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Conducting an effective hidden job market search: How to find your first job as a lawyer 101

It’s that time of year again. Hireback season is upon the legal profession! Many articling and Law Practice Program students have already begun reaching out to me with their search for a first-year associate position. I’ve been doing this work long enough to identify common stresses and pitfalls that articling students or new calls encounter throughout their job search. The one I’m going to focus on here is the hidden job market search.

Few people understand the importance of a hidden job market search. Even fewer employ the proper techniques to conduct such a search.

I’ll be profiling two clients (their names have been changed) so you get a sense of what it means to apply the principles I’m talking about. Each one conducted a hidden job market search with different results:

Malcolm landed his first job as a lawyer at a boutique family law firm that did not advertise.

Eunyung found a first-year associate position in estates law by responding to a job ad that asked for more experience than she had to offer.

First principles

There are two ways of finding a job: a passive or hidden job market search. Most job seekers spend their time in the former category, which involves responding to ads (hence, the passivity of it). The sobering reality about limiting your search to this avenue is that only 15 per cent of jobs get advertised, according to Carleton University Career Services.

On the other hand, it’s estimated that 85 per cent of jobs don’t even get advertised. In the legal profession, first-year associate positions weren’t historically advertised because firms hired from their articling programs. Even though the market has changed considerably, there still aren’t that many postings for new calls.

I like to track these postings from time to time. In one year, between April and August, there were a total of 27 job ads for new calls in the Greater Toronto Area. Compare this to the number of people who will get called to the bar over the summer months and the prospects of being successful at a passive job search become discouraging.

For Malcolm, conducting a hidden job market search was the most important part of his job search.

“The position I got was not posted and it only came to my attention because I emailed someone and proposed a coffee date,” he says.

So, how did Malcolm do it?

Developing the outreach communication

The way not to do it is by sending an email blast, asking colleagues and strangers alike for a job outright. The goal is to find a job, but your objective should be to learn as much as possible about the practice area(s) in which you are interested. 

Your outreach communication should be asking to set up a brief meeting (aka “the coffee date”). This is based on the fact that they practise in an area or at a firm you are interested in learning more about. 

You are not being disingenuous by sending an email like this. The legal profession is keenly aware that you are looking for work. It’s much like a seasoned lawyer looking to make a career change and sets up coffee dates with other lawyers to learn more before taking their next steps. Most people will respect the fact that you are gathering information to clarify or bolster your job search.

That’s why I also like to call these coffee dates “informational interviews.” Unlike a job interview, which is set up by an employer for the express purpose of hiring a candidate, an informational interview is set up by an individual for research purposes. You should not, therefore, be asking for a job in your outreach communication.

Conducting informational interviews like an examination-in-chief

If the objective of your coffee date is to gather information, then you’ll want to conduct an examination-in-chief.

Asking “who,” “what,” “where,” “how” and “when” questions will elicit a lot more information from the person you’re meeting. You’ll learn their “story.”

Eunyung says that these kinds of conversations “provide a great opportunity to practise your interview skills and to hear valuable insights about a particular field of practice or lawyering in general, which you can talk about at interviews to impress your interviewers.”

Learning more about estates law during these informational interviews helped Eunyung to stand out during the interview process. Because she had decided early on in her articles to specialize in the area, she was also able to develop a brand in that field. She did this by enrolling in a certification program and joining a professional society. When it came time to apply for a job that was asking for many years of experience, Eunyung felt confident in her application materials. Indeed, she got the job!

Make no mistake: This approach takes time and a sincere effort. But if you focus on building meaningful relationships, it will be easier for people to sponsor you for an opportunity.

That’s what happened to Malcolm. While meeting a lawyer for coffee, Malcolm was told that the lawyer’s firm was looking to hire a junior associate. Malcolm later met with other lawyers from that firm and was offered an associate position within two months of being called to the bar.

Malcolm says the tips in this article helped him to reach out to the profession in a respectful way and, in turn, he found that “in almost all circumstances, people [were] kind and willing to chat.” 

As you can see from these two examples, it’s actually best to conduct a comprehensive job search that addresses both the hidden and passive job markets. You’d be foolish not to apply to a job posting that speaks to your interests and skillset. When done correctly, a hidden job market search can help to differentiate you in an open competition. But it can also lead to a job opportunity that never gets posted. Now you have the tools to do both!

Paulette Pommells is the founder of How to Find Your First Job as a Lawyer! at www.hireback.ca.  She practised for 13 years as a civil litigator in Toronto.