Focus: Spike in demand for law clerks

Law firms of all sizes are waking up to the value of law clerks, spurring a spike in demand for their services, according to industry observers.

Catherine D’Aversa predicted the hiring spree would eventually arrive back in 2011, when, sensing that a shift in the legal market was about to hit, she left her job as director of corporate services at a major Canadian law firm to start her own consulting business.

“Clients were demanding that their law firms change the way they provide services, and I could see that one of the biggest changes was going to be in the way that law clerks are used and in how much work filters down to that level,” D’Aversa says.

“Law clerks are a cheaper resource, but they’re also highly skilled.”

Now she’s president of Legal Resource Consulting, a company that specializes in assessing law firms’ law clerk and paralegal services and how well they match up with their clients’ needs.

She then helps firms develop processes and systems designed to maximize productivity and profitability.   

“When I started, things were already moving in that direction in the U.K., and soon it spread to the rest of Europe. Then you saw it in the U.S. and, of course, at some time, it had to hit Canada,” D’Aversa says.  

Statistics released last month by Robert Half Legal suggest a law clerk boom has well and truly arrived on these shores.

A survey of Canadian lawyers showed almost a quarter — 23 per cent — planned to increase their hiring of law clerks over the next year, compared with four per cent who planned to cut back.

For those already in a job, the survey indicated they could expect a pay rise, with an average salary boost of around three per cent across all levels of expertise.

Mid-level law clerks saw the biggest rises, so that someone with between four and six years of experience at a small- to medium-size law firm could expect an annual wage of between $53,000 and $65,000.

Sara Lutecki, division director for Robert Half Legal’s Toronto office, says demand for law clerks is higher than she has seen in several years.

“The amount of clients we have looking for law clerks is far in excess of the number of people that are available to fill the positions, so I can’t see it slowing any time soon,” she says.
According to Lutecki, law firms are attracted by the continuity that a law clerk can bring to an office or particular practice group.

“They’re more likely to stay at a similar level for longer than junior lawyers, and they can do a lot of the substantive work that might otherwise go to young associates,” she says.

In addition, she says firms particularly value clerks with a two-year diploma in an accredited program or a combined bachelor’s degree and diploma, with almost half of respondents requiring one or the other.

Lisa Matchim, president of the Institute of Law Clerks of Ontario, says she has also noticed job postings increasingly require membership in her organization as a condition of employment.  

“Law firms are realizing the value of the ongoing education that we provide,” she says.

Matchim, a real estate clerk in the Toronto office of Stikeman Elliott LLP, has spent most of her career at large firms, but she also has some experience at smaller outfits.

“Bigger firms and mid-size ones I think know and understand the value that law clerks can bring. Where we have found a discrepancy is at the smaller firms, where they haven’t traditionally hired as many law clerks, which may be a function of the cost,” she says.

“You may find people in those offices who are working at the capacity of a law clerk, but they never get the title or the pay that a recognized law clerk could get.”

Rose Kottis, another member of the ILCO board, attends conferences aimed at small firms and sole practitioners and says she finds herself frequently facing the following question from attending lawyers: “Why would I need a law clerk when I’ve got an assistant?”

“We educate them, and let them know that a law clerk is a billable employee, so not only do we essentially pay our own salaries, but we can make money for the firm,” says Kottis, a trusts, wills and estates clerk with Borden Ladner Gervais LLP’s Toronto office.

Unlike legal assistants or secretaries, the Law Society of Upper Canada recognizes tasks done by law clerks as work that can be charged out to clients.

“We have had judges calling up the ILCO office if they’re going over a bill of costs, to check that it was indeed a law clerk whose costs were being claimed,” Kottis says.

And she says the message is increasingly getting through to lawyers in smaller firms, which may help explain the recent boost in hiring numbers.

“If you can give part of your own work to a law clerk, then it frees up more time to work on the bigger files or do more marketing,” Kottis says.  

But hiring law clerks only gets law firms so far, according to productivity expert Ann Gomez.

Unless they use their support staff properly, she says, lawyers could find they’re still missing out. For many, learning to delegate can be a particular problem, Gomez says.

“You see some lawyers who get into trouble because they try to do all the work themselves. They have very high standards, and they might have come out of law school used to doing it all alone,” she says.

“It can be hard to let go, but if you want to grow your firm and develop your career, then spreading the work among various members of your team is going to be a necessary part of that process. I’m a huge advocate of having the right work done by the right person.”

Gomez says the best delegators set clear instructions and expectations for support staff from the outset of a task.

“Anything you can provide in terms of help or guidance, such as a sample precedent or something else that provides a clear view of what you’re looking for, will be appreciated,” she says.

Specific and realistic deadlines are also critical for healthy relationships between senior lawyers and their law clerks, Gomez adds.

“A lot of people will simply say they need something done as soon as possible. But if you say it should be done by Friday, or some clear deadline, it allows your law clerk to prioritize their other work,” Gomez says.

“You also need to give them sufficient time to do a good job. If you come and say: ‘I need this by yesterday,’ it becomes a huge source of frustration, especially if it’s been sitting on your desk for a week.”

In an ideal scenario, which Gomez calls “the Teflon approach,” she says lawyers offload tasks almost as soon as work comes through their door.

“When work comes in, you want it to bounce off you rather than sticking to your desk. If you don’t have time to talk them through the task, pass it on anyway and tell them you’ll talk about it tomorrow. A simple heads up is going to be highly valuable to the law clerk,” Gomez says.

“The same goes for feedback. When someone does some work for you, there’s nothing more demoralizing than having it returned three weeks later with suggestions. Turn it around quickly, before it gets stuck to your desk.”

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