Starting your legal career

I received an email last week from a third-year student at a Canadian law school asking for advice. He’s set to graduate next spring, but like a growing number of other soon-to-be or recent law grads, he hasn’t been able to line up an articling position. (For those unfamiliar, articling is a one-year apprenticeship period that a law graduate must complete before he or she can be called to the Bar.) He struggled in his first year of law school, and his grades reflect that; but even though he’s adjusted since then, he can’t get potential employers to look past his first set of marks, and isn’t sure what to do now.

This is not a post about all the things wrong with the articling system in Canada. There are enough news items out there with terms such as “articling crisis,” “crisis of values,” “what’s wrong with articling,” “the abolition of articling,” and “the end of articling,” that you can safely conclude the system is not in great shape. For a definitive data-driven look at these problems, especially regarding the degree to which many people’s articling experiences are scarred by sexual harassment and racial discrimination, this report from the Law Society of Alberta is a must-read.

But whatever law societies do or don’t do about articling someday, my correspondent’s concerns were far more immediate. And there are countless law school graduates in his position in many countries — unable to get a job as a first-year associate or even in a “law-related” role, terrified about imminent loan repayments they have no way to meet.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have any short-term solutions to offer my correspondent, nor did I know enough people in his jurisdiction to connect him with a network of potential employers or mentors. All I could come up with were some longer-range, bigger-picture suggestions — not what he needed today, which I regretted, but maybe something he could use shortly down the road. Having written them down, I thought they might have some value to other people in his position, and so with his permission, I’ve adapted (and anonymized) my response and provided it below:

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You mentioned that you have “a story to tell” potential employers, and suggested that if employers were aware of that story, it might enable them to look past the first-year marks and consider you as a candidate “whole and entire,” someone whose first-year grades don’t tell the whole story. I think that’s a great approach, and if you can fully develop that narrative, you could potentially turn this into an opportunity to stand out from the mass of other job-seekers. Here’s what I mean.

Most law students take a conventional and conservative approach to the job-search process. They participate in on-campus interviews, lead with their grades and CV, and try to convey a sense of being the best candidate for this particular interviewer. In turn, employers (or at least, the people they choose to represent them in the recruiting and hiring process) fall into the habit of expecting these kinds of pitches. So it becomes a kind of dance, a formulaic process by which A tries to interest B and B expects A to try to interest it through a limited number of established criteria.

Dress for the job you want to have.

It’s understandable that the process has evolved this way, because both law students and law firms are conservative, risk-averse entities. What student wants to take a chance at missing out on a job because they were too unconventional? Equally, what recruitment person wants to risk the wrath of the partners by recommending someone unconventional who might not work out? Better for all concerned to go with the “tried and true” signals and markers. And that’s how we end up with the mess of a system we have.

Your first-year grades are making it difficult for you to succeed in this conventional process, because they make it easy for the recruiter to glance at them and strike your application off their list. (Speaking as someone who’s hired many people, one of my goals was to find quick and easy ways to reduce the large pile of applications.) So if, in fact, the conventional process is not going to serve you, it might make sense to abandon it in favour of something less conventional, more tailored to you as an individual.

So I think the first thing you might want to do is to change your focus from “How do I get a job?” to “How do I want to begin my legal career?” I readily admit: That’s a tough shift to make, with graduation and debt looming, and it might well be that your financial circumstances won’t allow you to deviate from the norm in this respect.

But if this shift is possible, I’d encourage it, because I think that change alone is going to set you apart, in terms of your capacity to establish yourself as a successful lawyer, among the members of your graduating class. Most of your classmates have zeroed in on that “first job,” both because it’s the entry gate into the profession and because a successful first year in a law firm holds out the promise of ongoing employment. (Not to mention the whole debt payment thing.) But they’re probably not thinking much beyond that. Lawyers and law students are box-tickers, and “getting a job after graduation” is just the next box to tick.

But here’s the thing: Articling, or first-year associateship, is just one year. Your legal career, should you choose to spend most of your working life in this sector, will stretch to 30 or 40 years. I’d encourage you to think about that career: What do you think you might like to do with it, at least in the beginning? What areas of law, or what types of practice, seem best fitted to you at the moment? You don’t need to (and couldn’t, anyway) make decisions today about what you’ll be doing in 2028 or 2043 — just about the first two to four years of your working life in the law.

This line of inquiry, in turn, patches in to your own history, experiences, and personality, and this is where we get back to “your story.” Everyone’s story is unique, intertwined with what we’re passionate about, what we have an aptitude for, and what our upbringing and life experiences have shaped us to be and prepared us to do. Everyone I’ve ever met is passionate about their own story, and they can create a compelling narrative about who they are, how they got here, and what they’re good at doing.

Anyway, here’s Champagne Supernova.

So a question you might think about, and use to ground and guide your next moves, is: What’s your story? What’s different about you, what stands out about you, in terms of the talents you own and the skills you’ve honed and the good things you want to do with them? And once you’ve got that narrative in your mind — or ideally, written it out and run it past friends and family members for their feedback — ask yourself: “To whom would this story be of particular interest?”

These questions can’t be answered in isolation, of course — they hinge on other factors. Where do you plan to live after graduation, and for the next few years? If your narrative and your ambitions involve a particular type of practice area or industry or community or other setting, then you’ll of course factor those in as well. There might also be relationship obligations or family duties to consider. But these are part of your narrative, too — try not to regard them as restrictions or limitations, because they’re part of who and where you are right now and they have full legitimacy to be in your story formation.

The more you think along these lines, the more you can narrow and sharpen and focus in on precisely how you want your legal career to begin. And with that focus becomes a certainty and confidence that will help carry through in your applications and interviews, because you’re not just another law graduate looking for a place to draw a paycheque and start paying down debts. You know who you are and where you want to be and what you want to do — which again, I strongly suspect is a place that many graduating law students haven’t gotten to yet.

Part of the narrative you’ll form, of course, is the struggles you experienced in first year. The marks are obviously there, and you’ll be asked about them. Your best bet, I think, is to weave them into your story, as part of the journey you’ve undertaken to get to this point. And as with all good stories, it’s important to fashion this difficult period as a trial or test that you passed and came out of better and stronger: You overcame the challenges that caused your marks to be low, and emerged clearer-eyed and more focused on your goal.

What matters most here, I think, is that you select the right audiences to whom to tell this story. Your average boring office of a national law firm is probably looking for your average boring law student, and that’s fine for them. But you want to identify those places where you feel confident that you (and your narrative) are a great fit — where you’re the person they didn’t even realize they needed until they met you.

When you’ve narrowed down these places, then I’d encourage you to contact them directly — but not necessarily to ask for a post-graduation job. Instead, I’d consider positioning yourself as a bright, hard-working, self-made law graduate with a strong and well-thought-out plan for the start of your legal career, who has identified this employer as a place where you can contribute value while learning about being a lawyer.

Such employers might not have articling or first-year positions available. They might not even offer such jobs! They might not be legal workplaces at all! But if they’re persuaded of the value you can offer them — if they’ve heard from you on the phone and met you in person and have had a chance to think about how you, specifically, can help them, specifically — then maybe they could be motivated to help you get into the profession. And maybe they know someone at a small firm or in-house department nearby who’s willing to take on an articling student or first-year lawyer, just so that you can get that first step out of the way. Or they might have other options that I don’t know about.

These are all just possible points of departure for the start of your legal career. But as a resource to help you think about the career you’re going to create and the paths you’re going to carve out along the way, there’s a brand-new and highly compelling book by Mike Whelan called Lawyer Forward. It also emphasizes the importance of stories, and I highly recommend it for your review and consideration.

I wish I had more immediate solutions or more practical “right now” advice to offer. But I hope the foregoing observations might have some longer-term value for you. I’d try to lean away from “getting articles” or “getting a job after graduation” — as critically important as these goals are — and more towards “starting my legal career,”  which includes both the short-term one-year needs as well as bigger-picture, more thought-provoking goals and considerations.

It will help you figure out the kind of people and the kind of organizations where you’ll feel like you belong and where you know they’ll benefit from your contributions. And it will help you really figure out what kind of lawyer you want to be.



1 Comment

  1. Michael Roster

    As Jordan knows, I’m a former managing partner and then GC at several entities. In my semi-retirement for the past eight years, I’ve been teaching advanced contracts at the University of Southern California’s law school.
    These issues come up constantly with my students and former students. I give them advice similar to Jordan’s, but let me supplement that a bit.
    Not only do you have a story to tell, but often the best application of a legal education is NOT to be a practicing lawyer but in fact in areas like management, compliance and the like. Some of the CEO’s of my best clients were executives who had law degrees but never practiced law (a CEO, for example, of one of the ten largest banks in the world). Getting the initial position can be a challenge, but with the right story, you can get a position. Once inside a company, you have a much better idea of job openings, places where your skills can best be used and where career paths are far more interesting than being a lawyer in the law department or at a law firm.
    So have several versions of a resume, and in the ones for not a strictly legal position, list the papers you’ve written (both undergraduate and law school), jobs you’ve had and the applicable skills you developed (without over-doing it), etc.
    I also think a major change in law will be the emergence of multi-disciplinary practice groups to handle such things as HR and labor, bank compliance, environmental compliance, real estate development and workouts, corporate transactions of all types, etc. Much of what we lawyers do today actually needs skills other than lawyering skills. MDPs will be far more efficient, give much better results, have much lower cost structures and be far nimbler that our current major law firms and even our current accounting and consulting firms. Once you develop expertise in one or two areas, whether strictly legal or also drawing upon related knowledge, you will be positioned to be a key part of one or more MDPs.


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