Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Ye Royal Kingdom of Bay Street

Last week Jim Milles asked me what the perception within the law firms is regarding students who have just come out of Canadian law schools. Do I see a prevalence of the attitude that "they don't make 'em like they used to"?

I had to chuckle at the question. The attitude towards summer and articling students is somewhat complicated, but it is definitely not one of concern or disdain. If anything, it is quite the opposite.

There is tremendous competition in Canadian firms for the best students. It varies by jurisdiction, but the process of firms and articling students matching up is a formalized one orchestrated by the law societies. See, for example, the detailed procedures established by the Law Society of Upper Canada (Ontario's law society). Almost a year and a half in advance of article placements, second year law students and firms interview one another in a dance rivaling that of mating penguins in its complexity.

To make things even more challenging, the Canadian firms have also been in competition with U.S. firms for the best and the brightest. As recently as five years ago there was a path worn between Toronto and New York City as students were attracted by shiny things: bigger city lights and a little more pocket change.

The large Canadian firms, therefore, felt they had to compete strenuously for these students. Many started hiring them earlier in their careers: many law students are now hired for the summer after second year law school with the idea that they will continue on to article at those same firms after third year law, and then stay as associates once called to the Bar. Some firms even guaranteed students would be hired back as associates after articling. This now means that the large firms are scoping out prospective associates when they are only a few months into law school, before they have even had a proper set of grades. No cold-calling for these kids!

Each law school holds recruiting days in which potential employers try their best to grab the attention of the students. Firms are becoming increasingly creative in achieving this. See one student's list of the swag he accumulated in his blog post, "Career Day's Loot". Later on at the interviews in the firms, students are welcomed with open arms. The crystal is polished and the silverware laid out. As my mother would say, they are "wined and dined" like royalty.

At the same time, students are in great competition with one another to get into the largest "tier one" firms, some of which are known here in Toronto on Bay Street as the "Seven Sisters". They come from law school with stunning resumes of high grades, impressive life experiences such as travel and work opportunities, and long lists of professional activities. At close to twice their age, I am envious. Partners viewing some of the resumes have been known to comment that they would not have made it today with the credentials they had back when they started. And yet, very worthy candidates may not make it into their first choice firms.

Once in the firms, the students do work very hard. But as you might imagine, they are the princes and princesses to whom the crown of the legal profession will one day pass. In this type of atmosphere, if they have any problems with legal research, on whose shoulders does the responsibility rest? Well, on those of the law schools and the librarians who taught them, of course! Because they of course are the best and the brightest and would catch on if taught properly. So if they don't quite get it the first time, then we have not done our jobs and we must take a different tack.

Now, let me back-pedal somewhat. I am dealing a tad too much in generalities and cynicism here, just for your amusement. I have met many law students who were/are brilliant. The groups of students from the last couple of years have been a particular joy to work with: personable, hard working, organized, enthusiastic, and very engaged in their profession. And it hasn't just been the ones I have worked with; my colleagues at other firms have confirmed they are seeing the same thing. So perhaps they have been worth all the extraordinary effort.

It's just that, to me as a non-lawyer, I find the whole process "gob-smacking". And quite frankly, I am jealous that we don't have a similar process for librarians. So, Jim, to answer your question as to what Canadian law firms think of the students coming out of law school: in Ye Royal Kingdom of Bay Street, they are thought of highly.

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