By Adegoke Arowosebe
Every year, a multitude of law grads and lawyers seeking law jobs in Canada besieged the large law firms (the “Big Laws”) with their applications. Of course, this is expected. The Big Laws epitomize the ideal standard by which the society defines lawyers - class, prestige, glamor, wealth, and brilliance. Not only that, lawyers who work their way to the top of the ladder at these firms could transform that feat to a sort of genetic lottery which they could hand down to their heirs like fee simple. All these “goodies” make the recruitment process at Big Laws extremely competitive. And for foreign-trained lawyers (FTL), it is more competitive.
It is not that FTLs don’t have what it takes to be a fit or a purple squirrel that the Big Laws in Canada are looking for. They do. In fact, many FTLs have actually worked in large law firms that are comparable in sizes to the Big Laws in Canada in their home country.
Why are FTLs finding it difficult to get into the Big Laws? Many factors put FTLs at a disadvantage in getting into the Big Laws compared to their Canadian trained peers. Some of these factors are overt, practical, and are within the control of the FTLs. Surprisingly, the majority of the factors are things that are commonplace but they are often overlooked because they are seen as unimportant.
If you are an FTL, these are the lowdown of what may work against your getting into the Big Laws: lack of recruitment information, acceptable references, writing samples, and academic transcripts. These four factors constitute the key reasons why it is difficult for FTL to get into the Big Laws.
The others factors are covert and unfortunately are not within your control. So, there is no point talking about them. Rather, let’s focus on how to overcome those factors that are within your control.
Step #1: Get recruitment information
Lack of information about the legal job market is the greatest bane of FTLs in getting law positions in the Big Laws. There is a bunch of recruitment information that you will need to familiarize yourself with if you want to get into a Big Law. From applications deadlines, specific requirements, recruitment tips, to interview types and all that. Although the Big Laws recruit round the year, they have specific recruitment season when they do massive recruitment for articling positions. And the timeline varies from one province/territory to the other. Ditto there is a specific time to apply as well. Once you miss the deadline for one application season, there is little possibility of submitting an application through the normal channel. In fact, you will need to know an insider who can make a special case for you and this will only be possible if there is a vacancy, which rarely occurs.
It is not that the recruitment information of the Big Laws is not publicly available. Actually, they are there on their websites. But it is going to be a herculean task visiting all the websites of top firms one by one. That is why it is helpful to have all the recruitment information about the firms in one piece. Have the requisite information handy gives you an edge in getting into the Big Laws. Information is power!
The career services office of any law schools is the best place to get the pack of recruitment information. But don’t forget that their obligation is to their students; so don’t be disappointed if your attempt to get hiring information from them didn’t turn out successful. But if you approach the staff in a polite manner, they may help you.
If you are unlucky in getting the information from the career services office, you could turn to students. If you have friends who are doing a program in any of the law schools (be it JD, LL.M or Ph.D.), they could give be a good source of recruitment tips that you will find useful. And if you don’t have a friend in any of the law schools, don’t lose hope. You should turn to LinkedIn and search for students in nearby law schools. Recent grads too will still have useful information. So don’t leave them out of your search.
Step #2: Get Acceptable Referees
You need to be able to furnish a list of referees that will be acceptable. By acceptable referees, I mean people whose opinion will wow the hiring committee. As advised by Kamaal Zaidi, a lawyer and a legal instructor in his book, Jobs in the Canadian Legal Marketplace: A Resource for Students and Professionals, the best references for application for law jobs in Canada are those from past employers, instructors, and community members. Applicants should “avoid using friends and family as references, as there is personal bias,” says Zaidi. Usually, somebody who can speak about your competence, work ethics, character and who can be easily reached will be a great choice for a referee. Preferably, the referees should be people who have known you for a reasonable period of time, as this will add strong weight to their judgment about you. The big challenge for FTLs is having somebody in Canada who meets these criteria.
The more intimate the referee is to the firm, the better. You can imagine if your referee is well known by the person doing the reference check. If you really want to work with a Big Law, it is advisable to work towards building a network of potential referees who can make a strong case for you and of course somebody whose opinion will be respected in the legal profession. Generally, lawyers trust fellow lawyers’ opinion because it will be a professional misconduct for a lawyer to misrepresent facts to anybody or even worse to another colleague. So having at least a reference from a practicing lawyer in Canada should be a target.
So how do you build relationships with a potential referee? I will discuss four sources of potential referees.
A. Volunteer – Volunteering with organizations (mainly legal clinics) that provide legal services is one of the fastest ways for you to get quality Canadian legal experience, and of course solid references. There should be one in your area; identify one or two of these organizations in your locality and request for volunteering opportunities. And assuming there is none in your area, that shouldn’t be a cause for alarm. You should still reach out to any of them and request to help them with tasks that can be performed off site. For instance, legal research, or updating the legal information or frequently asked questions on their websites could be performed without being co-located with the employer.
I understand that the time may not be there to spare, but try. Even if it is just two hours a month that you can commit to, please do it.
Volunteering provides you tremendous opportunities to mix and interact with the organizations’ staff lawyers and other volunteering lawyers. As long as you do your assignments in a timely, skillful, workmanlike manner, and with utmost diligence, they will reward you with good references.
B. Summer Internship – As mentioned in the article, Getting your First Job After Law School, most people end up articling in the firms they “summered”. Hence I will suggest that FTLs get on the bang wagon of summer job hunting. Absolutely, it will be wise to seek out summer internship or any kind of internship at the larger law firms (even if you are an older lawyer) and even if it is unpaid. It will certainly help - if well planned with your arrival to Canada/NCA writing etc. This is something FTLs can start work on immediately they decide to come to Canada. It will help with the building of an organically grown network and give you a direct way to begin impressing the firms.
As you get your ducks in a row, get on the radar of the directors of recruitment at these firms - it does have to be a well thought through meeting so they don’t get the wrong impression (i.e. you are to bias their recruitment opinion). When you have succeeded in developing a rapport with the directors, you can ask for an information interview. But of course be prepared to talk about yourself in a way that markets you to their firm and why their specific firm is of interest to you.
C. Mentorship - Mentorship is another way to build a relationship with lawyers who can provide references for you. If you are an FTL and you don’t have a mentor, I will encourage you to have one. It is always good to listen to someone’s success story and guidance. For your mentorship experience to be effective, ensure that it is asymmetrical. You as the mentee must be prepared to commit something to the relationship. If it is one-sided, it may not work as expected. There are organizations that link immigrants to mentors, find out if there is any in your locality.
I would also recommend that FTL very early in the game start seeking out a sponsor in contrast to mentor. According to Sylvia Ann Hewlett, in her award-winning book, Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor: The New Way to Fast-Track Your Career, she opines that while mentors can build your self-esteem they are not your ladder to the top. When I am referring to sponsorship I am thinking of people (either within or outside the firm) who carry some weight at the table and can create opportunities for you. They are your “career-angel” so to say. You can seek these people out through networking, organized mentorship etc. The truth is that FTL will have to be a little creative on this one. Every lawyer in the Big Laws needs such persons throughout the entire junior/mid ranks journey. And of course, the desirable end result, should the tables turn and when you are in a more senior role can become a sponsor too.
D. Direct Networking – I know you must have heard this like one thousand times but because it isn’t just true it is important, it bears repeating. If you are looking for a new job or a lateral move or seeking career advice, networking skill can easily get you there. Information is power and the broader your network of friends and acquaintances, the more the pool of information at your disposal. As illustrated by Max Gunther in his book, How To Get Lucky “Luck flows along linked chains of people until it hits targets…” To corroborate Gunther’s statement, it has been said that 70% of job vacancies are filled by people who heard about them through their contacts.
So it is not a matter of “maybe” you should network it is a “must do” if you really want to be a highflier in the profession called law. Having a wide circle of contacts could not only help you to get a law job, but it is the magic for building and retaining clientele.
Many think network building is a difficult task. It isn’t at all. Once upon a time, I felt the same way too. But networking is easy. It is about meeting new faces and showing genuine interest in them. And naturally, the gesture will flow back to you.
Law events such as CBA meetings, law firm seminars, as well as events by non-profit organizations like Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers (FACL), Global Lawyers of Canada, Canadian Association of Black Lawyers, and the like are great avenues for networking. And if they don’t have a chapter in your locality, find them on social media and reach out to them to see how they could be of help. Interestingly, many of them provide mentorship opportunities as well. So take advantage of all they have to offer.
I have to mention that joining professional groups on LinkedIn and Facebook are also good avenues for networking. Interestingly, I met the people that became the first set of my professional friends in Canada on the NCA Facebook page. We became one another’s support system throughout the thick and thin of our bar licensing and job search journeys. Our professional friendship metamorphosed into a personal friendship. We were and are still close friends. I also know people who met through the same platform and later formed a successful law partnership. And also, I have heard about those who became life partners after they met on this same NCA Facebook page. (For tips on how to use leverage social media for job search and networking, read: How To Use Social Media To Advance Your Legal Career)
Step #3: Get Writing Sample
Writing is an essential part of a lawyer’s job hence special emphasis is placed on applicant’s writing sample. Pretty much, almost all mid- to large-sized firms will require that you submit a recent writing sample. Essentially, it is to assess your ability to articulate a legal issue in a coherent, logical and organized manner and with proper grammar usage. Something in the range of 5 to 10 pages will suffice.
If you don’t have one handy, I will encourage you to start working toward getting it not just for the purpose of law job applications but for publication purpose. Having a published work will boost your application. Don’t be surprised that recruiters “google” you and it will be a real leg up for you in the competition if they see that you have publications in reputable journals or professional blogs.
How do I get started with writing? Start by determining what you want to write on. Then research the topic very well to the extent that you are convinced that you have mastered it. And then set out to write the paper. After that, you will approach the editor of the platform, be it an online or a print journal. If you don’t get a positive response from the editors, don’t be discouraged. LinkedIn and Pulse have provided free platforms for anyone to share their wealth of knowledge. As long as the work is educative, entertaining, informative and inspiring, people will not only read it but will share it. So, the focus should be on developing a write-up that meets these four qualities, and viral it goes. Read the Tips for Writing Effective Articles to learn more about effective writing.
Step #4: Get your Transcript
One of the essential requirements of job application at the Big Laws is to include a copy of your transcript (unofficial). But as with many FTLs, it is difficult to obtain transcript at short notice. In fact, many foreign institutions, do not issue transcript to non-academic institutions or even to students. Whereas, that is not the practice in Canada where a transcript can be issued to employers or even to students. In other words, there is no way a recruitment committee will relate to the fact that you are unable to get your transcript since getting a transcript from a Canadian law school is a standard practice.
But all hope is not lost still. The way out is to request from NCA, a certified copy of the transcripts that you submitted to them. They will provide it to you at no cost.
Bonus Step: If possible, get a Canadian degree
If you haven’t done an LL.M and you can afford the tuition cost, you could consider doing it. There are scholarships opportunities for some graduate programs in most schools. Please check to see if you can get funding through this means. I will discuss how you can obtain scholarships for LL.M and Ph.D. in Law at a Canadian university in another post.
A Canadian degree will help a great deal and it is the shortest cut to tackle all the concerns identified above. If you are going this route, and you have not done your NCA exams yet, you may consider doing it at Canadian law schools like the University of British Columbia and York University, that have an LL.M program with a specialization in Common Law. Essentially, the courses you will take consist of the basic NCA courses.
We have talked about the steps you should take to increase your chances of getting a law job in the Big Laws. We have also alluded to their prestige and remunerative values. But that is not to say life at the Big Laws is an El Dorado. There are downsides to working there too.
If you are looking for work-life balance, the Big Law setting may not be the right place for you. From pressure from clients, demands for billable hours, unfriendly timelines, to pressures from top hierarchies of the firm, all make work-life balance almost impossible. If you are looking for a 9 to 5 type of job, then please you may want to look elsewhere from the Big Laws.
If you follow all these steps and you have a resume that is law job ready, you stand a better chance of securing an interview. Just be determined and it will happen. Many FTLs have made it to the Big Laws, few even made partners, so you can.