Despair ahead: Millennial lawyers and the legal job market

Despair ahead: Millennial lawyers and the legal job market
We recently learned of the shocking story of Robert Chu, a medical school graduate who committed suicide after twice being unable to secure a residency spot. Throughout medical school, Chu received academic honours, published papers and possessed an exemplary transcript. Presumably, he should have had no difficulty matching with a residency program. However, due to a limited number of residency placements and fierce competition, Chu found himself without a job after years of hard work. A self-regulating system with the responsibility of ensuring that graduates are able to find meaningful employment within their chosen field failed him.

Similar to young doctors, entry-level lawyers are well aware of the waning legal market. The struggles of Ryerson University’s Law Practice Program and foreign-trained articling students have been well documented. But after lengthy conversations with friends and acquaintances who graduated law school within the past five years, I’ve realized that precarious legal employment (part-time or contract work) is fast becoming the only option for some Ontario law school graduates who possess glowing resumes, completed clerkships or articled in leading law firms. In the past, these students would have had their choice of places to work and gone on to satisfying careers. Now, they take what they can find — if anything comes their way.

The solution(s) to this ever-increasing problem remains elusive. But the root causes are discernible and can be attributed largely to demographic, economic and social factors.

Demographically, the problem is obvious. To maximize revenue, law schools are increasing entry spots. New law schools have also popped up and others may be around the corner. Moreover, older lawyers are retiring later. The amount of legal work has remained the same — or even diminished — and there are more people willing to do it. Inevitably, this pinch favours those lawyers who already have work experience. With increased competition, mid- and senior-level lawyers are keeping a greater amount of work for themselves. In sum, law students are being handed a raw deal. They’re told by society at large, “Hey, you’ll have a stable job with a high income when you graduate.” But what that really means is, “Hey, a few of you will have a stable job with a high income . . . good luck to the rest.”

Now for the economics. As one of my professors used to say, all economic events are attributable to demographic changes. Nevertheless, there are some independent economic factors here. Competition woes aside, the legal industry is now following suit with other industries by transferring grunt work and even complex analysis from trained lawyers to artificial intelligence. ROSS Intelligence, a leading AI firm focusing on the legal industry, moving its operations to Toronto is only one indication that this phenomenon is here to stay. Furthermore, we now see more and more American-style document review companies that have junior contract lawyers conduct e-discovery on limited-term contracts. Inexperience begets inexperience.
So the fewer number of lawyers there are who have worked in permanent legal jobs where they’ve gained valuable experience representing clients, the fewer lawyers there will be who will qualify for stable, well-paying jobs at the mid and senior levels of their careers.

Precarious employment for junior lawyers isn’t solely a problem caused by external demographic or economic factors. There are attitudes unique to millennial law graduates that have exacerbated the issue. For instance, if faced with an employment pinch resulting from a down economy or demographic shifts, previous generations may have borne the prospect of underemployment or doubled down on loyalty to a boss willing to provide a steady paycheque. This generation has what one friend of mine calls the “Goldilocks Syndrome.” This is also known as FOMO — fear of missing out. We are always in the mindset that whatever legal job we have, there is something better out there. Junior lawyers change firms two, three, four or more times before finding themselves in a document review company or out of the practice of law completely. This is partly due to the spread of contract jobs inhibiting young lawyers from establishing a practice at one firm. But millennial lawyers should look in the mirror before blaming this problem solely on outside factors. The appeal of working in big cities, for certain firms and in particularly “sexy” practices has contributed to more lawyers accepting precarious work. Millennials are satisfied working short-term stints until the “ideal” practice comes their way. Little do they know that the ideal practice will never come their way and they need to find what they can get. Young lawyers are also less willing to work for difficult bosses. Being yelled at or having a book thrown at you (yes, that happens!) may have been a rite of passage in the past. Now, it’s a basis for someone to leave a boss high and dry for a more comfortable, even if more precarious, job.

I asked friends for some anecdotes of experiences they or others had in their search for secure employment as a young lawyer. Some knew people who completed a second clerkship because the job market was so bad. Others gave up looking for a job and decided that they would do document review for part of the year and travel for the rest of the time. One person went on maternity leave only to learn that her firm wouldn’t have enough work upon her return to sustain a full-time practice. And there were those who decided to go back to school to become something else after the legal market closed out any chance of them being a big-city lawyer. Consistently, people have told me that in their circle of friends only about 20 per cent of lawyers remain in their first job post-law school. The rest either chose to leave or were pushed out with many now working outside of law altogether.  

This problem is real for Ontario law school graduates, and yet it’s worse for LPP graduates and foreign-trained lawyers. It isn’t going away. We must be bold and innovative if we want to keep young lawyers in the profession. But right now, there isn’t any help in sight.

Hassan M. Ahmad practices civil, commercial and human rights litigation in Toronto. He has also guest lectured at law schools on domestic and international law topics. He is a fellow with the Phillippe Kirsch Institute and a volunteer lawyer with Pro Bono Law Ontario. He can be reached at hahmad9@berkeley.edu.

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