Finding a job as a lawyer: tips for articling students and new lawyers

When finding a job as a lawyer, keep this in mind: hiring firms look beyond academics. In this article, find out what firms look for and what you should do to get noticed

Finding a job as a lawyer: tips for articling students and new lawyers

When the exams have been written and the textbooks have been put away, it’s time to prepare for finding a job as a lawyer. Whether you're a law student prepping to start articling, or a new lawyer ready to join the legal profession, here are some tips on getting that job.

Some tips on finding a job as a lawyer

Some say that challenges must be addressed one at a time; which is why when you’re still a law student, to graduate and to hurdle the bar was where your utmost attention is at.

But after overcoming them, you’re now faced with another one — finding a firm to article for and to work as a new lawyer.

To help you with this, below are some tips when finding a job as a lawyer. These are also for  students who are applying to law firms to article with.

1. Show more than your law school grades

Applying to law firms at this age is very different from how it was done in the past. Nowadays, firms are seeking more than just academic excellence.

They are looking for well-rounded, diverse professionals with a strong grasp of their firm’s culture. In other words, law firms are looking for candidates with more than just stellar law school grades.

It is now upon the candidate to show that they’re a good fit for the firm, with other bases aside from their law school achievements.

“Intelligence is very important. But by the time these people get through law school, many of them have already checked that box,” said David Risling, partner at McLennan Ross LLP in Edmonton.

“Now we’re looking at the fit and the social skills and communication skills as being very important.”

For more insights and advice before you start job hunting, watch this video:

When looking for a job as a lawyer, you may want to consider the top-ranking law firms in the country to apply for. Find them through our Special Reports on our Rankings page.

2. Work on your résumé and CV

Your application and résumé will play a big role when finding a job as a lawyer or a firm to article with. But it’s also important that what is written on paper shines through your personality during the interviews.

Here are some tips on how to improve your résumé and curriculum vitae:

Add your non-academic experience

Risling said that adding work or volunteer-related successes to a résumé, even athletic accomplishments, is important, too, so “don’t sell that stuff short.” These activities help distinguish candidates outside of just academics.

For candidates to set themselves apart, it’s not always enough to simply be part of a club; taking on a leadership role can also help an applicant stand out. 

Traditional traits — a good work ethic and academic acumen — are still sought, but law firm recruiters are looking above and beyond to satisfy the needs of a modern law firm practice.

As such, when researching the firm you’re applying for, check you how can relate your extracurricular activities with what they're looking for.

Here’s a summary of the non-academic experiences that you may want to include when applying for a job as a lawyer:

  • sports achievements
  • peer mentorship programs
  • summer internships
  • school clubs or associations (e.g. debate team)
  • advocacy or multisectoral organizations
  • written outputs published in law journals
  • other school activities you’ve helped organized

Customize your application

Applicants are cautioned to review their cover letter before submitting it, Andy Balaura said. He is a partner and head of the Employment & Labour Practice Group at Pallett Valo LLP. In his experience in hiring lawyers, he has seen candidates identify areas of law within their letter that his firm doesn’t practice.

It’s obvious that, occasionally, some applicants create a single cover letter for all firms to which they apply, rather than tailoring each cover letter for each firm. “Our firm has a trademark saying about right-size thinking — that being our business philosophy,” he said.

“It’s good for students to sort of work it into the conversation during the interview that they’re aware of those types of mission statements or values or saying things that the firm likes to promote.”

“When we see that they’ve done their homework, that certainly leaves a positive impression,” he added.

Balaura advised that with so many resources available, applicants must:

  • examine the law firm’s website closely
  • understand the firm’s practice areas
  • get a sense of the firm’s culture

He also said that applicants may speak with students currently there or new associates they may know from law school or mutual connections.

Be mindful of your online presence

Nowadays, firms may also check your online presence to see if you’re a good fit for them. It may include your social media accounts or your LinkedIn profile.

Although this is not the only basis for evaluating potential hires, it’s still a good practice to use these accounts to increase your chances of getting that job.

3. Prepare for interviews

In the past, law firms would often conduct informal interviews that were more like a friendly chat. Even though this is still true today, some firms would now conduct it either in-person or online, whether it be an informal or a formal one.

While the interview is still an integral part of the hiring process, firm recruiters are realizing that focusing only on social connection could be a recipe for replicating sameness.

This is what Lynn Iding said, now the Director of Human Resources at Stewart McKelvey in Halifax.

At her previous firm, interviewers were trained to recognize conscious and unconscious bias and ascertain certain skillsets. This helped ensure that a broad spectrum of experience is brought to the firm.

As for the applicants, this means that firms may look for more diversity (more on this later) and other factors that they may or may not hit during the interview process.

4. Know what the firm is looking for

The evolving needs of clients are also shaping recruitment and the type of talent that firms want to attract.

That is why applicants must ensure that they know not just what the recruiting firm is looking for, but also how it serves their clients.

Iding said it’s not enough to be just a good practising lawyer either. Clients demand that lawyers who serve them be:

  • well-rounded
  • good business and people managers
  • excellent in client service

This circles back to the impression that while good grades in law school are still important, being a people-person is now an added factor to what firms are looking for.

5. Use diversity as a strength

Diversity is also a part of the equation when finding a job as a lawyer. It includes not just diversity in professional backgrounds, but also with ethnic diversity and gender diversity.

More than just showing that a firm has unique hires, it’s also about tapping into the strengths and varied perspectives that diversity brings to the table.

How diversity is factored into the hiring process

Diversity carries with it fresh perspectives, and fresh perspectives are strength. Iding said this applies not just to cultural differences but also to differences of experience and perspective of life situations.

“I think it’s pretty well established now that organizations and law firms are more profitable and are better able to serve their clients when they value difference.”

Iding added that that while they focus on the core competencies that they think you need to be a lawyer [during the recruiting process], they also look for those competencies in different ways.

Why diversity is being put forward by firms

Nisha Anand, partner at Gilbert’s LLP in Toronto, who also co-chairs a yearly diversity panel for the Canadian Bar Association IP Day, echoes this sentiment. She said that if firms want to be a true meritocracy, they cannot hire cookie-cutter versions of one type of lawyer; otherwise, they will miss out on great talent.

Risling also thinks diversity has improved at the law school level and he’s finding that the best candidates come from a multitude of cultural backgrounds. Finding suitable candidates from diverse backgrounds isn’t difficult for his firm, he said.

When applying to firms in multicultural areas, an applicant’s diverse background proves to be advantageous since clients also come from different backgrounds. For example, law firms in multicultural areas, such as Pallett Valo LLP in Mississauga, have an advantage when hiring diverse young talent.

“For a long time, we’ve had a fairly equal balance between men and women [lawyers],” Balaura said.

He added that his firm supports candidates involved in cultural organizations such as the South Asian Bar Association and the Italian and Greek ethnic associations.

“Being in Mississauga, which is a diverse community, I think our lawyers reflect that.”

Given these, one tip when finding a job as a lawyer is to apply to firms whose client base are those of distinct backgrounds if you also identify as one.

Check out this video on how legal workplaces can change (and are now changing) to better integrate women:

Find more interviews with the best lawyers in the country on our Multimedia page.

6. Expect to learn skills not taught in law schools

Getting an articling position or a job at a law firm for a young lawyer is a necessity — but it’s one for which law schools don’t prepare students. And this is true, even if there has been a lot of time and effort that a student has already poured in during the law school years.

While law schools prepare students with the analytical skills and ways of thinking to excel as a lawyer, practical knowledge is usually not taught within the four corners of the classroom. This includes what law firm recruiters are searching for as an ideal hire, as these may also change over time or as firm values progress.

That is why there is a gap between learning how to secure that position and the thinking skills that law schools teach.

Bridge the gap through mentorship

How could this gap be closed? While there is no one definitive answer, mentorship is one possible solution.

Mentorship opportunities, both formally arranged and informal (such as popping into the offices of senior lawyers as needed), are offered to young lawyers and students.

This is to teach them about the practical aspects of law, such as:

  • how a law firm works
  • how cases are built up
  • how lawyers prepare for trials

“The approach at our firm is to spend a little bit more time with our young lawyers, talking to them about various assignments, what their thoughts are in terms of the solutions that may exist,” Risling said.

“I think it really boils down to a little bit more face time.”

Use mentorship when applying for a job

Since mentorship usually comes in when you’re already hired in a firm, past mentorship experiences can also help when applying for a job as a lawyer. This may include highlighting your previous mentors when you were articling or when you were doing a summer internship.

If this cannot be shown in your résumé or in your CV, casually mentioning it during the interview (but not totally relying on it) may also help boost your application.

Make mentorship work both ways

When building strong connections with other lawyers at their firm, emerging lawyers can gain practical knowledge and implement those skills.

These opportunities also help junior lawyers and students gain the sharp business skills they will need to operate a legal practice.

In some cases, the senior lawyers gain fresh outlook from the junior lawyers, Anand said. The junior lawyers tend to be more knowledgeable about social media and technology, which helps the firm to be more innovative.

Make a good impression when finding a job as a lawyer

Overall, showing confidence (but not arrogance) makes a good impression on law firm recruiters, whether a junior lawyer or student is familiar with the recruiting process or not. It’s also important for potential hires to study information about the firms to which they are applying and to illustrate that they understand those values.

Along with confidence and the knowledge you’ve earned from passing those law school exams and reading hundreds of book pages, getting the right job will come your way.

Get more resources when finding a job as a lawyer by checking out our Practice Management page under the Resources tab.

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