Tips on how to adjust to life after articling

Ivana Bozinovic stood on the end of a receiving line of young women eager to shake hands with her and set up coffee dates and she couldn’t help but feel a big fat sense of déjà vu.

A year ago she was part of the peloton of law school grads, desperate to find work after not being hired back following an articling stint with Bennett Jones LLP.

“It shows how quickly your life can change and you can be in a position where you’re mentoring someone else,” says Bozinovic, who survived on short-term contract work before eventually getting hired as an associate with Toronto corporate litigation firm Thomas Gold Pettingill LLP.

Last week she was part of a panel, hosted by Young Women in Law, offering tips on how to survive one of the toughest periods a lawyer will ever face: life after articling.

Most of the advice focused on developing an extensive contact list and networking, but less obvious was the need to take a mental break and regain some confidence.

“It’s not like you’re going to be doomed if you take a two-week vacation,” insists Bozinovic, who tested that theory with a seven-week summer excursion. While it was tough to see her friends starting their new jobs, the time off allowed her to focus on what she really wanted to do. For Bozinovic that was commercial litigation.

She also kept an extensive Excel spreadsheet of everyone she emailed, spoke to, or shared coffee with in the six months between leaving Bennett Jones and landing with her current firm.

The 2012 University of Windsor law school grad also targeted firms with partners that shared her alma mater.

“As soon as I put that plug in there they were like ‘OK, let’s meet up,’” says Bozinovic. “You can’t have shame when you network, you just have to go for it.”

Karen MacKay, president of Phoenix Legal Inc, a Toronto-based consulting and lawyer recruitment service, says the reason people like Bozinovic are ultimately successful in finding work is because they’ve done their homework.

In addition to doing the physical legwork of contacting people, MacKay says it’s important to get your priorities straight to determine what type of firm would be the best fit for your particular skills and abilities. Are you better off with a large firm, or a boutique whose clients are small or mid-sized business?

Priorities can include myriad things such as firm culture, compensation, possibility of partnership, future earning potential, work-life balance, and volunteer opportunities. MacKay adds you should break these down into three groups: deal breakers, nice-to-haves, and trade offs.

Once that process is complete, be selective in who you target and don’t send your resume unless there is a job opening.

“Law firms don’t hire ahead of need,” says MacKay.

With more and more law school graduates hitting the market every year, Ben Higham, a recruiter at Toronto’s Cartel Inc., says personal relationships are the most important factor.

“It’s so cliché to say it’s who you know, but it absolutely is,” insists Higham, who was out of work for seven months after articling, which he called the worst time of his life. “In an age where we’re all so digital it’s often hard to reach out to strangers to ask them for advice.”

Higham says the best weapons students have at their disposal is e-mail and their smartphone, but they should avoid blindly contacting law firms.

“Don’t plaster Bay Street,” he advises. “Your career is dying from overexposure.”

He says if you manage to score an interview, be prepared to show to the firm exactly how you’re going to make them money with your individual strengths and skillset. It’s also important for candidates to come off as a “safe bet,” meaning you impress on the interviewer that you’re someone who will stick around for the next five years, thereby justifying the investment they will be making.

As far as how to address any gaps in your employment, especially in regards to not being hired back following articling, the panel had the following tips:

1.    Be brief and succinct: Don’t give a wishy-washy answer to the question, says Bozinovic, who advises students to remain positive and communicate they believe it was not a reflection on their abilities and they are grateful for the experience, but it’s time to move on and show what they can do for whatever firm gives them the opportunity.

2.    Bring it back to the economy: Higham says you should never slag your former firm, but it’s fine to be realistic and remind future employers your situation was due in part to circumstances beyond your control.

3.    Don’t assume there wasn’t a match: MacKay says all firms have internal budgets and it comes down to a numbers game and it doesn’t always reflect on performance. Try to emphasize what you were able to accomplish while articling and focus on what you can do for your new firm.

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