Avoiding a first-year meltdown

The pressure begins almost immediately. Although law school is a three-year program, in the first two months students are already being asked to make some of the biggest decisions of their legal careers, including where they want to live, what kind of law they want to practise, how large a firm they want to work for, etc.

How can this be? How can these pitiable “newbies” who likely can’t yet properly brief a case or adequately explain the meaning of the word estoppel be expected to make such life-altering decisions?


Well, if they want a summer job with a large law firm, they have no choice. Applications for positions with large firms in the major markets are due in some cases as early as October, and certainly by January — and since these first-year summer jobs can lead to second-year summer jobs, which in turn can lead to articling positions, first-year students who are concerned about their futures are intensely motivated to learn fast and make the tough decisions.


“We want to get the best students, and they get picked up very quickly,” says Deanne MacLeod, chairwoman of Stewart McKelvey Sterling Scales LLP’s recruiting committee for the firm’s Halifax office, of the decision to hire first-year students. “We also like to have ambassadors on campus — whether or not they decide to stay with us, they tend to be our best spokespersons in the student committee, and they really assist us in our recruiting.”


“It also gives us a longer look at them,” adds Stephen Mabey, COO of the firm.


“Sometimes you can pluck some real stars early,” says Sheena MacAskill, director of professional resources with McCarthy Tétrault LLP in Toronto. “We’ve had a couple of people in recent years who we recruited in first year turn out to be absolutely fabulous. It’s getting an early jump on the really top-notch candidates.”


From the students’ standpoint, the advantages of obtaining a position are tantalizing: the significantly increased likelihood of being offered articling positions with those firms (for example, in 2006, four out of five first-year summer students returned to work at SMSS for second year, and six of seven of the second-years returned as articling clerks; “most” of each category returned at McCarthys); being paid the same rate as articling students; and gaining invaluable experience and insights into life at a law firm and in the practice of law.


The catch is that there are relatively few first-year summer positions out there. Only a handful of students from each large first-year class will actually get a first-year summer position with a large firm, something many students don’t realize.


“Students look for a mechanism to reassure themselves that they’ve made the right decision and that they’re succeeding, and some students use a first-year summer position as a benchmark for their success,” says Deanna Morash, career services director at Queen’s University Faculty of Law in London, Ont.


“You don’t have to summer to get an articling position but if they want to go to a particular firm it’s a good idea, because if they’re offering three articling positions, they’re going to fill two of those positions with their summer students, so their chances are better if they’ve summered at that firm,” says Patricia Neil, careers services officer at the University of Alberta Faculty of Law.

Because the statistical advantage gained toward obtaining a coveted articling position can be so great, students can get caught up in the idea of first-year summer jobs, and career services offices have to strike a balance between two competing interests: letting students know what’s out there, and minimizing students’ stress in a year when they are already trying to adapt to new surroundings, friends, professors, subjects and exam stressors.


“I don’t want to create pressure for the students,” says Neil, “but it’s my job to inform them that these opportunities are available to them.”


The most important thing to remember, she says, is that “[t]he majority of first-years do not summer at a firm, and yet nearly everyone is successful in obtaining an articling position.”

“There are a lot of people who tell students that the summer after first year is the last summer they’ll have to do something that’s not law-related and fun and interesting,” says Queen’s Morash.


Students should also know that they are not penalized by the firms for making such choices. “There are typically a few students who we’re very interested in who want to summer in Europe or work for a camp in Ontario — who have very specific ways they want to spend their summer — but who are still asked to article with the firm,” says Mabey.


Jennifer Brent, a second-year student from Osgoode Law School who summered at McCarthys, can attest to that. She decided not to apply for first-year summer positions after she was offered the chance to work for a law school professor, helping him research a book.


“I really had no interest in coming to a firm after first year,” she says. “I felt that if I’m lucky, I’m going to be doing this for a long time, so why not spend one more summer doing something a little bit different?”


So the first step is for new first-year students to decide if they really want a summer job with a large firm in a major market.


“Students should start by focusing on what their interests are, if they have specific interests,” says Morash. “In any event, from there moving to doing some research and informing themselves of what their options are, to set individual goals and not be discouraged by the setbacks.”


Neil says, “I think they have to search themselves to determine exactly where they want to go, where they want to article, and what type of firm they want. It’s difficult when you first come to law school because oftentimes these decisions are made later on, but they have to do this soul-searching and not get caught up in the rush of applications just because everyone else is applying.”


There are a wide variety of resources available from the careers services offices to help students explore their options at this stage: websites, newsletters, handbooks, articling databases, etc. These can all provide information about specific application deadlines (which vary from firm to firm and from province to province), what positions are available where, and background information on the firms.


Even making an early decision about the geographical location where the student wants to spend the summer often goes a long way towards resolving the question of summer job opportunities, and can reduce the student’s stress.


For example, Nadia Myerthall, co-director of career and alumni services at the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Law, says many first-year students think there are going to be summer jobs with law firms between their first and second years “and that’s just not realistic in this marketplace.”


Similarly, Neil cautions that while first-year jobs may be available in relatively greater numbers in Toronto (not to mention Boston or New York), there are significantly fewer available in markets such as Calgary and Edmonton.
And although students may know where they’d like to go, they should consider whether or not they can afford to go there. Remuneration can of course be a deciding factor, and students may be surprised to know how often it weighs in against accepting jobs with law firms.


“The rise in tuition is putting a lot of pressure on students to get jobs that are making them a lot of money,” says Brent.


MacLeod agrees: “This year we had one student who had another career working in the oil industry, and he went off in the summer to work in the oil sands, and make a whole lot more cash than he would working here as a summer student, and we couldn’t really blame him for that.”


Finally, first-year students have to determine what kind of law they’re interested in, and which firms offer the right programs for them. At this point it’s best not forget the greatest resource students have at their disposal — people.


Generally, careers services offices encourage students to talk to their peers, friends, families, professors, lawyers at the firms they’re considering applying to, students who formerly had summer positions (contact lists are often available), and the officers themselves.


“Some students feel at least a bit of pressure to at least find a middle ground, which may be trying to get a job that’s law-related, working for a professor, or at a law school, or legal aid clinics or something like that,” says Morash.


“Decisions have to be made early on — that should relieve some of the pressure,” says Neil. “And if they visit the career services office, we can talk it out with them, and try to figure it out with them what exactly they want and where they feel they would fit.”

If at the end of all this soul-searching, the student chooses to apply for a summer job at a large law firm in a major market, he or she is still faced with the daunting prospect of finding one. The battle for the few spots available is intense, with hundreds of applicants competing for only a handful of spots allotted to first-years at a particular firm, assuming they offer any at all.


But there’s no reason to get stressed about that process either.


“The main reason why it wasn’t stressful was because you’re sort of told you’re not going to get one,” says Ryan Coombes, who spent the summer at McCarthys after first year, laughing. “Because there are very few. I honestly didn’t know whether I had a shot.”


Once again, there are tons of resources offered to help students through the process, including resume and cover letter samples, seminars and workshops, mock interviews, receptions and networking events.


It also helps to know what the firms are looking for.


“Obviously you don’t have too much to go by in terms of law school performance,” says Sheena MacAskill at McCarthys, “so you’re looking at their undergraduate performance. A lot of the students now have post-graduate degrees or prior work experience, and how they present in the interview. Grades to get the interview, and then once they get in the door, what is the fit?”


Mabey at Stewart McKelvey says his firm looks at undergraduate marks, and whether the students were able to get up and running in the on-campus leadership race, or if they are active in the school — but most of the weight is on the interview and how they carry themselves.


And while it’s too late for first-year students to do anything about their undergraduate marks, they can definitely work on their interviewing skills.


“We did mock interviews at McGill,” says Laura Gheorghiu, a first-year summering with Stewart McKelvey in Halifax, “and although the questions they asked were completely different, it gave me a sense of confidence.”
“Be prepared, and know about yourself,” advises Brent. “Know what’s on your CV. It sounds really basic, but know what’s on there and be able to talk about it with confidence.”


Will Szubielski, a second-year summer student at Stewart McKelvey, says, “They’re looking for good lawyers, partners, and for the future success of the firm, so keep that in mind. You need to convey an image that you want to work there long-term. If you’re applying to smaller towns, give them a reason why you want to work there — If you apply to work in say, Charlottetown, they’re going to ask you why you want to live and work in Charlottetown.”


“Try not to compete with the other students,” says Brent. “Just present a positive side of yourself, and not worry about who’s going to this cocktail party or that cocktail party. Focus on yourself.”


Above all else, first-year students must remember that summer positions are rare bonuses, and nothing to get worked up over.


“Try to be relaxed and to realize that it’s a great experience, but it’s not the only experience and that there are tons of things that you can do out there,” says Brent. “The more people have a wider perspective of what’s available, the less they will necessarily, if you’ll pardon the expression, freak out about a job in first or second year.”


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