New lawyers signal reduced expectations in sluggish economy

Is it the age of reduced expectations for new lawyers looking for their first job?

That’s one reading of a study on new lawyers’ career choices released by the Law Society of Upper Canada recently. The study, which followed a 2007 report on the career trajectories of licensing candidates and newly called lawyers, suggests job seekers are putting less influence on factors like law firm prestige and salary as they look for their first position. Instead, when asked to outline what affected their choice of position, new lawyers were more likely to note they had earlier articled at the firm that ultimately hired them back.

“I think the landscape has really changed when we look at 2007 versus 2013. There’s a lot to be said about stability,” says John Ohnjec, Canadian division director of legal staffing firm Robert Half Legal, in explaining the trend towards going back to the firm people articled at. With the sluggish economy and hiring environment, new lawyers may feel safer returning to a firm they already know, he suggests.

In fact, the new lawyers surveyed were less likely in 2013 to cite a range of factors traditionally associated with job preferences in explaining where they ended up than in 2007: 44 per cent mentioned good remuneration in 2013 compared to 50 per cent in 2007; 32 per cent identified good benefits this year versus 39 per cent six years ago; and 35 per cent noted firm prestige, down from 42 per cent in the previous study. Respondents were also less likely to mention factors such as policies on work-life balance and parental leave. Conversely, the number who referred to having articled at the firm before increased to 48 per cent this year from 43 per cent in the last study.

The law society released the report during Convocation last month. It surveyed new lawyers called to the bar in 2010, 2011, and 2012 in a number of areas. It also tracked, for example, new lawyers’ preferred practice areas versus the ones they actually ended up in. When it came to what people wanted, the most popular practice areas were corporate/commercial (30 per cent), plaintiff-side civil litigation (25 per cent); defence-side civil litigation (23 per cent), and human rights/social justice (20 per cent). New lawyers had good luck landing jobs in the top three areas as the numbers of them with positions in those fields largely matched the preferences. But when it came to human rights, only nine per cent of them ended up with jobs in that area. There was also a marked decrease in the desire to work in criminal law. Only 14 per cent wanted a job in that area this year compared to 19 per cent in 2007.

Robert Shawyer, a family lawyer who chairs the Ontario Bar Association’s sole, small firm, and general practice section, says the difficulty in earning a living from legal aid matters is a big reason for that last statistic. “The biggest issue is that when I started practising, legal aid was paying on an hourly basis,” he says, suggesting it’s harder for criminal lawyers to do well on the block-fee system introduced a couple of years ago for some types of cases.

“The economics just aren’t there,” he adds, noting one of the ways to do better on legal aid matters is to get big-case management files, an area new lawyers won’t necessarily have enough experience to be able to act in.

Ohnjec, meanwhile, says the top practice areas identified in the report — corporate/commercial and civil litigation — are definitely hot for hiring right now.
“That’s pretty much exactly what we’re seeing,” he says, adding that despite the good news on that front, the hiring is mainly for lawyers with more experience rather than new practitioners.

The same issue applies to another area of opportunity identified in the career choices report. As expected, new lawyers were most likely to want a job at what Ohnjec calls the “Holy Grail”: a position at a large private law firm in downtown Toronto. But while 21 per cent of them wanted that, only 16 per cent succeeded. Meanwhile, new lawyers were more likely to end up at a small firm or as a sole practitioner than their initial preferences would suggest and had a slightly greater chance of landing a job outside Toronto than in the provincial capital when it came to where they wanted to be. “We’ve seen the small- to mid-size firms in the last year progressing very well,” says Ohnjec, noting that while those smaller firms are hiring, they, too, are generally looking for senior associates rather than new lawyers.

For Shawyer, who went out on his own after he started practising in 2006, taking the sole practitioner or small-firm route may be more difficult at first but it ultimately has its rewards. “More often than not, the longer-term approach to the career is to be a smaller-firm lawyer because there are more opportunities for growth,” he says, noting those who start at big firms but don’t end up making partner may find themselves in the lurch after a few years as their experience can be too specialized and they haven’t necessarily spent a lot of time dealing with clients and drumming up new business.

“You actually face a barrier coming out of a larger firm after five or 10 years,” he adds.

As a result, Shawyer suggests the sole- or small-firm route is often a better option, especially as some new lawyers are having trouble getting jobs with the employers they articled with. Those who can get through the first five years on their own generally do very well afterwards, according to Shawyer. “I think it’s the only advisable way to go because that’s the only way to get practical experience,” he says.

So as the report notes, the times continue to be challenging for new lawyers. In fact, while 64 per cent of those surveyed entered law school with no debt, 77 per cent of them had taken on loans by the time they finished. Those who had taken on debt owed an average of $54,000 at that point, up from $45,000 in 2007, according to the report.

But as Ohnjec notes, things are at least better than they were a couple of years ago when law firms were laying off lawyers in fairly significant numbers. So while hiring is slow, “there seems to be good stability now and selective hiring,” he says.

For more results from the report go to Canadian Lawyer 4Students article 'Academic reputation key in students’ law school choices'.

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