Life After Hirebacks Part 3: How to Spend Your Summer, and Starting Your Job Hunt in the Fall

ANSWERING YOUR BURNING QUESTIONS

Photo by Raphaël Biscaldi on Unsplash

Welcome to the third instalment in my series on Life After Hirebacks, designed specifically for articling students. If you missed the earlier posts, you can find them here: 

Life After Hirebacks Part 1: What to do if You Weren’t Hired Back

Life After Hirebacks Part 2: Writing Your Own Reference Letters

Today, I’ll be answering some of the questions I’m most frequently asked by students who weren’t hired back – questions like Should I be applying to smaller firms? and How long did it take you to find a job? I’ll answer these, and more, in the hopes of helping you decide what to do next.

One thing before we dive in: if you have a question that I haven’t included here, please put it in the comments section below and I’ll try my best to get you an answer. Chances are you aren’t the only person with that question.

Here we go.

Question 1: What should I do this summer? What did you do during your summer?

I got married and went on my honeymoon. I also did some of the following things, which I recommend you do, too:

  • Take the summer off. Nothing happens in the summer from a hiring perspective. Before COVID-19, I would have said things will pick up in the fall, but since business has slowed due to the pandemic, your job search might take a bit longer: expect to be job-hunting into the winter months. Use the following as a guide: the start date of articling students who were hired back. Articling students who were hired back are returning to work later than usual this year. They would normally be returning in September, but their start dates have been pushed back to late fall (October/November) and even as far out as the new year (January 2021), in some cases. This is a good indicator of when firms expect that business (and hiring) will pick up again. The good news is this: since these students aren’t starting work until January, you won’t be that far behind them in terms of work experience, if your job search takes a bit longer. Think of it this way, you have a seven (7) month runway for your job search, but it starts with taking the summer off!
  • Get your application material organized and ready to go. Resume, cover letter, and reference letters. But don’t send them anywhere yet.
  • Apply for EI. This is exactly what it’s for.
  • Consider writing the bar in another jurisdiction, but only if you’re driving yourself crazy trying to sit still. I didn’t do this because I didn’t plan to work outside of my province of call (Ontario) and I was sick of school. But if you’re open to the possibility of moving, love studying, need to keep busy, and can’t think of any other way you’d rather spend your time, it might not be the worst idea. 

Question 2: Should I apply to downtown firms now (i.e. this summer)?

No. I just finished telling you to take the summer off! Besides, the downtown firms have just done all their hiring. Your resume will get put in a file, likely never to be revisited. Don’t apply before the fall unless you see a job posting (which you won’t, because THEY’VE JUST DONE ALL THEIR HIRING). If, for some reason, they’re in need of a 1st year associate in a practice group for which they didn’t have any interested candidates, then all of the HR people will know that. Yes, this does actually happen. In my articling year, my firm needed a Charities and Not-For-Profit lawyer, but none of the articling students had chosen that practice group. It was a classic case of poor communication – the students had no idea the group was hiring, and the group didn’t realize it needed an associate until much later in the articling season, so the lawyers hadn’t worked with many students. This happens more often than you might think. All that to say, the HR directors from all the big firms are in regular contact with each other – they know what each firm is looking for, so make sure you tell your HR director what practice area you’re interested in, because they might recommend you to another firm (if there is a need). Also, keep in touch with your HR person the same way you keep in touch with your mentors from the firm. They are an excellent resource.

What’s the fastest way to piss off your HR person? Talk shit about your firm. Sure, you might still feel a bit sore from the rejection and all, but suck it up. You need these people to help you now, so be nice and say nice things. And if you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all. 

Question 3: How long did it take before you found your job after not being hired back?

I started working November 1st, but that was under normal circumstances. It might take your cohort a bit longer to start working.

I got two interviews at smaller firms. The first place didn’t hire me. I think they were scared I would return to Bay Street (which I did) and that I was too energetic and talkative (which I was). In short, it wasn’t a good fit (see Question 10 below to see what “fit” really means). 

I interviewed with the firm that ultimately hired me in early October. It was a small shop – the owner was a sole practitioner who had practiced alone for over 20 years (“alone” meaning she was one of only two lawyers for a long time, but she had several staff).

She was the type of person who said exactly what she was thinking. The interview went well. I liked her. She was smart, tough, and blunt. She didn’t call me for two weeks after that meeting. When she finally did call, this is what she said: 

“I haven’t made a decision yet. I don’t doubt that you’re smart and a fast learner, but the problem is that, frankly, you know nothing. You articled for a year, but you don’t know anything. I’m going to have to teach you, and I don’t have the time or patience for that. I could hire a senior law clerk for what it will cost me to hire you. So that’s what I need to think about. Give me some more time and I’ll let you know what I decide.”

Ouch, right? 

I’d like to say that the conversation wasn’t actually as harsh as I remember it, and that I’m only recalling the soul-crushing parts, but having gotten to know this lawyer very well since then, I’m 100% confident that I’m remembering her words accurately. 

Remember, she ended up hiring me. I don’t know why she decided to pick me over a senior law clerk, but I was sure happy she did. 

Question 4: Should I be worried about the gap in my resume?

No. See Question 5 below for what you should be worrying about.

Question 5: I want to practice corporate law, but have been offered a summer job in family law. Should I take it?

In Question 4 above, I said not to worry about the gap in your resume. What you SHOULD be worrying about is getting work experience that is incompatible with the area of law you want to practice. Having incompatible work experience on your resume is a bigger problem than a gap.

Picture your future self. Future You will be sitting in an interview for a corporate law job, having spent four months working as a family law lawyer. Oh wait, Future You didn’t get the interview because the hiring manager was confused by your scattered-looking resume. She didn’t believe it when you said (in your cover letter) that you’re passionate about corporate law and are determined to become a corporate lawyer, because your resume reads Family Lawyer, 2020 – present. Think of it this way, would you order food from a pizza joint that also sells gyros? Probably not. Rightly or wrongly, you’ll assume they don’t know what they’re doing. 

Does this mean you shouldn’t take the family law job? Not necessarily. It depends on your particular circumstances. Do you need the money? Do you think you might want to be a family law lawyer? Do you just need to be working and don’t particularly care what you’re doing?  

My advice is this: if you decide to take the family law job, and you plan to subsequently apply for corporate law jobs, do NOT put the family law job on your resume. Most people are shocked when I suggest this, as if it’s mandatory to put all of your work experience on your resume. It will do more harm than good. You should only put relevant work experience on your resume. A gap in your resume is less damaging than work experience that is inconsistent with your career objectives. You can explain the gap much more easily. Inconsistent work experience, however, might make it so that you don’t even get an opportunity to explain anything.

Question 6: How do I explain not being hired back? 

Speaking of explaining things…This is a question students don’t ask me, but should. Maybe they hope no one will ask. Maybe they’re ashamed. 

I’m not going to sugar coat this: people will think you’re damaged goods, that is, until you tell them differently. That’s why YOU need to shake off the shame you feel ASAP, because you’re your best advocate. Your stock price is artificially low right now, so you have to sell it like it’s going to skyrocket (which it will).

Every person you network with, whether it’s a potential employer, an informational interview, or a casual virtual coffee, is wondering why you weren’t hired back. They may not ask you about it directly, but they’re wondering. A potential employer will definitely ask, so you’d better have a solid answer locked and loaded. Don’t let yourself be caught off guard by this in an interview. I would even go one step further and suggest that you volunteer this information, even if you aren’t asked about it, because they will be wondering. You need to build a beautiful narrative around your hireback story. Lucky for you, you have a big fat pandemic to blame it on. I was not so lucky, but that’s a story for another time.

For example, you could say “My firm reduced the number of people it hired because of the pandemic. Only 50% of the articling group was hired back this year, whereas the hireback rate was almost 100% last year. I put my name in for Corporate Law, but they didn’t hire anyone at all. They’ve even had to furlough several of their associates.”  

BAM! If I’m interviewing you, you’ve just erased any preconceived notions I may have had that you’re a lemon. Instead, I’m thinking: Holy shit, I have the opportunity to hire a top-tier candidate who was trained at one of the country’s best law firms. You control the narrative. Give them a story they can sell internally, because that hiring manager is going to be asked, “If his firm didn’t hire him back, why would we want him?”. If you sold it well, that hiring manager will be able to reassure the naysayer the same way you reassured her. 

Question 7: Should I apply to smaller firms?

Yes, but be selective. See Question 8 below.

Question 8: I articled at a large, national, full service firm. How should I focus my job search if I want to end up back at a firm like that?

You should be thoughtful about the type of work experience you get. If you’re applying to smaller firms (which I think you should), apply only to firms that do sophisticated work similar to Bay Street firms (or other similar full service firms). If you don’t know how to figure this out (I certainly didn’t), you should ask the lawyers / mentors from your articles which smaller firms (if any) do more sophisticated transactions / files and would give you good training so that you can return to a large, full-service firm.

Question 9: If I get a job in-house, does that mean I won’t be able to return to private practice in a full-service firm?

No, it doesn’t, even though everyone will tell you that you can’t go back to a full-service firm after working in-house. It’s just not true. You can do whatever you want. It will be difficult, sure, but it’s not impossible. I know lawyers who’ve done just that, despite being told they couldn’t, and now they’re partners at their respective firms. And they weren’t hired back after articling either, so there!

Question 10: What does “fit” mean?

You caught me. Students don’t ask this question either, but the answer can be comforting. 

Fit comes up in the context of an interview when firms make hiring decisions. It’s a concept that often gives people trouble, so I’m going to explain it to you, once and for all. 

“Fit” means that I might think you’re a quiet weirdo, but someone else might think you’re a diligent and hard-working little associate who can understand the tax code better than anyone. You might think I’m loud, annoying, and talk too much, but someone else might think I’m a rising star who can work a room full of potential clients like no one else. 

That’s what fit means. 

It means you may not be my cup of tea, but you might be someone else’s. Each department within a large law firm has its own distinct personality. Many people think each firm has its own personally, but it’s more granular than that. At my former firm, the real estate folks were loud and chatty (so I fit in perfectly with them), but the tax folks were quiet and weird (in my subjective opinion). They were brilliant (you’d have to be in order to practice tax law), but kinda weird. All that to say: don’t worry if you’re a quiet weirdo or loud and annoying, you’ll fit in somewhere.

***

That’s the end of this one. I hope you found it helpful. If you did, please share it with a friend and subscribe to my blog so you don’t miss future posts.

As always, I love hearing from you! Please feel free to provide feedback in the comments below or by e-mail. Which question was the most useful? What do you want more or less of? Other suggestions? Let me know! 

And lastly, please follow me on Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

Much love to you and yours,

Nelly

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