‘It's easiest to despair when it feels like everything is riding on what happens tomorrow’
Lawyer Kimberly Boara Alexander was in the process of hiring a new lawyer at her small firm when the pandemic hit. That process is just now getting back on track.
“My firm, right now, has three lawyers, one clerk and two staff. We're a team of six,” she says. “Unfortunately, with the disruption, we put that process on pause. My thinking is that ultimately, we're going to get back on track. And we certainly maintained communication with the candidate.”
Alexander is not alone. A May survey of Canadian Lawyer readers found that about half of firms had stopped hiring associates. Of the other half of the 28 respondents, some firms had laid off associates or staff lawyers (14 per cent), had plans for future layoffs (14 per cent), were hiring (14 per cent) or were cutting hours (7 per cent).
Alexander is no stranger to mentoring younger people or new calls: She has been an articling principal; a judge and supervisor for the Moot Court Program at the University of Toronto, and a founding trustee of the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Canada Foundation.
But even for Alexander, the pandemic presents challenges for bringing new associates into the firm.
“We were able to continue to do our work well and serve our clients well in that [remote, digital] environment. What we've lost though, is the serendipitous conversations — the
spontaneous discussions and collaboration. Things have to be much more planned. For in particular, our youngest associate our newest associates, that can be more difficult because so much learning happens by accident,” she says.
“So much learning happens when you overhear a discussion between two more senior lawyers. And from that, you learn something about practice management. Or, when you bump into a lawyer in the hall and raise a question that, perhaps, wouldn't have warranted a formal meeting. But it's something that as a younger lawyer, you would have liked to bounce off somebody.”
Sara Cohen, founder of Fertility Law Canada in Toronto, said that her firm is small but has stayed busy, so the partners moved forward with its plans to have interns and summer students.
“As an international intern, she couldn't come here. So we worked with her virtually,” says Cohen. “Part of the commitment when you have an intern is also making sure they have the best experience possible. I'm not sure if she had the best experience possible because — whereas I can handle my clerk being virtual — it's harder to teach on a file virtually. It's harder to experience a lot of the law. It is so personal. You get a feel for the clients and I'm walking them through a very emotional experience.”
Paul Miller, a partner at Howie Sacks and Henry LLP in Toronto, also has stayed busy during the pandemic. While there has been little trouble shifting to online work, he says that the camaraderie of the office made him more efficient.
He does see there being some longer-term impacts of the pandemic, particularly for newer calls.
“I don’t think it’s a lack of work. There will be a downturn of new files because people aren’t out and about . . . so it’s a lag of work going forward. As you settle cases, some firms will find they are lacking work a year or two from now,” he says.
“What young lawyers need to do is adjust expectations. What type of practice niche can they find and create in these times? The personal injury bar are going to feel a downturn in a year or two. Start thinking outside the box. . . . be prepared that it may not look how you envisioned when you started law school.”
Alexander says she believes newer lawyers can weather this blip in their careers, and urges them not to despair.
“It's not going to be a permanent or structural setback for them in their careers. And in every career — because careers are long — you are going to encounter setbacks,” she says. “It's difficult because nobody knows how this is going to shake out.
So [newer lawyers] should continue to do the things that they always were doing anyhow, which is: Nurture the relationships that they have; stay top of mind with those who may be in a position to provide them with work; be bold and not fear reaching out to people when you need the collaboration and the feedback.”
For example, she says, being adaptive to new and changing technology has become an important part of professional competence — and may be a skill younger lawyers possess.
“I've been very impressed with our ability as a profession to adapt in these circumstances. And what it tells me is that this profession — that is known for being traditional, and perhaps slow-moving — can actually be limber and adaptive and responsive. Overall, that's going to make it a better and more welcoming profession for newer lawyers,” she says.
“It's easiest to despair when it feels like everything is riding on what happens tomorrow, which is the way you feel at the beginning of your career. ‘If I don't get this next job, I'm never going to have a job in law. Why do I have hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt and no prospects for employment?’ This is temporary, and I think that you need to take a long view. Your career just like it's just like life: it's going to go through ups and downs.”
She says that even if a firm isn’t hiring associates for a while, senior lawyers can give back through formal or informal mentorship outside of work.
“Suggest with your mentor or a senior counsel, a brief, once-a-week one-on-one. The responsibility for making that meeting valuable is on the young lawyer — to come into the one-on-one with a sense of real questions you want answered . . . because it doesn't happen as organically in the hall and as you pass in the office. Get that guidance that you normally got, but do so in a way that doesn't impose undue burdens on more senior counsel,” she says.
“Senior counsel have a real responsibility to make this happen as well. . . . I have formal mentoring, advising relationships with lawyers outside of my firm. Right now, I have one where we have a once a week call. The express purpose of that call is for that lawyer to run questions and issues past me. I have another one where the formal relationship ended some months ago. But I reached out to her during this time to ask how she was doing, and we have a follow up call today. As a senior member of this profession, if one feels an obligation to give back and to assist, then they should do it in a way that's true to them: their skills and their style.