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Younger lawyers need a plan to get ahead

Networking, early-years development, exploring growing practice areas all musts

By Grant Cameron

June 28 2013 issue

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Getting through school and finding that plum job with a law firm can be a daunting task for aspiring young lawyers under the best of circumstances.

But with baby boomers sticking around longer and Gen Xers trapped in their positions, future openings for Gen Yers may be few and far between.

While the outlook for experienced lawyers with client contacts is rising as small and mid-sized law firms expand their service offerings, Robert Half Legal reports that the job market for entry-level associates and articling students in 2013 is expected to be challenging.

So how does a young law grad, or junior lawyer, get a leg up on the competition these days?

While candidates must ensure that their resumés, credentials and references are all in good order, legal recruitment specialists say it’s equally important for them to focus on acquiring skills and showing potential employers that they’re ready, willing and able to learn.

“Junior lawyers often feel like they’ve got to go out and make a name for themselves, that they’ve got to establish clients and their brand and all of that,” says Warren Smith, Vancouver-based managing partner at Counsel Network, which provides legal recruitment services to law firms across Canada and internationally. “But that’s something they should only consider once they’ve got to a certain baseline in terms of their skills.”

When starting out, young lawyers have a three- to five-year window when their rates are low, so they should concentrate on getting the skills they need for their careers, said Smith, adding that the time goes by quickly, so young lawyers need to use it wisely to learn their craft and make themselves more marketable.

“That’s really the measure of success for junior lawyers, in my experience.”

When hiring a candidate, Smith said law firms know that young lawyers have limited experience — and in the past may only have been assigned specific duties on larger deals or trials — so the deciding factor is often whether the person has the talent and ability to improve.

“For a lot of prospective employers, that’s the real core of what they’re looking for in terms of whether or not the person has the potential to step up and be the next generation for the firm.”

Anita Lerek, president and general counsel at legal recruiter Advocate Placement Ltd. in Toronto, said the strategy for a young lawyer depends a lot on what type of work they want to do and who they want to work for.

If it’s for a big law firm, she said, the most important prerequisites are marks, the type of articling they’ve done and references, as that’s the first thing partners at such firms will look at when selecting candidates.

However, she said, having those prerequisites doesn’t necessarily mean a candidate will land a job, even if they’ve articled with a big firm for a summer and expect by default to be called back, because there’s an oversupply of lawyers at big firms and lots of competition.

Much of that, she said, is due to the fact that candidates want to get their first five years of solid training and credentials with the big firms.

To stand out from the competition, then, candidates seeking employment with big firms need to “jockey” to be hired, she said. That includes networking and reaching out to law school friends and alumni and other contacts as many firms now hire via internal referral systems.

She also suggests that candidates make a chart of all the contacts they can call on for help in getting hired, as well as “value up” their resume by getting the right hobbies and activities.

When trying to get hired by a mid-sized or smaller law firm, Lerek said candidates should focus on specifics of what they’ve done and highlight their people skills and extracurricular activities.

“That may be of interest to a mid-sized or boutique firm because they’re all looking to build their client basis. Here, the fit is more important than the numbers game of marks.”

When applying to a company, Lerek said it’s important to research the firm and be one of the first to apply as there’s often a lot of competition.

“Really customize your pitch and your resume to meet the job and do your market research. You really have to know what the company does.”

John Ohnjec, division director of Robert Half Legal in Ottawa, said that, although the hiring outlook for lawyers with five-plus years of experience and client contacts will be relatively healthy in 2013, conversely the market for students and those entering the job field will likely remain conservative.

He said the best bet for young lawyers is to apply for positions in general business or corporate law. That would include working for a law firm that has clients in those fields or as in-house counsel for companies.

“Those are the areas that we’re seeing as being areas of growth,” he said, “so when young lawyers are trying to get in or manoeuvre themselves, a good idea is to look at those areas.

“If lawyers have gone through law school and have absolutely no interest in practising in those areas it’s hard to tell somebody to push for them, but for those that do have some interest there it’s probably a good idea to perhaps focus your efforts on firms or companies that are looking at expansion in those areas.”

A survey of lawyers, law clerks, paralegals and other legal professionals released by Robert Half in January found that 31 per cent of lawyers felt that the specialty field of general business and corporate law would yield the greatest number of job opportunities for legal job seekers in the year ahead.

The specialty area of litigation ranked a close second, receiving 29 per cent of the response. The other specialty areas were labour and employment (8 per cent); intellectual property (7 per cent); restructuring/insolvency (4 per cent); family law (2 per cent); international law (1 per cent); and other (4 per cent). The rest did not know or had no answer.

Ohnjec said he isn’t surprised that general business and corporate law will likely have the best opportunities for lawyers because firms have picked up hiring from where they were several years ago.

“It’s still a challenge for younger lawyers,” he said. “There’s no doubt about that. But I think there is reason to be optimistic. Where the doors were probably closed quite tight for younger lawyers, what we’re seeing is that that’s beginning to crack and there are beginning to be positions.

“There’s not a flood of opportunities out there but compared to what we’ve seen previously there are some jobs, so it’s promising.”

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