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Despair ahead: Millennial lawyers and the legal job market

|Written By Hassan M. Ahmad
Despair ahead: Millennial lawyers and the legal job market

We recently learned of the shocking story of Robert Chu, a medical school graduate who committed suicide after twice being unable to secure a residency spot. Throughout medical school, Chu received academic honours, published papers and possessed an exemplary transcript. Presumably, he should have had no difficulty matching with a residency program. However, due to a limited number of residency placements and fierce competition, Chu found himself without a job after years of hard work. A self-regulating system with the responsibility of ensuring that graduates are able to find meaningful employment within their chosen field failed him.

Similar to young doctors, entry-level lawyers are well aware of the waning legal market. The struggles of Ryerson University’s Law Practice Program and foreign-trained articling students have been well documented. But after lengthy conversations with friends and acquaintances who graduated law school within the past five years, I’ve realized that precarious legal employment (part-time or contract work) is fast becoming the only option for some Ontario law school graduates who possess glowing resumes, completed clerkships or articled in leading law firms. In the past, these students would have had their choice of places to work and gone on to satisfying careers. Now, they take what they can find — if anything comes their way.

The solution(s) to this ever-increasing problem remains elusive. But the root causes are discernible and can be attributed largely to demographic, economic and social factors.

Demographically, the problem is obvious. To maximize revenue, law schools are increasing entry spots. New law schools have also popped up and others may be around the corner. Moreover, older lawyers are retiring later. The amount of legal work has remained the same — or even diminished — and there are more people willing to do it. Inevitably, this pinch favours those lawyers who already have work experience. With increased competition, mid- and senior-level lawyers are keeping a greater amount of work for themselves. In sum, law students are being handed a raw deal. They’re told by society at large, “Hey, you’ll have a stable job with a high income when you graduate.” But what that really means is, “Hey, a few of you will have a stable job with a high income . . . good luck to the rest.”

Now for the economics. As one of my professors used to say, all economic events are attributable to demographic changes. Nevertheless, there are some independent economic factors here. Competition woes aside, the legal industry is now following suit with other industries by transferring grunt work and even complex analysis from trained lawyers to artificial intelligence. ROSS Intelligence, a leading AI firm focusing on the legal industry, moving its operations to Toronto is only one indication that this phenomenon is here to stay. Furthermore, we now see more and more American-style document review companies that have junior contract lawyers conduct e-discovery on limited-term contracts. Inexperience begets inexperience.

So the fewer number of lawyers there are who have worked in permanent legal jobs where they’ve gained valuable experience representing clients, the fewer lawyers there will be who will qualify for stable, well-paying jobs at the mid and senior levels of their careers.

Precarious employment for junior lawyers isn’t solely a problem caused by external demographic or economic factors. There are attitudes unique to millennial law graduates that have exacerbated the issue. For instance, if faced with an employment pinch resulting from a down economy or demographic shifts, previous generations may have borne the prospect of underemployment or doubled down on loyalty to a boss willing to provide a steady paycheque. This generation has what one friend of mine calls the “Goldilocks Syndrome.” This is also known as FOMO — fear of missing out. We are always in the mindset that whatever legal job we have, there is something better out there. Junior lawyers change firms two, three, four or more times before finding themselves in a document review company or out of the practice of law completely. This is partly due to the spread of contract jobs inhibiting young lawyers from establishing a practice at one firm. But millennial lawyers should look in the mirror before blaming this problem solely on outside factors. The appeal of working in big cities, for certain firms and in particularly “sexy” practices has contributed to more lawyers accepting precarious work. Millennials are satisfied working short-term stints until the “ideal” practice comes their way. Little do they know that the ideal practice will never come their way and they need to find what they can get. Young lawyers are also less willing to work for difficult bosses. Being yelled at or having a book thrown at you (yes, that happens!) may have been a rite of passage in the past. Now, it’s a basis for someone to leave a boss high and dry for a more comfortable, even if more precarious, job.

I asked friends for some anecdotes of experiences they or others had in their search for secure employment as a young lawyer. Some knew people who completed a second clerkship because the job market was so bad. Others gave up looking for a job and decided that they would do document review for part of the year and travel for the rest of the time. One person went on maternity leave only to learn that her firm wouldn’t have enough work upon her return to sustain a full-time practice. And there were those who decided to go back to school to become something else after the legal market closed out any chance of them being a big-city lawyer. Consistently, people have told me that in their circle of friends only about 20 per cent of lawyers remain in their first job post-law school. The rest either chose to leave or were pushed out with many now working outside of law altogether.  

This problem is real for Ontario law school graduates, and yet it’s worse for LPP graduates and foreign-trained lawyers. It isn’t going away. We must be bold and innovative if we want to keep young lawyers in the profession. But right now, there isn’t any help in sight.

Hassan M. Ahmad practices civil, commercial and human rights litigation in Toronto. He has also guest lectured at law schools on domestic and international law topics. He is a fellow with the Phillippe Kirsch Institute and a volunteer lawyer with Pro Bono Law Ontario. He can be reached at hahmad9@berkeley.edu.

  • millennials are destroying the fabric of society

    n/a
    Oh gee, those pesky millennials are at it again! First they refuse to lower their compensation for the same amount of work and now they are standing up against abusive bosses and hostile work environments! Their destruction of basic societal values knows no bounds! Is nothing sacred?
  • Crisis Indeed

    Lawyer Lawyer
    The LPP is not the solution to the articling crisis. It has created a two-tier approach to practicing law with lawyers believing there must be something wrong with the student if they took the LPP instead of choosing the traditional articling route.I think the law society should offer an incentive to law firms to hire both articling students and LPP students. The worst position seems to be lawyers who complete their articles but do not get hired back. They have no more experience than the other junior lawyers firms decided not to keep. I don't envy them; however, as with other professional designations, the bottom 10% of students generally don't get jobs and have to have a different form of work. Just because you got into law school does not meet that you are cut out to be a lawyer nor that there should be a job waiting for you.
  • 10% figure

    Toronto Lawyer
    Where are you getting the stat that "the bottom 10% of students generally don't get jobs"? I am curious as I estimate the unemployed figure to be much higher than 10%.

    I would also propose to you that many of the unemployed grads/junior lawyers are not in "the bottom 10% of students."
  • Bottom 10%?

    Amanda Rhodes
    The idea that you are somehow not cut out to be a lawyer or are in the bottom 10% because you didn't secure articling/didn't get hired back is laughable. It fails to acknowledge the reality of such things as racism, sexism, classism and even nepotism in the legal profession. Can we please stop acting as though articling is some kind of perfect meritocracy?
  • Lawyer

    maya dawes
    "Young lawyers are also less willing to work for difficult bosses. Being yelled at or having a book thrown at you (yes, that happens!) may have been a rite of passage in the past. Now, it’s a basis for someone to leave a boss high and dry for a more comfortable, even if more precarious, job." You lost me at this! This is ridiculous, no human being should have to take this, lawyer, doctor, secretary...anyone. Tradition or no tradition. We all have to right to work in a respectful work environment. What is wrong with you?
  • Lawyer

    Amanda Rhodes
    "Young lawyers are also less willing to work for difficult bosses. Being yelled at or having a book thrown at you (yes, that happens!) may have been a rite of passage in the past. Now, it’s a basis for someone to leave a boss high and dry for a more comfortable, even if more precarious, job."
    Are you actually suggesting that students should take physical and emotional abuse from their principals? If so, that is both foolish and harmful. Just because something is a "tradition" doesn't mean that it's right or that it should never change. We know from the high levels of suicide and depression in the legal profession that SOMETHING isn't working. Let's use our knowledge to IMPROVE things. If millennial lawyers are less likely to out up with abuse I say good for them! How can we train people to fight for the rights of others while simultaneously telling them that their rights are non-existant? Do better.
  • Article is true, but slightly exaggerated as it is very Toronto-centric

    Aravinth Jay
    The articling rate from Canadian law schools is still above 90%. Most students eventually do find a paid articling position. Sure, it may not be the glamorous Bay Street salaries that they first envisioned, but it's still a very steady income. The only people I've seen to really struggle in the market are foreign trained lawyers from non-ivy league schools (not H/Y/S) and maybe Ottawa law students. Note, this is referring to the job market in Ontario alone.

    I went to law school in Toronto, and although job prospects are not as it once used to be, the majority of my class got good articling positions, and are not hopping from contract to contract. In fact, I have not heard of many students from the Ontario law schools doing that, with the exception of Ottawa law (due to their large class size).Prospects are much better the further outside of Toronto you go. Students need to explore their career options in smaller, rural cities that actually have a need for new lawyers.
  • Its Tougher Than It Looks

    Also Looking
    Finding articles - especially the paid kind - is a bloodbath out there. There is a reason the LPP enrollement numbers are increasing. I'm glad it offers a path for Canadian law school grads, but ironically, with its emphasis on 4-month articling and that the majority of those positions are unpaid (by their own numbers), I worry appears to be quickening the normalizing unpaid articling. LSUC & NCA really needs to tighten rules for law school sizes and foreign law grads articling admissions - its just making a bad situation worse.
  • Article is not exaggerated

    Recent Law Grad
    I disagree. I went to an Ontario law school and I know several grads who never articled, some who articled for free, many who got called and now do document review because they cant find anything else to service their student loans and many who hopped from job to job. Most of them did not envision their legal career going that way. You are too quick to dismiss our experiences.
  • Sole practice?

    David Foster
    Technically, an "unemployed lawyer" is just a sole practitioner with no clients. But many sole practitioners seem to find they can at least survive on legal aid. Sure you won't be rich but you can pay the rent.
  • just survive?

    Recent Law Grad
    Surviving is nice but can one pay 100k in student loans on legal aid?
  • Student debt

    Rob Carter
    I just thank g-d that none of these unemployed graduates have student debt.
  • FOMO point

    Underemployed Lawyer
    Great article that shines a light on an important issue and raises some valid points. However, as a lawyer who is now 5 years out of law school and has been unemployed or underemployed in various contract positions the entire time since graduation, I totally disagree with some of the points in the paragraph on FOMO. I know over 20 junior lawyers who moved around from contract to contract because they had no choice in the matter. I really don't know anyone who hops around because something "sexier" is out there, only people who do it out of financial necessity. Anecdotal of course but of some value nonetheless.

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