This time last year, I returned home to Ontario dazed and confused after a strenuous first year of law school. But before I could nap and Netflix my summer away, filing the occasional Ab Initio column, UNB’s career services director suggested I start hustling Bay Street if I hoped to land there in my summer after 2L.
Like many law students, I am acutely aware of the profession’s shrinking employment prospects so I suited up and hit the street. Over the course of the summer, I became a usual suspect at the tours and receptions hosted by many of the big firms and also met with a handful of UNB alumni.
Looking back, the investment of time and energy helped to solidify my interest in working at a large firm and land a job this summer.
But don’t take my word for it. Leading professionals from a broad cross-section of post-graduate pursuits — academic and professional — caution law students with lofty or even modest aspirations not to squander the next four months. Here’s their advice to students who are uncertain of their career paths or how to get there.
Thinking about a large firm?
“While Bay Street is not for everyone, if a student is truly uncertain why not try it as a risk-free summer,” suggests Frances Mahil, director of student programs at Davies LLP in Toronto. “It provides an excellent foundation to leverage your skillset and large firms offer unparalleled opportunities to hone legal and practical skills, exposure to great work, and to lawyers and clients to build your professional network. It can also be an excellent launchpad for other pursuits.”
To Mahil, networking should be a priority for a student thinking about or planning to summer or article at a large firm.
“It is never too early to start building your professional network, starting with professors, career office professionals, classmates, upper-year students working at firms, to lawyers you meet at career fairs and open houses,” she says. “This is not schmoozing but more about having a networking mindset to attract people into your circle who may become mentors, sponsors, colleagues, and can open doors and introduce you to other people.”
This is particularly important given what Mahil describes as a “highly competitive” selection process.
“In addition to marks, firms want to see strong non-academic accomplishments, leadership potential, intellectual curiosity, and motivation to succeed,” she says.
With exams complete, savvy 1Ls with a resume that’s thin on non-academic pursuits can take advantage of the next four months before the late summer job application deadline. Mahil is hesitant to prescribe a specific summer endeavour for a student with Bay Street aspirations.
“These non-academic endeavours can run the gamut from cool internships, professional services/administrative work, research jobs, customer service, to tree planting,” she says.
“Ultimately, do something that allows you to grow and develop and expand your skillset. Try to demonstrate your leadership skills, ability to work in team settings, communication skills, effectiveness under pressure, ability to juggle competing demands on your time, and adaptability. All of these are transferrable and will help you succeed in a law firm setting.”
Thinking about a boutique?
For students curious about or with sights set on the smaller-sized firm, the avenues for more information are not as apparent as with large national firms that have strong visibility in law schools and a sophisticated recruitment department.
“I think it does maybe take a bit more gumption but e-mailing an associate or an articling student at a smaller firm and just saying ‘Hey, can I have five minutes to talk to you about your firm’ is a good way to learn what it’s like to work in a small firm,” suggests Bronwyn Martin, an associate at Moodie Mair Walker LLP, a boutique litigation firm in Toronto.
Martin was uncertain what she wanted to do while at UNB law, but after summering and articling at a large firm realized that bigger isn’t always better and felt her “personality was more suited to a small firm environment.”
Martin’s advice for students without a job this summer?
“I think the first thing is to have a job, even if you don’t have a job at a law firm, having a job on your resume is important. It may be at Tim Hortons or whatever but it shows me that you know how to work, you know how to show up, and you’re a reliable person who knows how to work hard.
“We don’t expect a student to come in here knowing how to practise the law but we want to see a resume that shows us that this person knows how to work hard.”
Given that small firms are tailored to areas of law, Martin suggests students develop and demonstrate skills suited to a firm’s practice. In the case of Moodie Mair Walker’s recruitment, Martin looks for applicants “doing something that shows an obvious interest in litigation and oral advocacy.”
Stand-out candidates have included students taking an improv class or something similar “that shows you’re not afraid to get up on your feet.”
Thinking about (gulp!) an LLM?
Barbara von Tigerstrom, dean of graduate studies at the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Law, says there are a multitude of reasons to consider an LLM from career advancement to academic curiosity but warns against a few.
“‘I can’t think of anything else to do’ or ‘I can’t find a job’ are obviously not good reasons to pursue an LLM,” she says. “Students who enter a program simply as a default option will often struggle.”
For those students who are intrigued by an LLM, the dean suggests gaining research and writing experience; particularly for those of us who have not done much of either in law school.
“Writing a thesis or even long research paper for an LLM will be a tough slog if you don’t enjoy research and writing or haven’t developed those skills,” she says. “And, if you do decide to pursue a graduate degree, this will also strengthen your application.”
For the law student certain about an LLM, swapping a ball cap this summer for a thinking cap is in order.
“Spend some time considering the type of program you want to pursue and research potential programs,” von Tigerstrom advises. “The program structure for an LLM can vary quite a bit in terms of course-based versus thesis-based or even a combination of both, and which one is best will depend on your goals and interests. Researching potential supervisors for a thesis would also be useful.”
She adds: “Especially if a student is aiming for a thesis-based program or one that has a significant research paper or project as a component, spend some time thinking about what you want to work on and developing your proposal, and get advice from mentors or potential supervisors about your proposal if you can. A well-developed proposal really strengthens your application, and will help you get the most out of the degree once you start.”
Thinking about activism?
Clea Ward is UNB law’s director of career development and sees many students keen to change the world.
“A legal education and a career in social justice go hand in hand, but opportunities for students are not always as plentiful or visible as jobs in the private sector,” she observes.
“The best thing a student can do over the summer to further his or her social justice career goal is to begin building a network within the field. If, in the course of this outreach, you find an organization that is doing work that you find really meaningful, ask if there are ways you can get involved. It is a rare non-profit organization that can’t use the help of a law student!”
Ward recommends a similar approach for those students who are curious but undecided about a future in activism.
“Spend some time learning about different organizations and talking to the lawyers that work in them,” she says. “From these sorts of informational interviews, a student can learn about the kinds of opportunities that exist and whether this would be an area that the student would like to pursue. This sort of outreach also has the added benefit of helping the student grow his or her network.”
A student’s initiative can also pay off beyond the insights.
“While there might not be an abundance of paying summer and articling jobs within the social justice community, if you build your network and foster relationships, when the jobs arise, you will be the first person they call,” she says.
Ward adds an important summer task for all law students regardless of their summer plans or aspirations: rest.
“Law school is hard. There are no two ways about it,” she says. “The learning curve is steep and the pace is relentless. To add insult to injury, most students will go directly from law school into articling and practice, where the demands on time and energy only ramp up.
“I always encourage students to carve out some downtime in the summer to recharge batteries and to prepare for the coming semester. All good lawyers know to take advantage of the precious slow times to catch up on rest and relaxation. It shouldn’t be any different for students.”