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Tides of Change in Legal Employment

  • February 01, 2013
  • Gloria Song

Employment patterns have changed drastically in the legal industry and nowhere is it more apparent than on the resumes of new lawyers.

For a lawyer called to the bar in June 2011, Heather Keachie has already accumulated a diverse resume. She has clerked at the Federal Court of Appeal, taught law for a year at the University of Gambia’s School of Law, worked a contract with an environmental law firm as well as a document review firm, and conducted a month long field research project in Niger. What’s striking about her work experience, however, is that Heather has gone from contract to contract since law school, often with gaps of unemployment in between. It has been difficult for Heather to secure a permanent full-time legal job. “I am finding it difficult to make plans, to know where I’ll be in the next month, and to imagine my life six months from now,” Heather admits. “It’s not a sustainable situation.”

Heather is not alone in her frustrations with the job search. The last few years have seen a shift in employment patterns for lawyers in Ontario, with lawyers spending more time out of work and searching for work. According to Precedent Magazine’s Hireback Watch, the leading national law firms known as the Seven Sisters law firms have hired fewer articling students each year since 2009, and have hired back fewer articling students as returning associates, with the exception of this year. The Law Society of Upper Canada and the Strategy Counsel noted in their 2010 Change of Status Quantitative Study’s Report of Research Findings that the greatest proportion of survey respondents (just under one third) who had recently changed their status under the Law Society had done so because of the end of an existing contract position or as a result of personal circumstances. According to the Law Society of Upper Canada, over three thousand of its current members are currently not working, and over five thousand members are employed, but not practicing law. Roughly under half of those numbers are members called to the bar in the last ten years.

“The labour market is certainly changing, and it is increasingly rare for professionals to take a linear path in their careers where they start with one employer and stay with that same employer,” observes Lianne Krakauer, a Toronto career coach who works with lawyers and other professionals in transition.

It’s not just recently called lawyers looking for work either. Cleo Kirkland, Toronto director of the job recruiting firm the Counsel Network, notes that lawyers at all levels have been affected. “Whether they don’t get hired back [after articling], they get let go as a second or third year associates, or they’ve been passed up a partnership, the periods of unemployment are longer than I’ve ever seen,” she comments. “It’s striking that really strong candidates will find themselves out of work for months and months on end.”

How do we make sense out of the numbers in this trend, and what does it mean for the legal market? For one thing, there seems to be a movement toward contract-based legal work. This can be seen in the example of the outsourcing of certain legal tasks such as document review to firms like ATD Legal. “[It’s] so that law firms don’t have to hire these teams of associates for major corporate transactions if you’re only getting them sporadically,” points out Cleo. “They can instead contract out that type of work on an as needed basis. It’s always been around, but I think it’s growing. Law firms are trying to be strategic about who they have full time and indefinitely on staff.” As a result, finding a permanent full-time position may be more difficult for job seekers.

Many mid-level associates are currently in transition in their careers not because they can’t find work, but because the positions currently available do not suit their career goals. Bruce (*alias), an Ottawa-based sixth year associate , is looking carefully for the right next step. For him, partnership has never been a motivator in his career. “A lot of people in my generation aren’t interested in that,” Bruce explains. “You might like your job, but you don’t necessarily want to become the manager at your law firm.” Instead, what motivates Bruce in a job is flexibility, mobility, and less of an emphasis on face time. “My original plan was to find contract work for a couple of months, and then when I was done with it, just stop. And then come back and do more. Instead of having this idea that I have to go into work and sit there, and wait for nothing. Being able to take advantage of things when I want to, as opposed to when I have to.”

Many lawyers are beginning to think like Bruce. In the LSUC and Strategic Counsel’s 2010 Change of Status Quantitative Study, the greatest drop in private practice was away from larger firms. Women who filed a change of status left private practice in numbers significantly greater than their male counterparts, with the stated desire ”to achieve greater flexibility in scheduling, a greater balance between career and family responsibilities, and a reduction in workload and stress in their work environment.”

Indeed, there has been a trend of new law firms moving away from the traditional large law firm paradigm. Firms like Cognition LLP represent alternative law firm structures arranged to try to better suit certain clients’ and lawyers’ preferences. Firm lawyers work either from home or at the office of the clients. “They’re providing more proximate legal advice,” explains co-founder Joe Milstone. “And at the same time it cuts our costs, so we can provide quality business legal services for a lot less than the traditional law firm…For our lawyers, it gives them the benefit of the ‘contract’ work, with flexibility in terms of time in that they’re not working full-time for a single client, but they also have the security of having other gigs lined up for them.”

“Our lawyers work on different projects, and they work as much or as little as they want,” co-founder Rubsun Ho adds. “We don’t have a billable hours target, and we don’t force them to take on cases that they don’t want. They get paid based on the hours that they work.”

Cleo has also observed a rise in lawyers leaving large law firms to hang their own shingle or form a boutique, including “very well-trained, perhaps ten year calls, from big firms on Bay Street, either not making partner or getting disillusioned with partnership and the whole model of a big firm…These sole practitioners or small groups of lawyers are doing very interesting work, and they’re able to be more dynamic and responsive to their clients than some of the bigger firms.”

Cleo predicts that the market will continue to evolve and change, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. “There’s been some casualties of it, and it can be painful at times,” she admits, but believes things will get better. “It’s not as quick as everybody would like, but some of these alternatives, like Cognition, are the brainchild of a contracting market, and I think ultimately the legal market will be stronger.”

In the midst of the evolving legal market, there is one question that remains: what about the new lawyers? Firms like Cognition LLP tend to hire senior lawyers who already have much experience from large business law firms or in-house positions. If the legal job market is shifting towards a new paradigm, it’s important to ensure there will still be adequate training opportunities for more junior lawyers like Heather. The Law Society has been looking at the issue of articling through its Articling Task Force, and has recently voted on the adoption of a test run of a law practice program as an alternative to articling. In order to maintain a steady supply of lawyers for the future, there must still be enough employers willing to invest in fresh new lawyers on a somewhat longer basis.

In the meantime, Lianne offers some words of wisdom to job seekers. “Successful careers are not always linear. If you ask some of the most highly successful people how they got to be where they are, it was by taking risks and jumping at interesting opportunities…It is crucial for job seekers to be open to multiple possibilities and not limit themselves to one idea about what a successful career path looks like.”

Gloria SongAbout the Author

Gloria Song is a freelance journalist and civil litigation lawyer.

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