Q & A with Gail Wong

Gail Wong, director of McCarthy Tétrault LLP’s student program for the Ontario region, talks to 4Students assistant editor Zachary Pedersen about how the law firm recruits new talent.

Gail Wong, director of McCarthy Tétrault LLP’s student program for the Ontario region, talks to 4Students assistant editor Zachary Pedersen about how the law firm recruits new talent.

How does the recruitment process work at McCarthys?

At our firm, and across the country, we have a unique approach to the way we recruit students. We apply a competencies-based recruitment approach. What this means is that we predetermined a list of competencies we think are predictive of success in our environment. Some of them are obvious and some others are, perhaps, a little less obvious. If you look at our environment and those who thrive and succeed here, our best lawyers and students demonstrate those skills. For a number of reasons, including diversity reasons, it’s really important in our environment to make sure we are trying to remove some of that subjectivity in the recruitment process and to make it as objective as possible when we are meeting with candidates and assessing them.

We continue to hear from students that when they’re looking at the other firms, it’s really important to them that they’re finding a place that they think they can thrive and succeed. Because we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what skills matter in our environment, what skills are critical to servicing our clients, I think we become pretty good at being able to identify and anticipate what kind of student would really do well in our environment. It’s not an exact science, but I think having a set list of competencies, providing training to our lawyers, talking about personal bias — all of that brings further into focus and clarity [who would be a good match for our environment] when we’re meeting with students.

What are some of those skills and competencies?

There are a variety of competencies. Some of them are quite obvious. Strong analytical skills are certainly one of the things that we look for, strong oral communication skills, students who have a client-service orientation — because everything that we do here is about our clients.

Additionally, it can be a challenging career, for sure, and sometimes students are expected to work long hours. So resilience and a strong work ethic are also some of the competencies that we look for.

We’re always encouraging our lawyers to share feedback with our students and other lawyers so that they can improve on what they do. Oral communications skills are critical when dealing with our clients. It’s important that our lawyers and students are concise, professional, and articulate.

How do you identify those types of skills when interviewing?

Our competencies-based recruitment approach is quite unique because what we’re trying to do is get our interviewer to learn about the students. What motivates them? What has their historical experience been, whether it’s through extracurricular or academic experience? We really are trying to figure out what drives the students, what their strengths are, what they like doing, what their passions are, what motivates them.

So the competencies-based approach means that we’re bringing students into their experiences. When we’re talking with them in the interview context, we want to learn more about their past experiences, why they chose certain initiatives, what they enjoy doing, what frustrated them about certain work environments.

How are students’ marks weighted against their other experiences?

We talked earlier about analytical skills, and why that’s important. I personally review all 900-plus resumes in September when we get them and I do that to ensure consistency of decision-making across law schools, and certainly to make sure that we’re focusing on the competencies when we’re doing our review.

In terms of grades, that’s one way of determining analytical skills — especially when we’re reviewing on paper. That having been said, we have a number of competencies and grades are, while important, not a determinate factor. When we’re looking for students with leadership potential, or initiative, strong work ethic — those competencies are equally as important as grades.

What can recruits expect from their experience at McCarthys?

When I speak to our students, I’m continuously astonished by the opportunities that they get . . . being summer students or articling students. I would say that a large majority of our students in the business law rotation would have opportunities to work on really exciting and high-profile, complex cases.

If I think about the last couple of years and the types of files that students have worked on, Bell’s acquisition of Astral Media comes to mind [and] Glencore’s acquisition of Xstrata. In fact, if I think back, one student last year in the articling group — in his litigation rotation — had the amazing opportunity to work on the Rasouli file, which dealt with end-of-life issues and went to the Supreme Court of Canada. But then in his business law rotation, he was an integral member of the team that represented Primaris REIT on the hostile takeover.

That is not atypical of the average student experience at our firm in terms of the range of opportunities. I mean some of our students are certainly working on pro bono matters and leading charitable- and firm-building initiatives. Many of our students are participating on trial teams; supporting a trial team during their articles. So it really is astounding the wealth of opportunities that there are at the firm across all of our groups.

I would also say that it’s a really dynamic and passionate work environment. If you’re walking down the halls or you’re in the boardrooms, you’ll hear our lawyers engaging with each other and talking about the exciting files that they’re working on — whether it’s complex litigation matters or sort of front-page news transactions.

What’s amazing is that our students and their insight is critical to what we do here and our lawyers encourage students to provide their valuable insight. I think the students are surprised, actually, especially during the summer, at how much their insight and analysis and research is valued and integral to the work we do here.

There’s also very much an openness to culture and a culture of feedback and mentoring. We’ve invested a lot over the last number of years in the area of encouraging lawyers to be open to providing feedback or [being] more candid about the feedback and being transparent about the feedback. What we hear from students is they really value that. That’s how they improve and get better at what they do.

How many articling students do you hire every year?

We hire all of our articling students from our summer student group. We typically hire 18 to 20 students for our summer student program. We focus our resources on recruiting summer students that are at the beginning of their second year at law school. Then we hire those students back to join us for articling.
We don’t conduct a separate articling recruit. That having been said, we are certainly focused on hiring the right number of summer students we need in terms of the articling program and, further, what we think we need as first year associates. I know it’s challenging on our recruitment cycle and process to anticipate what the business needs will be two years out, but certainly we are mindful of that number to make sure that it is well-aligned to what our needs are down the road.

What’s the likelihood of being hired back?

We talked earlier about our focus on making sure we have the right number of summer recruits, and that it’s aligned with our articling students’ needs and first year associates’ needs. Last year, we hired 86 per cent of our students back as first-year associates. As we continue in each year focusing on what is the right number of summer students, we want to make sure that everybody that comes on board — whether it’s a summer student, articling student, or first-year student — has a full plate of work and has full potential to develop. It’s important they have full opportunities at the firm. We take time to figure out what the right number is for us and certainly try to align it with what our needs will be down the road.

How do you choose which lawyers will do interviews?

There are lots of lawyers here at the firm who love working with students. So, we’re always looking at selecting the lawyers who are interested in engaging with students and want to participate in recruitment. All of the members of our student committee in Toronto participate in recruitment. Out in our other offices, there are lawyers who are on recruitment committees who participate.

What does the training for interviewing lawyers look like?

[McCarthys spends] quite a bit of time preparing training materials for our lawyers in terms of interview best practices — what the format or structure of an interview should be, certain questions to consider asking. We spend a significant amount of time doing training sessions. As part of the training, what we like to talk about is personal biases or implicit bias. . . . I think it’s important to encourage lawyers to reflect on what their preferences are, what types of people they connect with, why they connect with some types of personalities better than others. In that process, [it’s important to understand a gut reaction because then they] are open to learning about the experiences from students who might not be like them or may not be from the same background.

How receptive are lawyers to understanding personal bias?

What’s amazing to me is I actually have been conducting the interview skills training for the last four years now and I’ve seen our lawyers truly be open to accepting that discussion about personal biases.

During the recruitment process, when they’re meeting with students, they often may feel a connection to a particular student and say, “I really like that student.” But they’re also saying, “Gail, I think the reason I’m connecting with the student is because we share the same hobbies or we came from the same school or they’re sort of like me so I recognize that.” [Lawyers trained to seek that insight recognize] they need to do, perhaps, more probing to figure out whether or not [the student] actually has the skills. Part of the recruitment-competencies approach is making sure that we’re all focused on the appropriate skills. There’s a lot of things that are, perhaps, dominant traits that are more superficial, that are not necessarily predictive of success in a workplace like ours.
We’re all human — we all have our preferences and personal biases and I think that sometimes if you’re distracted by some of the more superficial traits, then you don’t actually get to figure out whether or not they actually have the skills that are important for our environment.

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