I graduated from University of Calgary’s law school in 2016 with a lot of debt, an excellent resume and hardly any articling interviews. In fact, I can count on one hand the number of summer and articling interviews I had during my three years of law school. Part of the reason for this was my poor grades.
I managed to find an articling position approximately 9 months after graduation, and finally found one where I was happy (in terms of the kind of work I was doing) 9 months after that. I have now finished my articles and have been called to the bar. I want to share some of my experiences and advice for those who have struggled with, or are currently struggling with, finding articles and summer employment.
Figure out what you want to do – the earlier the better
It is incredibly important to know what area of law you want to work in. Law school is not good at preparing students for the workforce, in that the academic environment and multidisciplinary environment are not always relevant to the practice of law. It’s important that you get a sense early on of what you do and do not want to practice (clinical courses and experiences can help with this), and focus on those kinds of firms. It is impractical and frustrating to target every firm in your province when you can focus your efforts on a much smaller number of firms that actually interest you.
Network really hard – in person
Much has been said about networking. I think it is a critical part of finding work. Most of my efforts revolved around cold-calling and cold-emailing. Needless to say, there were very few positive results from this, and it involved a lot of effort and time. A much more efficient way to job-hunt is to meet people that practice in areas in which you want to practice, spend some time with them, get to know them, and ask them about their work. You can also mention that you’re looking for summer/articling employment, but don’t expect anything from them in terms of employment. Possibly they’ll have an opportunity for you; more likely they won’t, but they may still know of others who may need help, and they can introduce you to others who do or do not need help. This way, you’re meeting people practicing in your areas, establishing good connections with them, and possibly even getting a job opportunity from them or someone they recommend. You can’t lose.
I know this can be draining and difficult, but it’s far more efficient and rewarding than calling and emailing. Of course, you can do the odd phone call to set up a meeting, but focus on in-person meetings. Showing up unannounced at an office is far better than an email which likely never gets seen or returned. I read Take Aim: How to Get Noticed and Hired in Tough Times by Joy Cohen, and found it really helpful in providing networking and job search advice.
Another good way to meet lawyers is at networking meetings, such as CBA sessions. These are rather hit-and-miss, but attending events and volunteering can be a good way to meet people. Also, ask people to put your resume on SoloNet or similar listservs that have a wide viewership. Remember, you have a lot of value to offer many firms, and you will find the firm that will appreciate your skills. It will take time and effort, but it’s certainly worth it.
Don’t be discouraged by negative experiences you have. There will be many lawyers that promise to help you and don’t, or promise to follow up on your email but don’t, etc. Focus on the positive. There are many lawyers that are eager and willing to help you – either by providing a listening ear, giving helpful tips regarding potential employers, and more. Find them.
Refuse unpaid work
I understand there are some firms that offer unpaid work. I would recommend against firms offering unpaid work, or anyone accepting it. I understand people can be desperate, but I think this is a little extreme. If the firm values your work so poorly that it refuses to pay you for it, I don’t see how there’s any potential for it to be a good experience for the student.
January 15, 2021 edit: I should add that partial articles may also be very helpful, and I used these. If your provincial law society allows it (Alberta does), it may be a lot easier to “sell” an articling principal on a commitment of – say – 3 months, rather than the full year (or whatever length of term is required). Once you get your foot in the door, it gets a lot easier to find the next position.