversides, they were making more money than their hired-back law school colleagues.
"I could have been a junior associate, a salaried employee, and I still would have been taking instructions," he says. "A lot of people go into law so that they’re not in that situation. You want to be your own boss, set your own time, and have all the benefits of being an employer." That was exactly the life that Silversides made for himself.
"A lot of articling students are disappointed if they’re not asked back, but I saw the door opening," says the current partner in Silversides & Company. "It was not a traumatic event."
Across the country, especially in Canada’s largest cities, articling is no longer a ticket to a long and prosperous relationship with a law firm. Except for a few remaining firms that offered guaranteed hirebacks to students at the height of the market, most employers are reverting to a system whereby only the best and brightest are brought back — and not even always then.
As a result, a growing number of new lawyers are finding themselves out of work. Getting and keeping that first job in the legal profession is harder than ever, and dealing with rejection can be tough. But whether the decision incites despair or resolve, anguish or opportunity, depends almost entirely on your attitude and the degree to which you’ve planned ahead.
In fact, not getting hired back can be a blessing in disguise, once the initial pain of rejection has passed. It forced Ritu Banerjee to reevaluate her goals as a lawyer before her career even began.
A graduate of the University of Ottawa Law School, Banerjee articled with the Ottawa firm Nelligan Power (now Nelligan O’Brien Payne) in 1999. Again, citing economic reasons, the firm hired back just one of its nine articling students. "Yes, I was disappointed," she recalls. "It’s always hard to be told you’re not wanted.
You’ve been hired back!
Yikes. Now what do you do?
Okay, so you’ve achieved every articling student’s dream: the partner extended her hand, the firm made an offer of associate employment, and you’ve accepted both. After the champagne has flowed and the euphoria has worn off, you might well be asking yourself: "What, exactly, does an associate do?"
"An associate’s first year can be tougher than the articling year, because there is a greater sense of personal responsibility," says David Bain, managing partner of Bull, Housser & Tupper in Vancouver. "Articling and practising are two different things, and sometimes it takes some people longer to hit their stride. Others hit the ground running."
Associates increase their value by taking the initiative to learn a specific area of the law, becoming experts on the cutting edge. But there’s a collegial aspect to it as well. At Bain’s firm, associates are not necessarily required to attend office social functions, but they are encouraged to find a balance between work and other interests. Like many of its competitors, Bull Housser is keenly interested in developing all-around professionals.
It’s a far cry from the old days. Twenty years ago, when Bain himself was an articling student at Bull Housser, there was little in the way of in-house training and mentoring. Today his firm, like many others, has a structured program to keep students and junior associates informed and impressed. This includes an in-house education series, mentorship with a senior lawyer, and an assessment process led by an outside consultant.
Bain says junior associates at his firm are handed greater responsibility and client contact as they demonstrate an ability to handle it. They’re encouraged to stretch their abilities beyond their own expectations and to show intellectual initiative. They’re not expected to bring in new clients, but they are expected to lay the groundwork.
Associates should develop a business plan, based not just on dollars and numbers of clients, but on building their own profile within the community. This could include volunteering, committee work and membership in associations for young professionals such as accountants and doctors. The best lawyers have both feet firmly planted in the real world.
"People who have just been studying all their life usually have a hard time making it in this office," says Peter Mendell, managing partner of Davies, Ward, Phillips & Vineberg in Montreal. "If they’re just being lawyers, it’s not going to work. They have to do other things and have a balanced life. To me, it’s the secret of success."
Once hired back as associates, Mendell expects young lawyers to work long hours and on weekends when deadlines are looming, but doesn’t mind if they come in late or take a holiday when the pressure is off. In fact, he doesn’t evaluate junior associates on the basis of billable hours, looking instead for teamwork, dedication to the job and a sense of humor in the face of hard work.
"The challenge for senior lawyers is to make sure the work is interesting," he notes. "If it’s boring work, [young lawyers] are going to be turned off the practice of law. It’s got to be fun, or it’s not worth doing."
Essentially, the new associate should do all that he can to become part of the firm: do excellent work, choose a specialty, participate on committees, develop mentorships (both receiving and giving), and generally develop strong collegial relationships with the other lawyers and staff. Law firms want team players who will someday become team leaders.
"You will progress through your careers together, and someday you’ll be senior people together. That’s how long-term professional relationships are formed," says Bain. "It may not seem significant at the time, but it’s all part of the mix."
"But to be honest, at the end of the [articling] process, I knew I didn’t want to become a partner or to spend my life as a litigator in the private sector," says Banerjee. "It forced me to think about what I really wanted."
Fueled by an interest in public law, Banerjee investigated positions within the federal government. Her networking paid off with a short-term contract that eventually grew into full-time employment, and today she’s a policy advisor for the Solicitor-General of Canada. Among her fellow articling students at Nelligan Power, she says several work for the government, one went to a different Ottawa firm, another joined the Red Cross, and one returned to graduate school.
"There is definitely life after articling," Banerjee reports. "You come out of law school with certain ideas and expectations. Then you go into the real world and those expectations don’t match…. It’s not only about them wanting you. You have to want them, too. It’s a two-way street."
Even associates get the blues
Expectations on both sides of the articling process are changing. Unlike in days gone by, young lawyers today are less likely to expect they’ll stay at the same firm from articles through partnership and beyond. By the same token, firms hire back their articling students with an eye on the long term — but it doesn’t always work out that way.
Joshua Blacker thought he was doing everything right. He was hired back after a successful articling term at Macleod Dixon in Calgary in 2001. He immersed himself in the life of the firm, working hard to make a niche for himself.
He acted as a liaison between management and associates, organized the ski trip and participated in the interviews of new articling candidates. "I regarded myself as a face of the firm," he says — which is why it came as such a shock to be let go, after 28 months on the job. The reason, he was told, was that he lacked a "long-term fit" with the firm.
"It’s a very nebulous term which means different things to different firms," Blacker says. "It’s a difficult concept to describe, because you don’t really know the personality of the firm until you start working there. So when they say there isn’t a ‘fit,’ for whatever reason, the long-term possibilities of a mutually rewarding career aren’t there."
Blacker nursed his injured pride, but only long enough to get it out of his system. Within hours, he says, he was developing a new attitude."People get let go," he reasons. "You can’t see it as an attack on you as a person or on your abilities as a lawyer... I said, there’s a silver lining to every cloud. Where is this one?"
Blacker hit the phones, networked like crazy and even contacted a headhunter. Within three weeks, with more than one job offer on the table, he chose to join the Calgary office of Fraser Milner Casgrain as a junior associate.
"In the articling interviews, students ask, ‘What’s your hireback ratio?’ I don’t think that’s a true indicator of longevity with the firm," he observes. "A better question is to ask, ‘How many of the articling students that you hired back are still there, two years or three years down the road?’"
Peter Mendell, managing partner of Davies, Ward, Phillips & Vineberg in Montreal, notes that it can take more than a year or two to understand how a young lawyer will fit into the firm, if at all. Invariably, some associates will be let go. The reasons for dismissal are as varied as the firms themselves: a personality mismatch, a poor attitude, a shortcoming of competence, or simply a sense that the new lawyer doesn’t project as a future partner in the firm.
Whatever the reason, "you’re not doing anybody a favour keeping them on longer than you should," says Mendell. "People leaving here — even one-, two- and three-year associates — have a great future elsewhere."
"Some people need a clean slate, a new start," adds David Bain, managing partner of Bull, Housser & Tupper in Vancouver. "Most often, the individual knows it, and you’re just confirming their own feelings. In that case, you part company on pretty good terms."
For many young lawyers, not getting hired back is their first taste of rejection. They’re high achievers who breezed through high school and often university before scoring great marks at law school, and they know that hard work breeds success. But faced with the imminent prospect of finding legal work, many are left at sea. What should the newly unemployed lawyer do now?
"Treat it like a job," suggests Jonathan Marsden of legal recruiters Marsden & Nagata in Toronto. "Get yourself up in the morning and start working the phones until 5:00 at night." If you see a company is expanding, call its counsel and ask if they need help. If you have an expertise, call those companies that could use it.
Consider contract work, he adds, and be willing to investigate the smaller firms. Holding out for the big bucks at a big firm can backfire. "I’ve seen a lot of lawyers who have not been willing to swallow their egos, and they’ve been on the job market a long time," says Marsden.
Even more important than how you conduct your search, however, is how you prepare for it beforehand. Ask yourself what you really want to do, what you really enjoy most — use your articling year, your time in law school and your previous life experience as your guide. Make sure you’re doing what you want, not what everyone else is doing or what the "hot" areas seem to be.
"Pick the geographical location and the type of firm where you want to be five years from now," says Donald MacKenzie, Chair of the CBA’s Young Lawyers’ Conference and a partner with Foster Hennessey MacKenzie in Charlottetown, the same firm where he articled a decade ago.
MacKenzie particularly thinks lawyers should resist the knee-jerk instinct to only ply their trade in large big-city firms, either as articling students or as associates. These firms, he says, "fill a valuable component of the legal sector, but if you sit down and reflect on it, they might not provide you with the quality of life that you’re seeking."
There’s no question that there’s a strong attraction to the high-paying, long-lasting workdays of the big firms, especially when there are student loans to pay back. But MacKenzie warns against thinking of large firms as a "quick fix" — they’re perfect for some new lawyers, perfectly wrong for others.
In London, Ontario, Stephanie Ross is working hard to convince graduates of the University of Western Ontario’s law school to resist the siren song of Toronto firms. "There are certain people who will naturally be drawn to Toronto," says Ross, a partner at Siskinds in London, "but there are a lot of students who don’t want to go to Toronto, but are not necessarily aware of the options."
In London, lawyers are often expected to be involved in the community, both for client development and quality of life, Ross points out. "People who are well-balanced and well-rounded tend to make better lawyers," she says. "You can get really burned out if you don’t have a life outside the law, and you might not want to do that forever."
Job markets go in cycles, of course, and right now, most observers agree the cycle is on the down side. "It’s a pretty poor market right now," reports Marsden. "We’re starting to see a lot of associates let go, and a lot of associates at big firms who are quite inactive. The amount of [business] activity is quite low. Junior lawyers are typically the ones who start the deals, so if the deals aren’t happening, they don’t need junior lawyers."
So what about the worst-case scenario? No hireback, no law jobs out there, no sense of what you want to do next? It’s a tough situation to resolve, but it’s not impossible. Keep in mind that your options didn’t narrow after not being hired back — they broadened to take in the whole world. There are virtually endless possibilities for what to do next, and you should open yourself to all of them.
Marsden delivers this final piece of advice to those not hired back and out of work: take a year off. Travel. Volunteer. Enjoy life. "You can beat your brains out trying to find a junior-level job now, or you can have a bit of fun and come back when the market picks up," he says.
"You’ve got your whole career ahead of you. When else will you get this chance?"
Amy Jo Ehman is a freelance writer based in Saskatoon.
Photo: Paul Austring
Après le stage...
Les étudiants en droit se concentrent tellement sur leur stage qu’ils ne s’interrogent pas vraiment sur les étapes suivantes de leur carrière juridique. Des centaines d’étudiants se retrouvent au chômage après leur stage, et n’ont aucune idée des chemins qui leur sont ouverts. Voici quelques pistes.
Au début des années 80, Dirk Silversides avait bien fait durant son année de stage chez MacPherson Leslie & Tyerman, à Regina, mais la récession avait empêché son cabinet de lui offrir un emploi permanent. Bien sûr, il était déçu, mais au fond, il voulait devenir son propre patron. Il s’associa donc à l’un de ses collègues stagiaires, Daniel Tapp, et les deux juristes sans emploi fondèrent le cabinet Tapp & Silversides.
« Plusieurs avocats de la ville nous ont dit que nous étions fous. Aucun de nous deux n’avait des racines ou des contacts d’affaires à Regina, ou même un client », se souvient Me Silversides, un diplômé de la faculté de droit de l’Université Queen’s, à Kingston. Les deux associés ont commencé par visiter des courtiers immobiliers. Ils croyaient qu’en servant bien les clients dans une première transaction — l’achat d’une maison — ces derniers reviendraient les voir quand d’autres questions juridiques surgiraient au cours de leur vie.
Leur calcul s’est avéré juste et en moins de trois ans, les deux associés gagnaient plus d’argent que leurs anciens collègues stagiaires réembauchés. « Bien des étudiants sont déçus si on ne les invite pas à revenir après leur stage, alors que moi, j’ai vu une porte s’ouvrir. Ce ne fut pas un événement traumatisant », dit l’associé de Tapp & Silversides.
Partout au pays, à l’instar de Dick Silversides, un nombre croissant de stagiaires se retrouvent sans travail. Pour plusieurs de ces jeunes avocats, un stage qui se termine en queue de poisson constitue la première expérience de refus. À l’école secondaire, à l’université, ils n’ont connu que la réussite, et ils ont appris que l’effort mène au succès. Et tout à coup, ils se retrouvent à la recherche d’un boulot.
Parfois, ces jeunes juristes pourront à la longue se féliciter d’une malchance initiale. Ritu Banerjee, par exemple, a été obligée de réévaluer ses objectifs avant même d’entreprendre sa carrière. Diplômée de la faculté de droit de l’Université d’Ottawa, elle avait complété son stage au cabinet Nelligan Power en 1999 qui, pour des motifs économiques, n’a embauché qu’un de ses neuf stagiaires. Elle était déçue mais, dit-elle, « honnêtement, je savais que je ne voulais pas devenir associée ou passer ma vie comme plaideuse dans le secteur privé ».
Intéressée au droit public, elle décrocha un contrat à court terme au gouvernement fédéral, qui se transforma éventuellement en emploi permanent. Aujourd’hui, Me Banerjee est conseillère en politiques au Ministère du Solliciteur général. Et qu’est-il arrivé à ses autres collègues stagiaires? Certains ont été embauchés par le gouvernement fédéral, un s’est joint à un autre cabinet juridique, un autre a trouvé du travail à la Croix Rouge, et un dernier s’est inscrit aux études supérieures.
De plus en plus, d’ailleurs, les jeunes juristes ne s’attendent pas à rester très longtemps au sein du même cabinet. Et parallèlement, les cabinets réembauchent en espérant une association à long terme, mais les choses ne se passent pas toujours ainsi. Selon Peter Mendell, associé directeur chez Davies, Ward, Phillips & Vineberg à Montréal, il faut parfois plus d’un an ou deux avant de comprendre si un avocat s’intègre bien au sein d’un cabinet. Peu importe la raison — conflit de personnalités, problème d’attitude, manque de compétence ou simplement le sentiment qu’un nouvel avocat ne projette pas l’image d’un futur associé — « vous ne lui rendez pas service en le gardant plus longtemps qu’il ne le faut », dit Me Mendell. « Les gens qui nous quittent ont un brillant avenir ailleurs. »
Ils devront trimer dur, cependant, pour décrocher un poste qui leur convient. « Levez vous le matin et téléphonez (à d’éventuels employeurs) jusqu’à 17 heures », conseille Jonathan Marsden, de la société de recruteurs juridiques Marsden & Nagata, à Toronto. Si une société connaît une période de croissance, appelez son conseiller juridique et demandez lui s’il a besoin d’aide. Considérez du travail à la pige ou un séjour dans de petits cabinets. Demandez-vous ce que vous voulez vraiment faire, ce qui vous plaît le plus. Dans un marché déprimé, envisagez même des vacances prolongées. « Revenez quand le marché reprendra », conseille M. Marsden.