Articling Positions Scarce

Hireback rates are rising, but positions may be hard to come by as firms cut back

By Sandra Rubin

ANYONE WHO STARTED law school with the hopes of someday becoming a business lawyer in the years after the 2008 global financial crisis brought the deals economy to its knees is either bungee-jumping brave or a crazy optimist — things haven't gotten much easier.

Layer on mounting pressure from clients to cut their legal bills and, six years later, the job market for junior lawyers remains challenging. “As far as employment goes, the climate is still very tough out there for junior associates,” says Christopher Sweeney, co-founder of ZSA Legal Recruitment. “There was a blip in the second quarter of this year when deal activity picked up, but from what I heard it slowed down again over the summer. Unless M&A and IPOs pick up, I can't see that changing in the foreseeable future.”

Where firms are taking on junior lawyers, they are taking a much harder look than they used to, says John Ohnjec, division director at Robert Half Legal. “They are examining what those lawyers could bring to the firm, the ability to effectively conduct business-development efforts, for example. That is considered more advantageous. Not everyone can come to a firm in their first year with clients in their back pocket of course – that's pretty rare – so they're looking at academic background and interests and that kind of thing.”

As far as entry-level positions go, the news is mixed at best. While many corporate law firms appear to be taking fewer students than they once did, they also appear to be working hard on keeping their hire-back rates up.

Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP is among those firms that have pared back from the days when the red-hot dealmaking economy sparked bidding wars over students. “I can't speak to all firms, but our numbers certainly have been reduced over the years,” says Frances Mahil, director of student affairs in Toronto.

In 2014, Davies had 14 articling students in its Toronto office (the firm declined to release figures for Montreal), and hired back all nine who were interested in associate positions. Five articling students opted to leave to do other things. That level is pretty consistent with 2013, says Mahil, adding that Davies frames its decisions on how many spots to create as a ratio of students to lawyers, so it shouldn't change dramatically unless the firm grows or shrinks. The firm works on a ratio of about 10:1.

“The way we look at it is that we hire the number of students we feel we can provide with a meaningful work experience. Hiring 18 articling students, if we don't think we're going to be able to hire back 18 in terms of supporting our practice and our client needs, seems inherently unfair.”

Integrity in not over-hiring is something law students should consider when they're looking at where they want to make a future, says Christina Beaudoin, director of student programs at Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP. Nationally, Osler hired back 33 of 37 articling students in 2013. While the 2014 numbers were still being finalized in Calgary and Montreal, the firm offered associate positions to all 15 of the articling students in Toronto who wanted to remain, and firm-wide the number is expected to be similar to last year.

“We look to hire the right number at the summer- and articling-student level so that each student has the opportunity to get exposed to great work and training without the experience becoming diluted. What that shows is that we're making the investment up front in recruiting the best and brightest, with the aim of retaining these students to be our future lawyers.

“Our aim,” she says, “is to match articling positions with our business needs. We're not looking to turn it into a competition for placements.”

Some firms, meanwhile, have actually increased their articling positions. Torys LLP hired 27 articling students in Toronto and Calgary in 2014 and all were hired back except two who withdrew their names. That compares with 18 of 21 across the two offices a year earlier, says Danielle Traub, head of legal recruitment and student development.

Traub says that even in a hot market it is normal to feel anxious about landing articling and junior-associate positions. “I remember going into the process eight years ago and feeling very anxious — and the market was a very different place then. But to the extent students today have concerns, things are changing.

“There are more international firms on the landscape. We're talking a lot about the ways law firms can become creative in a very competitive market to do well in this market. So I think a lot of students are thinking about what all this means for them. We're in a time of change around articling and how we manage the process.”

And nothing stays the same forever. Ohnjec of Robert Half says his firm is starting to see what may be the beginning of a bounce-back from the legal-services decline. “It's still challenging out there, but what we are seeing is that it's better than it has been for the past four or five years.”