Getting hired in the Big Apple

Getting hired in the Big Apple
Forget Bay Street, some Canadian law students dream of getting a job in the Big Apple. (Photo: David Jones)
Wela Quan

Every fall, thousands of Canadian law students participate in the gruelling recruitment process, hoping to land a coveted job at a top law firm.

While most students are busy learning about the Seven Sisters, some aren’t satisfied with just Bay Street. They have bigger dreams and even bigger ambitions — they want to go to New York City.

Since the 2008 financial crisis, the number of big New York law firms recruiting from Canadian law schools has declined significantly. Obviously top students can still land coveted jobs, but for the rest of us average students, going to New York has become a pipe dream. Or has it?

I have been asked on many different occasions: how do you get a job in New York? It is actually still possible? The answer is a resounding maybe. A job in the Big Apple for a Canadian student is possible, but only if you really, really, really want it.

The first step in finding a big law job in New York is simply to decide if you actually want the job. Though working for a Skadden or Paul Weiss may sound incredibly sexy, the reality is big law is big law everywhere: long hours, tedious tasks, and not a lot of glory. You need to ask yourself: “Am I really willing to sacrifice what it takes if I get the job?”

If the horror stories of all-nighters haven’t deterred you yet, the next step is to choose the area of law you want to practise. Unlike in Canada where you have the luxury of deciding during your articles, in New York you must choose your practice area before you start. Do your research because once you choose you are pretty much committed to that path. And that was just the easy part.

Before I get to the job search, there are several things to consider in assessing if your Big Apple dreams are realistic.

First and foremost are your grades. It goes without saying that the higher your GPA, the better. This is especially true if you don’t go to a law school the firms recognize. But your business associations mark isn’t everything. If you don’t make a firm’s GPA cut-off, you should definitely have something else to show, such as experience at a law journal, legal clinic or clerkship, just to name a few.

The actual job search must be approached like a job itself. Besides ensuring that your one-page resumé is perfect, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of doing your research.

Though parts of the job search are based on chance, the winning candidate is the one who knows when to gamble. For example, did you know a lot of associates quit in February after spring bonuses are given out? I don’t know about you but I would definitely buy in some time around then.

Even more important than what you know is who you know. Now, I personally hate this phrase. I come from an immigrant family and I grew up in Alberta. I really didn’t and still don’t know anyone important anywhere, let alone in New York. But that’s not my point. When I say who you know, I mean who you decide that you should know.

There are many of you out there who, like me, are horrified at the thought of blindly introducing yourself to someone and asking for a job. Unfortunately this is New York City and being shy really won’t get you far.

The most important aspect of your job search is to keep pushing out. Pretend you are playing six degrees of separation; who do you know now who can connect you to someone you want to know? You don’t have to start by calling the recruiter at Cravath, but you do have to start by talking to that classmate who knows someone working in New York.

In terms of people to talk to, the more the better. In my job search, I spoke to many McGill University law graduates who work in New York, some through introductions by friends and others through a simple e-mail. At first it may seem pointless to just talk to so many random people, but you never know when one of them knows of an opening that is not posted yet.

In short, network like LinkedIn is your last name. There may not be a job today, there may not be one tomorrow, but next month when something at a firm opens up, your name should be the first they call.

As far as legal recruiters go, they can be useful in the search given the right circumstances. The downside is, as a fresh graduate, recruiters normally will not take you on as firms are not willing to pay recruiter fees for someone without any experience. Even if none of the recruiters are willing to place you, it is helpful to meet with them just to get their market intelligence and job-search advice.

Finally, if after everything nothing works out, don’t waste your time — find a job in Canada. Previous legal experience will still be the most important item on a resume, so if you don’t have any, it’s a good idea to get some.

Many Canadian associates find it much easier to get hired in New York laterally rather than right out of school. While you may not get to New York right away, if you are determined, you can get there eventually.

Wela Quan completed her articles in Toronto and received her two law degrees from McGill University. A proud Albertan, she currently works in New York City. She can be reached at [email protected].


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