When André Bacchus, director of professional development at Heenan Blaikie LLP, spoke about career preparation for first-year students at the University of Ottawa recently, he faced a full house.
His message was clear: it is very important to start planning now.
There are many opportunities available early on in law school and Bacchus emphasized that initiative is essential. In addition to applying for advertised positions, Bacchus suggested talking to offices without positions already carved out. At municipalities, for example, he said “when budgeting is tight, they can definitely use students to tackle issues that they don’t necessarily have enough time to tackle themselves.” The same could hold true for provincial and federal government offices, government-funded organizations, committees, and task forces.
Potential jobs are out there, but it may take creativity and initiative to find the right one. Institutions and corporations have in-house counsel that deal with a broad range of issues where students could develop many skills, but may not advertise the positions. Also worth considering are embassies and consulates both in Canada and abroad.
The time before second year is also a chance to build on skills learned in the classroom, such as legal research and writing. Working with professors in teaching and research assistant positions, conducting research, drafting material for lobby groups, and writing newspaper articles were all examples Bacchus gave for developing skills that law students will need as they enter their careers. There are numerous non-legal avenues to pursue in order to garner the practical skills employers want.
Even if first-year summer is used to travel and relax, Bacchus cautioned against not developing skills. “Four months is a long time to do nothing, you want to make sure that you are building some skills.” Pursuing a hobby, taking a course, or volunteering at least leads to a conversation in the interview. Otherwise, if there is absolutely nothing of substance to discuss, “there is only so far that conversation is going to go with a potential employer.”
Employers are looking for signs of initiative, motivation, ownership of choices, and interpersonal skills, as well as research and writing skills. All of these traits can be demonstrated not only in what students do to develop their legal skills and resumés, but also through how they went about seeking out those opportunities. One way to do this is by taking advantage of available resources.
Each Canadian law school has career-planning assistance that provides a wealth of information. The University of Ottawa career services office, for example, has a jobs database called “The Source,” and also provides PSLawNet.org membership. In addition, there is one-on-one career counselling, resumé and cover letter review, mock interviews, and over 45 information sessions each academic year for career preparation.
When asked about why career planning should be considered so early in law school, Stacy Keehn, manager of career and professional development at the University of Ottawa, said: “Whether or not [students] are willing to participate in recruitment now, it is really important at this time to make an informed decision about what to do because some markets ramp up so quickly in second year that if you don’t know, you will fall behind.”
Keehn emphasized that students should determine what skills they want to build over the summer, and what to talk about in interviews. “This is about [the student] knowing their interests and skills,” said Keehn. Once the time is taken to address potential resumé and skill gaps that need to be filled, the student will be that much more prepared to face job interviews.
A lot of preparation is necessary for career planning, but it is critical to know yourself and make decisions that will further your goals and interests. As Bacchus said: “You want to work in a field that you are passionate about because you have to enjoy what you’re doing. After that, everything else will follow.”
Sasha Toten is planning her career at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law.