Negotiate your working conditions at a law firm

  • June 27, 2018
  • James Careless

This is a hard time to be a newly-minted lawyer seeking work.

“It’s a buyer’s market out there, with a glut of new lawyers chasing a limited number of jobs,” said Warren Bongard, President and Co-Founder of Toronto’s Zsa Legal Recruitment. “As a result, the biggest firms in Canada’s largest cities can dictate salaries and working conditions to new hires – and they do.”

“There’s an oversupply of young lawyers looking for positions,” agreed Preston Parsons, a lawyer at Vancouver’s Overholt Law and Chair of the CBA Young Lawyers Section. “The law of supply and demand is definitely working against them.”

Toronto’s Ryan Cooper knows from first-hand experience what Bongard and Parsons are talking about. Called to the bar in June 2018, Cooper had a job lined up with the firm he’d been articling for only to be told recently that the firm does not wish to expand.

As a result, he is left trying to find an associate position in Toronto or Kingston at the last minute. “Frankly, I will have to take what I can get,” Cooper said.

In a buyer’s market, it is definitely difficult for a new lawyer to find a job, let alone have some say in their level of pay and working conditions. Difficult, but not impossible.

Here’s how you may be able to pull it off:

Think small firm

Want to have a say in your pay and working conditions? Then don’t go chasing positions at large, established law firms in major Canadian cities. “They are in lock-step when it comes to pay levels and working conditions for an associate’s first year,” said Bongard. “It generally doesn’t matter who you are.”

Where opportunities for negotiation may exist are at small and mid-sized law firms.

“In solo practices and smaller firms, the new lawyer may be able to initiate pay and work condition negotiations, because no structure may exist at the firm itself,” said Zara Suleman, founder of North Vancouver’s Suleman Family Law. “This may allow negotiation room to achieve more creative compensation or benefits, or accommodations such as working from home, flex work times, and other work/life balance benefits.”

In some smaller and mid-size firms, there may be some framework regarding pay and working conditions, but nothing as structured as a large firm, she added. Although these firms may not be as amenable to negotiation as the smallest firms, “there may be room to negotiate matters of salary, bonuses and other forms of compensation or benefits.”

When it comes to money, some smaller firms may be willing to negotiate payment based on “pure fee-sharing to straight salary, or a combination of the above,” said Stuart Rudner, employment lawyer and mediator at Toronto’s Rudner Law. “There can be flexibility there, and also in the number of billable and non-billable hours a new associate has to commit to, depending on the firm.”

Think small location

It is widely acknowledged that Canada’s smaller cities and towns need lawyers, especially in the country’s more rural and remote communities. For new lawyers needing their first jobs, canvassing law firms in these locales may deliver employment results. Typically, salaries will be lower in Canada’s small communities, though the cost of living is usually lower as well, except in the far North. But since the supply of new lawyers here is far lower than what is available on Bay Street, these new hires could be able to negotiate better working terms.

“Certainly in the rural areas, there’s a lot more room for young lawyers to get more flexible working conditions and career opportunities,” said Parsons. It helps that many small-town Canadian lawyers are rapidly approaching retirement age. For instance, “outside of the Lower Mainland, the average age of a practising B.C. lawyer is 55-56,” he said. “If a young lawyer is willing to take on the challenges of running a small-town practice, they may get favourable terms from older lawyers looking to retire.”

Working from home may not be a great idea

Many millennials are tech-savvy and capable of working from home, and in the right circumstances they might be able to win this concession from a new employer.

But should they? Preston Parsons doesn’t think so. “It can be difficult to develop a rapport with your colleagues at a new firm if you are working from home a few days a week,” he said. Even with the best will in the world, “it can be hard to learn to trust someone new who isn’t in the office much.” This absence of trust could hamper a new lawyer’s ability to move up in the firm, he warned.

Bring business – or potential – with you

One way that new lawyers can win leverage with potential employers at hiring time is by bringing new business and earning potential to the firm.

“If a firm thinks a new lawyer has something valuable in terms of marketing connections to bring in new clients – or specialized skills, status, earning potential, and a proven track record in a particular practice area of law – then this may give that lawyer more room to negotiate,” said Suleman.

Start your own firm

Of course, the sure way to design the job you want is to start your own firm, because you only have to negotiate terms with yourself. Going it alone, or starting a small firm with a group of like-minded colleagues, lets you define your compensation, working conditions, and create a more diverse, inclusive corporate culture.

The downside is that a solo practice doesn’t offer the predictable salary that law firm employment provides, and that at least until your business is established, you’ll have to work as hard at finding clients as you will on their cases.

“I have seen more women, racialized lawyers, Indigenous lawyers and lawyers from the LGBTQ2 communities that are launching their own firms and creating new conversations about legal practice; instead of trying to ‘fit’ into existing law firm structures,” said Suleman. “It’s exciting to see more lawyers wanting to imagine and create something different!”

James Careless is a frequent contributor to CBA PracticeLink.