A self-described policy wonk, Jason Alcorn knew from participating in moot competitions in law school that the “highly conflictual environment” of litigation likely wasn’t for him. “Just my personality type, I didn’t think it would be something that I would enjoy,” says Alcorn.
But as a student of political affairs both in his home province of New Brunswick and later in France, Alcorn, 36, was drawn to public service. Still, the obvious choice to become a Crown prosecutor didn’t seem the right fit, so instead he found work in a less typical role as a policy co-ordinator with the New Brunswick Securities Commission. At the time, the fledgling financial regulator didn’t require a legal background to do the job, but that’s now changed as Alcorn regularly taps into his law school training as he works to shepherd policy proposals through the government approvals process.
In Alcorn’s case, the agency he works for is new, meaning the 2005 Université de Moncton graduate has even more opportunity to help shape policies as the government works to bolster securities regulation. “Going into securities regulation wasn’t something that was first and foremost in my mind,” he says. “I do enjoy it enormously because everything has been new.”
But at the time he was looking for a job out of school, private practice seemed a more natural choice given the small number of articling positions in New Brunswick’s public sector. As a result, he started out with his first articling job at a local law firm, Barry Spalding Lawyers. But while that’s a path most graduating law students take, the recession has made the public sector a key area of opportunity as private law firms cut back on the number of junior lawyer positions in Canada’s major cities. In British Columbia, for example, prospects for new students are far less rosy than last year. “A number of Vancouver firms aren’t hiring additional students,” says Pamela Cyr, the associate director for career services at University of British Columbia’s law school. “I definitely think the anxiety level is high. There are lots of rumours about layoffs at Vancouver firms of associates.”
Because firms typically offer articling positions a year in advance, the crunch is particularly acute for law students entering third year who ideally would have secured jobs already. Nevertheless, Cyr notes the downturn hasn’t necessarily created a rush of interest in the public sector. Instead, students are being more creative in their searches. “The jobs are out there. It’s just [that] everyone wants to go into the Vancouver core,” she says. Locally, however, the B.C. Ministry of Attorney General took an additional six articling students for 2010 over this year. At the same time, the federal government opens up 12 to 15 articling positions a year as well as offering 12 to 13 summer jobs to second-year students, according to Cyr. Working for the federal government can be particularly attractive for graduating law students since in B.C., Justice Canada guarantees employment after articling. “Their recruitment numbers seem to be holding strong in the economic downturn,” she says.
At the federal level, young lawyers have the advantage of getting exposure to a wide breadth of law. Opportunities include areas of exclusive federal jurisdiction such as aboriginal affairs, immigration, and tax law. As well, the Public Prosecution Service, which handles non-Criminal Code charges such as drug and terrorism offences, has been building its ranks of Crown attorneys in recent years. Jobs for lawyers in the federal public service include everything from policy developers who help formulate laws and programs to legislative counsel involved in drafting government bills and regulations. As well, legal advisers act essentially as in-house counsel to the various federal departments, while litigators handle court files for both tax and civil cases.
The federal government’s common law articling program aims to give students experience in many of those areas by having them do four rotations, including opportunities to work with the Public Prosecution Service, says Catherine Barry, a senior adviser with the legal excellence program. For those on the civil law side, students do two rotations, one of which must involve litigation. Barry adds that while Justice Canada in B.C. has been the most proactive about hiring young lawyers after articles, due to the competition for staff there, in general the federal government has worked hard to bolster its ranks in recent years given the pressures both of retirements and the department’s expansion. “Over the last 20 years, we have almost doubled in size,” she says. “Anyone that’s wanted a job post-articles has had one,” she adds, referring to hiring practices in the Ottawa region.
Another jurisdiction that has been particularly eager to hire lawyers in recent years is Alberta. There, of course, the economic boom created pressures that led to labour shortages across most sectors. On the legal side, population growth led to bigger caseloads for the courts, while the provincial government faced increasing competition for staff. But now, years of hiring lawyers as well as the rapid crash in the oilpatch have allowed the government to fill most positions and therefore dampened the hiring spree. “The general approach that we’ve been following is that where we need more assistance, we’re going out and getting it,” says Grant Sprague, assistant deputy minister for the legal services division at Alberta Justice.
Sprague’s branch demonstrates the variety of opportunities working as a lawyer for the provincial government can entail. Similar to the federal government’s legal advisers, his staff work as in-house counsel to other government ministries. Recently, for example, the province had been looking for specialized lawyers with expertise related to public-private partnerships. That’s because the province has embarked on a major project to have private companies build 18 schools in and around Edmonton and Calgary. Recently, the government followed up those plans with a proposal for an additional 14 schools, making the P3 arrangement a key new model for Alberta. “There really is an amazing amount of interesting work,” says Sprague.
In his division, lawyers work in teams covering everything from constitutional law to municipal and health issues. The idea, then, is that someone working on a particular file can also tap into those specialized areas for help. “What’s great I think from a lawyer’s perspective [is that] as issues come up, you have the ability to reach in and get resources from other areas,” says Sprague. “One of the things I think is attractive [about] the Justice Department is it’s not a unidimensional law firm. It’s a big place. There are lots of opportunities to move around.”
In his own case, prior to his current position, Sprague worked as counsel to the government’s Sustainable Resource Development department. That role took him into a range of areas, including advising on where to place fire bans during forest fire season and interpreting fishing and hunting regulations. Sprague also got involved in major legislation, such as the province’s Public Lands Act. At the same time, he made representations as counsel before Alberta’s Energy Resources Conservation Board, an agency that has the sometimes-controversial role of hearing applications for new oilsands developments near Fort McMurray. “Our lawyers aren’t only the in-house backroom chaps,” he says. “We also do the representation in court.”
In terms of law students, the department generally hires between 10 and 12 people a year split between Calgary and Edmonton. “They work on both the civil and criminal side,” says Sprague, noting that like the federal government, the goal is to keep staff past their articles. “It’s really about trying to keep them on and to really become part of the department. We want the opportunity to be long-term, not short-term.”
Of course, while working for the government offers stability, it does come with added public scrutiny of the decisions a lawyer makes, something that can be a challenge for people in the public sector. “There’s always the question of the public view,” says Sprague. “That’s something you need to be aware of.”
As a result, governments ideally look for lawyers with a belief in public service. Of course, skeptics would point out how easily a bureaucracy can sometimes stifle that spirit, but people like Alcorn say as lawyers working on the policy side, they’ve been able to stay motivated. “My experience has been very positive,” he says, noting his job has involved opportunities such as travelling to Panama and Uruguay to represent the New Brunswick Securities Commission.
Michael Sullivan, too, says he has been able to parlay his passion for public affairs into a meaningful job in government. Now a policy adviser with the Accessibility Directorate of Ontario, he gets to help shape new standards for removing barriers to people with disabilities in the transportation sector. “We’re working on a standard that can, as much as possible, have equal access to transit services for people with disabilities,” he says. Authorized to do so under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, the directorate has been working on the transportation standard for three years, and Sullivan’s job has been to help facilitate the process to develop it. Now that a proposed standard is ready, the goal is to fine-tune it, he notes. “The benefit of this working at the Accessibility Directorate of Ontario is we’re mandated to develop the standard. We’re in proactive mode as opposed to reactive,” he says. “For me, that is more exciting.”
Sullivan has long had an interest in disability issues, particularly those related to mental health. He credits his upbringing as the son of a United Church minister in part for sparking his interests, something that prior to becoming a lawyer in 2000 led him to get a degree in social work. Since then, he has been involved in politics, including an unsuccessful run for a seat as a Toronto school trustee in 2006.
In starting law school, Sullivan didn’t plan on the path he has taken, but it’s one that has worked out. “I didn’t know exactly where it would take me,” he says. “It probably didn’t turn out the way I expected. But in some ways, it turned out better than I expected.”
At the same time, he says working on policy has let him to do at least some aspects of what he hoped to do as a politician and still aims to accomplish through a future run at public office. Becoming a lawyer, he notes, was a way of boosting his influence in the meantime. “Generally, if you’re a lawyer, people tend to listen to you and take you seriously.” As well, working in the public sector gives him more freedom to follow those political goals, something he doesn’t believe that working at a private firm — with the pressures to generate billable hours — would let him do as easily. “The benefit of my job is it gives me the time to do those other things. If I was in private practice . . . it would be difficult to manage both of them.”
For Alcorn, although he might have different goals for his free time, the benefits of having more standardized working conditions are the same. “In my case, if I have so many weeks of vacation every year, I can actually take them,” he says.
Of course, the benefit of not living by the billable hour can become a negative for public sector lawyers who quickly come to notice the salary differences with their private sector counterparts. One Bay Street law firm tells 4Students its first-year associates start at $100,000 and by their fifth year, average salaries are up around $170,000. At the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General, first-year lawyers start at $74,520, and five-year lawyers at $109,972. Federal Justice Department numbers range widely with lawyers in the first salary levels earning between $54,580 to $77,865; and those in the next salary range (generally over five years of service) at $75,630 to $108,525 or $124,940 for those in Toronto.
At the federal level, the Association of Justice Counsel, a union representing Justice Canada lawyers, has been bargaining for an initial collective agreement since 2006. Efforts to do so broke down earlier this year when the government passed Bill C-10, the Expenditure Restraint Act, which limits wage increases to between 1.5 and 2.5 per cent between 2006 and 2010. But while the recession has led to such wage caps across many sectors, federal Crown prosecutor and association acting president Marco Mendicino argues lawyers should have been an exception given the longstanding salary gap between them and their provincial government and private sector colleagues. “We feel that we were entitled to more. If you take a look at the schism between what most of our lawyers at the intermediate range make . . . the amount of that gap is staggering,” he says, referring to comparisons with staff working for provincial governments.
The association has also battled on questions of compensation for overtime as well as workload, which Mendicino says has increased as the federal government has moved into new legal territory with beefed-up laws on terrorism and guns and gangs. “There is no doubt as dedicated professionals, we work well over 37.5 hours per week,” he says. “It goes without saying that there are many instances where lawyers work overtime and simply do not seek compensation, and even when they do, they receive time off at a ratio that’s far less than one-for-one.”
In June, in the absence of an agreement, the parties took those matters to arbitration, a situation that has them waiting for an award that will establish a first contract for federal lawyers. For his part, Mendicino says he’s disappointed efforts to redress the salary issue failed, something he says leaves the public service with major challenges in recruiting and retaining legal talent. “While that may be true, what the overall number does not reflect is that we are losing many of our most venerable and most senior lawyers who are simply crossing the street to work for our provincial counterparts principally because they will be compensated better.”
The problem is one the government acknowledges. In its most recent annual report, the Public Prosecution Service of Canada notes it came in under budget in 2007-08 in part because of staff retention problems. “The salaries of prosecutors and lawyers in some regions of Canada continue to increase, which affects the PPSC’s ability to retain its highly skilled prosecutors, hence creating a personnel shortage. Due to the competition for scarce resources, not all vacant positions were filled,” says the report.
But in the end, people like Sullivan say working in the public service has its rewards. In his case, the ability to move between positions allowed him to leave a dissatisfying job at the Ministry of Labour to his current one with the accessibility directorate. As a result, he advises anyone considering a career in the public sector to take advantage of that mobility to find the right fit. “You should probably be open to something where you think you can make a difference . . . because life is short, so you don’t want to waste it on pursuing someone else’s agenda,” he says.
Mendicino, too, says despite the pay gap, working as a government lawyer has its advantages, particularly at the entry level where the salaries are still competitive. “I feel that without a doubt that going into the public service as a federal government lawyer remains a unique and special opportunity. What we have to do now is find ways to keep the best and brightest with us . . . right until retirement, and we are not there yet.”