COVID-19 and Job Market Prospects for Young Lawyers

Marlisse Silver Sweeney: Welcome to The Every Lawyer, a Canadian Bar Association podcast, I'm your host Marlisse Silver-Sweeney. There's no denying COVID-19 is impacting every facet of the workplace, including job prospects. In today's episode we'll focus on what that means for law students, articling students and young lawyers.

The Canadian Bar Association's young lawyers and students section recently heard from almost 750 people about how they're fairing in the pandemic job market. To break down the survey results we're chatting with Adam Norget, Vice Chair of the CBA National Young Lawyers Section and a labour and employment occupational health and safety and human rights lawyer with the city of Edmonton. Then we'll talk about what you can do about it.

Mark Holthe is an immigration lawyer who runs his own firm in Lethbridge Alberta. He's the national chair of the CBA Immigration Section and he's been facilitating some online sessions called Coffee in the Times of COVID about how to find work during a pandemic for young lawyers. We're going to pick his brain for some tips.

Adam, thank you for being here to discuss the survey results about the impact that COVID-19 is having on law students, articling students and young lawyers.

Adam Norget: Thank you, it's a pleasure to be with you today.

Marlisse Silver Sweeney: Can you tell me first why the CBA's young lawyer and student section conducted the survey?

Adam Norget: Sure, so we had received a growing body of anecdotal evidence that our members were experiencing perhaps disproportionally adverse impacts as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic relating to their employment. So we decided rather than relying on sort of this word of mouth issue, and presuming that it was a country wide issue, that we should survey our members and get some more data so that we could determine how we would respond to it.

Marlisse Silver Sweeney: Right, OK that's really smart and so what do the results show us?

Adam Norget: Unfortunately the data that we received is not good. The good news is that we received a tremendous response from our membership. We received 746 responses to date from members all across Canada and we're still working on gathering data with respect to our French members. But we received quite diversity, quite a large amount of diversity in our respondents. So we received a fairly even split between new lawyers being called to the bar three years or less law students, articling students and other young lawyers as well as a great diversity in the organization in which they work, whether it's a small or solo firm, a large firm or midsize firm but it was an even split between those three with 12% of our members comprising public sector employment.

Marlisse Silver Sweeney: OK, wow so you got very diverse results and what were kind of the major findings?

Adam Norget: So, first and foremost our main question was had the respondent's employment position been adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and we received a staggering response, 59% of our respondents saying that yes, it had.

Marlisse Silver Sweeney: Wow.

Adam Norget: Yeah and that was further broken down into how it was impacted. So 33% indicated they were unable to secure employment, 28% advised that their salary had been reduced, 18% reported reduced hours, 14% reported their termination of their position entirely and 5% on temporary layoff as well as several other adverse effects.

Marlisse Silver Sweeney: Right, so it sounds like it's some pretty difficult times for the respondents who again are law students, articling students, young lawyers.

Adam Norget: Absolutely. A further statistic that we received was that 25% of our respondents reported a delayed start date versus 44% indicating that it had not been delayed, so more than one in three of respondents reported a delayed start date in their employment.

Marlisse Silver Sweeney: Right, OK and by employment we mean articling positions, summer positions or like young associate positions.

Adam Norget: That's correct, for positions that would be starting. So just for the people that that would apply to where they were starting employment, more than one in three had their start date delayed. And in fact of the people who were starting new employment, more than one in seven reported that their position had been cancelled altogether.

Marlisse Silver Sweeney: Wow, yeah that's really shocking and awful. Were there any results when you were reading through it that were kind of surprising or stood out to you?

Adam Norget: I think that there were definitely a few and I think one was the disproportionate impact reported with respect to young lawyers as opposed to more senior partners or managers in law firms.

One of the questions we asked our respondents was how jobs in their workplace had been adversely impacted by COVID-19 and we heard from our members that 34% of articling students had been affected, 30% of summer students, 23% of associated with only 12% of partners or managers being affected.

Marlisse Silver Sweeney: Wow, yeah so it does seem like this pandemic, based on your survey findings, is, you know, really impacting the more junior people in the profession.

Adam Norget: I would entirely agree.

Marlisse Silver Sweeney: Was anything else surprising to you when you were reading through these survey results?

Adam Norget: Yeah, Marlisse there were a couple of things. So as part of the survey we asked our respondents if they would like to self identify and 75% chose to self identify and there were a couple of statistics that really jumped out at me as a bit shocking. One being that 11% of our survey respondents identified as a person with a disability and a staggering 68% identified as female, which is really, really shocking and we may need to explore that further.

Marlisse Silver Sweeney: For sure and particularly with, you know, the attrition of women in the legal profession in junior positions as well that's something that could really play in here too.

Adam Norget: Absolutely and that's been a concern that's been on our radar for awhile. So certainly we're going to be looking into that further.

Marlisse Silver Sweeney: Adam, can you tell me a bit about your own story, how are you dealing with the ramification of COVID-19 in your career?

Adam Norget: Well, I think like everyone else certainly I've been impacted by it. You know, I'm working remotely like I think the majority of us are, I have been since mid-March which has sort of had its own challenges to it. I'm fortunate enough to still be gainfully employed and I think part of that is working in labour and employment, which is very, very busy even in times of COVID-19.

But, you know, there's been good things about it too, I've had more time to spend with my 1 year old Jack and time to spend with my wife Kelly and I don't have to commute downtown every day so I try to look at the bright side.

Marlisse Silver Sweeney: And so what message do you have for these young lawyers with tenuous job prospects because of the pandemic?

Adam Norget: I think there's three things that we need to get out of this and that's that there is support out there for people who have experienced some adverse impact as a result of the pandemic. Secondly our section is going to be developing advocacy efforts to see what we can do to support young lawyers in Canada. And thirdly it's not all doom and gloom. I think there are some opportunities for innovation in legal profession as a result of the pandemic.

I think even once it's resolved we're not going to be back to how we were before, I think we're likely going to be looking at a new normal, so in my view young lawyers may be in best position to take advantage of some of the opportunities that that presents.

Marlisse Silver Sweeney: Yeah, absolutely that's kind of a nice upside isn't it, the much needed innovation to the legal profession that the COVID-19 pandemic has kind of forced the hand of.

Adam Norget: Absolutely. I mean I think the reality is that we're going to be looking at more remote work, more flexible scheduling, likely more cloud computing, a higher need for tech savvy innovators across the board and we might be looking at, you know, opportunities for an easier way to go solo due to low overhead requirements.

Marlisse Silver Sweeney: Right, for sure yeah so some really interesting things that will come from this. Is the young lawyers and student section, tell me a bit more, is there any other kind of surveys planned or checking in with the members? Are the people that responded to the survey, what does data collection look like for your section?

Adam Norget: Yeah, absolutely. So we've only just got our survey results and, like I said, they're hitting me pretty hard. We're going to be sharing those officially once we have our data from our French version of the survey as well. But we're going to be really continuing our support initiatives that we already started and so that includes communicating available support that is available whether that's government assistance or private initiatives.

A couple of examples are the 100 interns project that was launched by Professor Peter Sankoff at The University of Alberta, where he essentially spearheaded a project to fundraise for 100 legal internship positions across Canada via CPP webinars and donations via the private sector. Another example is the University of Ottawa student support initiative for experiential learning which is financed by donors and the private sector which is offering more than 50 funded [unintelligible [00:10:47] legal positions.

So, you know, part of what we're trying to do is, you know, say to our members you're not alone, we're all in this together, there are supports, structures out there and available and we'll try to communicate that to our members.

Marlisse Silver Sweeney: Well, thanks so much Adam and that's actually a really nice transition to our next guest because he's going to share with the young lawyers some tips and tricks on what it means to find work in these turbulent times. So thank you very much for your time with us and for explaining the survey and the results.

Adam Norget: Thank you, it's been a pleasure.

Marlisse Silver Sweeney: Mark, thanks so much for chatting with us today.          

Mark Holthe: You bet, I'm happy to be here.

Marlisse Silver Sweeney: So you've been facilitating some session for young lawyers and students about how to find work during a pandemic. Let's start with this, what are your top tips, what are you telling them?

Mark Holthe: Well, the most important thing in the midst of a pandemic is to realize that in a pandemic people are having problems. And what do lawyers do, as lawyers we solve problems. And that doesn't matter whether we're solving problems for clients or solving problems for potential employers, firms. If we position ourselves in a way that we are the authority on a particular area, or we're really good at solving a certain kind of problem that exists in the midst of this pandemic, we're going to be a whole lot employable than if we're just the same as everyone else.

And so from a tip standpoint it's a really a mindset that needs to be aligned with that philosophy. And obviously it's very, very subject specific, it depends on the interest of the lawyer, it depends on what they, you know, what they're trying to achieve in their careers. But when you start from that premise you have a whole lot better opportunity to identify potential opportunities for finding jobs and even considering going solo.

Marlisse Silver Sweeney: So that's really interesting and a really cool piece of advice that I wouldn't have thought about. Can you walk me through it, as an example so I'm a young law student, I just graduated from law school, I'm looking for an articling position in a pandemic, how do I become an expert on something?

Mark Holthe: That's a great question. I think the point of view that you have to take is that to be an expert you just have to know a little bit more than the person you're talking to. Whether that's our clients, whether it's the future employer, if you have something to bring you have just a little bit more knowledge than the person beside you, then you're the expert.

Marlisse Silver Sweeney: I love that.

Mark Holthe: And so it really fluctuates in terms of what that means depending on the situation. And for a young law student, well how in the world do I become an expert? Well, it's pretty simple, you just start writing about it, you start talking about it. And there's nothing that will help escalate or help you climb that learning curve than to write. And now when I say write it's just producing content, it's doing things that establish you as somewhat of an authority on a particular topic.

And you don't even have to be working for a firm to do that. I can think of, you know, a number of lawyers that I know, that even when they started new fresh out of law school, had a particular interest in the area of the law and they started a blog, you know, they started something online that helped, you know, people to see that they understood a certain area, they had, you know, a certain level of grasp of the concepts.

And it's amazing this world that we have of content marketing, which is the life blood of my practice, is all based on giving freely of your knowledge and information, building yourself as an authority and then people want to do business with people that they know, like and trust. And that's no different than a young lawyer who's looking to get a job with a law firm.

If you come to that firm and you say hey, I've got this blog that people are following and, you know, or I have, if you're adventurous, I have a podcast that I do on this topic because I'm passionate about it of I've got a YouTube channel where I produce, you know, daily little tips on these areas. You don't need to be working for a law firm to do those things.

And if you're struggling that can help to position yourself as a knowledge expert on a particular topic. And if that firm sees that as, you know, wow, this is a person who could be a source of new clients for the firm it's going to elevate your attractiveness to that firm. This is not, this is not a typical way of going about it, it's not. But we are in the midst of a pandemic and so for – when jobs are few and far between it positions yourself to potentially land a job with a firm or maybe you start your own.

Marlisse Silver Sweeney: You know, I have sat on a lot, or I've listened to a lot of panels and interviewed a lot of people about job hunting tips and I've never heard that one, I really like it. It's really creative and innovative to build your expertise and to build your name and personal brand in an area. So hopefully our listeners can take that and run with it.

Mark Holthe: Yeah and I'll add one other thing too, Marlisse. The reality is this is more like farming than hunting. So when you have, you're trying to grow this brand it's long tail marketing, it takes time to build this following. It's not going to just magically solve your problems tomorrow, this is something that you're building for the future.

Yes, you could have success right away and, you know, some blog that you write gets tremendous traffic and it's, you know, it just explodes it goes viral. But generally speaking it takes time, it takes a steady cultivation of the seeds that you plant and then it just builds and grows until you reach a stage, which has really been, you know, just in this amazing thing that's happened with my own practice, you know, putting in four or five years. Now obviously, you know, that's kind of how long I've been at this but you reach a stage where then you harvest, it's like planting fruit trees. And then the amount of effort that takes to continue to curate that isn't nearly what it was in the beginning getting started. So that's the methodology.

Marlisse Silver Sweeney: OK, well I liked that analogy. I'm glad you explained it because I didn't know what you were talking about hunting versus farming but now that you have it makes a little bit more sense to me. So we talked about articling positions and really junior lawyers, what about, you know, still younger lawyers that, maybe solo practitioners, that have been around for a couple of years or younger associates, is advice the same for them or is it different when it comes to getting clients right now in a pandemic situation?

Mark Holthe: I think the advice does stay substantially the same but it's a lot easier. You already have a track record, you already have a presence, you're not starting from scratch. So the key for lawyers right now is kind of comes back to the first thing that I said, you know, we are problem solvers, a pandemic creates problems.

And so it's all about positioning yourself to be able to better respond to the needs of your clients. Regardless of the area of practice that you're in, trying to find a niche for yourself, an area that – where there's needs of clients and then providing those services in a way that sets you apart from the way it's always been done.

You know, the use of technology, this whole virtual world opens up amazing doors. And if can give an example, for years I had a traditional immigration practice where I had paralegals, those paralegals worked directly with the clients. I pushed the work down to the least expensive, you know, employee in the firm to keep the costs down but I didn't have a lot of direct interaction with the clients.

I realized that by moving my office to my home, removing the paralegal, working directly with the client to actually teach them and show them how to do things and then provide collaborative support instead of handling the whole process it was a win/win.

My fees dropped, I had more direct, you know, interaction with the clients who then the finished product using, you know, a paralegal who maybe didn't care about that client as much as I did. So that shift and that pivot was something new and that's kind of what I'm talking about. And it's different for every person but you just have to take some time to sit and think about where you're at, think about where the problems are and how you can position yourself to meet, you know, solve those problems for our clients.

Marlisse Silver Sweeney: Right, well it sounds like it's a time for young lawyers in particular to be innovative and creative.

Mark Holthe: That's an understatement. And they more than anyone else are positioned to do it, they've grown up with this stuff. When you go to a law firm, you know, a traditional law firm, they're still, like lawyers are the last to adopt these things. We tend to be the latest adopters of technology or innovation and we tend to just continue doing things the way we always did because they work.

But the most amazing thing about new lawyers is you bring this new perspective, challenge the way things are done, question why they're done a certain way. And if you can see a better way through the use of leveraging technology or just a different method of practice, like go for it because you're not, you know, you're not tied down to 10 or 15 years of this is the way we've always done it.

Marlisse Silver Sweeney: OK, well thanks. Switching gears here but do you have any advice for young lawyers who do have employment during this time, what they can do to support peers who've been laid off or having difficulty securing articles or that junior position?

Mark Holthe: Yes. And one thing I did, you know, want to talk about that kind of fits into all of this these, you know, new ideas that I'm talking about here do not replace everything that's been done before. So in other words how do you get a job, often it's through someone you know, a personal referral, someone can vouch for you, someone knows about a firm that's hiring that maybe isn't officially advertising for the position.

So those common sources of networking, you know, joining organizations like the Canadian Bar Association, you know, all of those things help. So when you have a friend that's looking to [unintelligible [00:21:08] for a position well, what kind of law do they want to practice? If you are already a member of one of the CBA sections for, you know, regardless of the area of law, invite them to join. Introduce them to people that you know within your firm and outside and really nothing replaces that personal referral, it is powerful.

And so you do all that you can, you join the organizations, you participate wherever you can, you attend any virtual webinars you can, anywhere you can leverage relationships is absolutely something you don't want to neglect. It's not done in a silo this building of your own authority but it's as much taking everything that's done before and enhancing it.

Marlisse Silver Sweeney: OK and any tips for pandemic specific type of networking?

Mark Holthe: Well, everything's online, right? So even though in the past we had these conferences where we were able to go and meet people and attend and get introduced and, you know, and we would attend lunch and learns and just different ways to network and connect, we're still doing those things. And I with, as the chair of the National Immigration section, you know, we're talking about ways with our upcoming conferences to have little breakout groups or little, you know, pre-conference Zoom get-togethers.

And yeah, it's a little bit different but, you know, everybody's, you know, comes into these groups and you can get introduced to people that way. And so you have to creative absolutely but the same, you know, everybody's looking to now shift things online and it, you know, although it's not the same as an in person hello, how you, still there's some really, really good ways to leverage those opportunities.

Marlisse Silver Sweeney: Well, it's neat to hear that from your perspective that, you know, conferences and lunch and learns that, you know, everyone that's organizing them too is actually looking for ways to connect too. I think that would be gratifying to hear for young, job seeking lawyers.

Mark Holthe: Yeah. And we're in unchartered waters, right, we are sailing some very, very uncertain waters. We don't know what the future's going to look, you know, in the next month or two months or a year from now. And when I look at that I see opportunity, things are going to be different so why don't you be at the head of that curve, ahead of everybody else in terms of how you're approaching things compared to just following that wave as it comes.

And yeah, like I said where there's challenge there's opportunity and for those that are prepared to do things a little bit different, you know, you're going to have to work hard you really are and you're going to have to work smart. And you're going to have to leverage off of your, you know, you're not just expertise but the things that you're really good at, those are things that are going to help you to set you apart from the crowd.

Marlisse Silver Sweeney: OK, well thank you. And one last question because I don't want to take up too much of your time, I know you're a busy person, but what do you know now at this stage in your career about job prospects for Canadian lawyers that you wished you knew when you were a younger lawyer?

Mark Holthe: Now for sure firms are looking for not just someone who has a good foundation, you know, good legal education, but now more than ever firms are looking for people who are going to help the business grow. And I think I underappreciated how much of what we do as lawyers is really understanding the world of business. And those days where people just took jobs where they just sat in their office, you know, received a work, you know, work from a partner, grinded away for hours and then went home at night without thinking about business development, those are becoming fewer and fewer.

I started my practice with a large national firm, and even in those days, you know, 17, 18 years ago we were talking about this gap between articling students and partners and more, you know, more so than ever before people are having to consider their work as being in a smaller firm or as solo or even in the national firms, the transition from an articling student to a partner, the only reason that transition occurs is because you can create your own work.

And so the one thing that I wish I think I would have appreciated a little bit more, although I did have an idea about it, is the importance of being able to understand the world of business development and being able to build your own practice. That's the one thing hands down.

Marlisse Silver Sweeney: OK, well thank you, I think that's the perfect place to end. So being really mindful about business development, you can't just focus on the law anymore unfortunately as a young lawyer, you have to really think about what you can do to set yourself apart and to bring in clients no matter where you end up.

Adam Norget: Exactly.

Marlisse Silver Sweeney: OK, well thanks for your time Mark, we really appreciate it.

Adam Norget: You're very welcome.

Marlisse Silver Sweeney: Tweet to us at CBA_News or you can reach me at my handle @marlissess. We are on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and Stitcher, wherever you listen to podcasts. Subscribe to receive notifications for new episodes and leave us a review. We also have a podcast in French called Juriste branché. Thanks for listening, stay tuned for the next episode.