Articles of Frustration: Part One


It has been almost five months since I started articling.  So far, the process has been a whirlwind of stress, exhilaration, uncertainty and discovery.  Whenever I begin to worry that I am in over my head or that my workload is piling without much meaningful progress, I am reminded that this is indicative of a typical, normal (if not healthy) experience for a student-at-law.  If all goes well, I should be done my articling term in August and called to the bar in September.  It is fairly surreal – I still feel like an uninitiated rookie and not at all close to fitting the moniker of a “professional”.

Having said that, I would be lying if I said that the path to securing an articling position was even remotely  easy or simple for me.  I worked hard, failed many times and dealt with quite a lot of self-doubt in the nearly two years that I sought articles.  Recently, I have seen one or two people write about their experiences in applying, interviewing for and, ultimately, obtaining such a position.  In telling my story verbally to a few people, I got the impression that it was vaguely entertaining.  As such, and in continuing with the proud tradition of this publication, I thought that I might inflict this tale upon all of you.  The entire story is long and fairly convoluted, so I think it would be better to put it together in parts.


(For my friends versed in the odd world of legal employment, please skip the next few paragraphs.)  Typically, it is recommended that a law student start applying for articling positions during their second year of law school.  The articling gig itself does not commence until after you have finished law school and received your degree.  Depending upon the province you wish to be called in (i.e. called to the bar in), you may be able to write the bar exam prior to the start of your articling term, during your articling term or after your articling term.  Some provinces, meanwhile, preclude an applicant from enrolling in the licensing process/bar exam process until they have secured an articling position.

In many ways, the true articling application process has, for an increasingly large amount of students, begun early in their law school careers.  More and more firms are hiring law students for “first year summer” positions (student legal positions with a law firm for the summer between the first and second years of law school).  The firms most equipped to hire students at such an early stage tend to be larger firms (and the government, to a lesser extent).  For students talented enough to get hired as first year “summers” (positions which barely existed as of five years ago), the path to being hired as a summer student for the following summer tends to be easier (i.e. 2nd year summers).  That is because, should a firm like you and value your work, they are more likely to retain you and avoid going through the drudgery or expense of recruiting brand new people.  In this way, I think it is fair to say that 1st year summer students often tend to be pre-selected for 2nd year summer student positions at the same firm (provided the student enjoys the firm and wants to continue to work there).  Even if the above is not the case, a hiring committee for 2nd year summer positions or articling positions is likely to look very favourably on applicants with such early legal experience.

The “pre-selection” system is even more cemented (from what I have seen) when it comes to a firm preferring to “hire back” their second year summer students as their articling students.  Indeed, I had heard of many larger firms in the Vancouver and Toronto markets “guaranteeing” articles to those it had offered 2nd year summer positions to.  One consequence of all of this is that there tend to be fewer “open” articling positions being offered to outside applicants who have not worked with the firm previously.  This has been scrutinized as exacerbating the current scarcity of articling positions vs. amount of graduating law students, but I do not plan on taking a stand on either side in this article.  Instead, my intention here is to set a (hopefully accurate) stage for which to describe my experiences.  I should also note that people who are hired as first year summers, hired back as second year summers and then re-hired-back as articling students are among the brightest, most accomplished young people that I have had the privilege of getting to know.  They achieved their positions through hard work, academic excellence and superb interviewing skills – in short, they more than deserve their success.

August- November 2013

I never bothered to apply for a 1st year summer position during my first year of law school.  Some of my classmates encouraged me to.  However, since the applications were due before any of us had any law school marks to report, the conventional wisdom was that these interviews were granted solely on the basis of superior undergraduate marks. I did not have superior undergraduate marks, so I felt that my applications would be a wasted effort.  Whether or not that was a wise move (or lack thereof) is for you, my dear reader, to decide.

My first thrust of applying began at the end of August 2013.  At that time, I was applying widely for 2nd year summer positions in Vancouver and Toronto.  I knew that I wanted to work in Toronto more than anything, but I felt as though I would be wasting opportunities if I did not apply in Vancouver, as well.  The reasons are geographical and statisical: you are more likely to find jobs closer to where you went to school (though, regional bias definitely plays a role, upon which I will elucidate further in this saga).  Being that UVic was on the west coast, many of its successful grads found employment in the west.  Finding gainful employment period was more important to me than ideas of preferred residence, so I applied in the west.

I applied for government positions, big firm positions and medium-sized firm positions.  In short, I applied almost everywhere in Vancouver and Toronto that I knew was hiring and that practised a type of law even tangentially related to my interests (criminal law, personal injury and insurance defence).  Also, I was applying everywhere that was big enough or rich enough to hire summer students (which, incidentally, turns out to be firms of a medium size and larger – very few smaller or boutique firms can afford to take on summer students).  The bigger firms, some of the medium firms and a few government gigs conduct what are called “On Campus Interviews” (OCI), separated by city.  OCI’s are a rare opportunity in that prospective employers come to you.  You send an application and, if they are interested, the firm/government department communicates with your school’s careers officer and the careers officer contacts you to let you know how many firms are interested (if any) and when/where you will meet them.  Usually, all of the participating firms/government departments in one city will do their OCI’s on the same day for your school.  Because of the geographical reasons canvassed above, firms in Vancouver will participate in UVic OCI’s much more heavily than Toronto firms will.

In all, I would say that I sent out about 60 applications between Toronto and Vancouver.  In terms of proportion, I would venture a guess that 2/3 of my applications were for positions in Toronto and 1/3 were for positions in Vancouver.  The applications typically consisted of your law school and undergraduate grades, a cover letter, a resume, (sometimes) a writing sample, (sometimes) reference letters and (sometimes) a list of the upper year courses you planned on taking.  Following the deadline submission for applications, the atmosphere among the second year law class is tense and not particularly pleasant.  Some receive great news, some receive no news and some receive bad news.  Additionally, it’s difficult to really share in the good news with your friends and colleagues , since you do not know how they are faring and it is fairly unconscionable to rub someone’s face in your success.

Eventually, the careers officer e-mails everyone to let them know which firms from which cities will be interviewing them.  The three cities participating during my 2nd year at UVic were Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver.  For Toronto, I had secured a grand total of zero OCI’s.  For Vancouver, I had secured three.  Under the circumstances, I wasn’t particularly depressed – OCI’s are competitive and not very many Toronto firms had come out to participate.  Furthermore, a great many of the firms that I had applied to in Toronto were not participating in UVic OCI’s.  Despite all this, I cannot deny that it was difficult and occasionally depressing to feel like just about everyone had secured more interviews than I had.  UVic is an exceptionally warm and collegial place, but the scent of competition and the dejectedness of feeling (rightly or wrongly) that you are lagging behind can be very real.

In any event, there was not much time for moping.  The OCI’s for Vancouver firms were fast approaching by the end of September.  On October’s first blustery Friday , my colleagues and I donned our very best suits and pencil skirts and congregated en masse outside a ballroom of the Grand Pacific Hotel to fight for a coveted summer position.  The OCI process itself is bizarre.  The ballroom is a series of covered stalls, walled by drapes/cloth and adorned with hand-written signs displaying the name of the firm soliciting interviews.  Each interview was approximately 15 minutes long.  In 15 minutes, you have to make a positive impression, stand out from the other 20 or so highly qualified applicants and somehow be truly memorable.  The goal is to be selected for a further, in-firm at the firm itself in November.

Following each 15 minute “shift”, the careers officer would sound a bell (or something) and you would move on to your next appointment.  My three interviews were back-to-back-to-back and took place during the last three slots of the day.  As if realizing that some of my colleagues had 20+ interviews lined up that day wasn’t nervewracking enough, the age-old wisdom about interview scheduling was that, the earlier you were scheduled, the more the firm was interested in you.  As someone who didn’t even need to show up for OCI’s until 3:45 PM that day, my hopes and dreams were fairly…calibrated.    However, the interviews themselves went fairly well.  During my very last one (and the very last interview slot of the day), the male half of an interviewing duo remarked that the entire process was a lot like speed dating.  I replied that it was exactly like speed-dating, except that I might actually get a call back, this time around.  This elicited a hearty laugh and I allowed myself to dream, for one fleeting moment, that I had a real fighting chance.

After the speed-dating/interviewing portion of the day concluded, everyone (applicants and interviewers alike) gathered in an enjoining room for cocktails and socializing.  As I’ll elaborate on in further installments, this is the part of the entire process that I find most odious.  At the risk of sounding hopelessly naive, I think that socializing should be for socializing – a chance to open up to the people you want to open up to because you like them/find them fascinating/genuinely want to find out more about them.  This is what law firm cocktail parties are superficially sold as.  What they actually entail is a second interview, arguably more important than the first.  The firms want to see if you are a good fit for their “culture” and one of the only, vaguely effective ways of doing so is seeing how you act in a social setting.  The problem that I have with this is that it is insanely phony.  I don’t actually care about the senior partner’s interest in skiing (which I only know about from perusing his firm profile the night before online), but by God, do I ever have to pretend that I am interested in skiing as well.  Likewise, there is no way that an associate present at one of these cocktail nights actually wants to hear about my wacky Law Games stories.  It’s all bullshit – a phony, fawning asskissathon that made me crave a shower and a drink (which is funny, if you know anything about me).

Nonetheless, you must play this game if you choose to participate in the mainstream recruiting contest.  So, play I did, as best I could.  I smiled, I laughed, I asked questions and uttered many a “Wow, really?  No kidding!  That’s fascinating!”.  I say this out of a sincere desire to unburden myself of the guilt of bullshit socializing – a capital offence of lacking personality, as far as I am concerned.  Still, the night went well enough and I left with friends to get dinner afterwards, where we all shared funny stories of the day, while also gently attempting to extract information about how well everyone thought they availed themselves.

Luckily, the next few weeks were spent relatively job hunt-free, as all any of us could do is wait.  You see, the next step in this debacle is a particularly arcane tradition known as “call day”.  There are really two call days – interview call day and offer call day.  Interview call day is a day when each city participating in offering interviews calls the people they are interested in offering an “in-firm” or “on-location” interview to.  For firms that participated in OCI’s, this is the next step in the process of weeding out candidates.  People who did well at OCI’s will get an invite to interview at the firm itself.  Not all firms participate in OCI’s, however, so sometimes your first interview will occur at the in-firm stage without ever having done an OCI.  Each city specifies an exact day and even an exact hour – 8 AM in the morning (as if the sadism of this process was not already on the macabre end).

The Toronto interview call day was much later on than the Vancouver interview call day.  Interestingly, the “offer” call day for Vancouver was the same day as the “interview” call day for Toronto – this made for some rather interesting strategic decisions for those with interviews underway or planned in either city.  Nevertheless, Vancouver call day arrived and I set my alarm and waited by the phone.  I had the name of the three firms I had interviewed with on the tip of my tongue, and I sat ready with a pad and paper, ready to jot down dates and times and be wary for potential scheduling conflicts in case I had multiple interviews to juggle.  Oh, the arrogance of youth.

The phone DID ring – my heart leapt.  I HAD impressed one of them, I HAD made a good impression.  I pressed the phone to my ear and said “Good morning”.  The person on the other end responded in turn and said she was calling from a firm that I (initially) thought I had never heard of.  As fate would have it, the only call I received for an in-firm interview in Vancouver was with a firm that hadn’t even interviewed me at OCI’s.  I thought this odd and asked the woman to repeat  where she was calling from more than once (I probably shot my chances right then and there, in retrospect).   I later deduced that this was a relatively rare case of a firm I had applied for in Vancouver participating in OCI’s at the University of British Columbia, but not at UVic.  Elated as I was at attaining an in-firm interview, I had essentially made no progress from an OCI standpoint.  I was basically interviewing for the first time with this firm and had not sufficiently impressed the firms that I had interviewed with at OCI’s.  Moreover, I was competing with applicants who HAD been interviewed and selected from OCI’s done at the University of British Columbia.

Before I could ruminate too glumly on this, another glimmer of hope presented itself.  In the midst of several rejection letters from firms in Vancouver and Toronto, an e-mail expressing interest in interviewing me appeared from an insurance defence firm in Toronto.  Moreover, the e-mail stated that they wanted to interview me in person!  I was elated to have made some progress on the Toronto front and even more elated to be able to go home.  The only snag was the scheduling nonsense that I have previously alluded to.  In a sincere effort to cut down on freedom and make applicants’ lives even more disordered, the Vancouver interviewing process requires one to interview (more than once) and decide on accepting a position (if offered) long before you even hear about any interview offers from the Toronto firms.   Put more simply, the day you hear about and must respond to job offers from Vancouver firms is the same day you (typically) first hear about interview offers in Toronto.  I was relatively lucky in that my e-mail from the Toronto firm was earlier in time than the formal process typically dictates.  I wondered sincerely what I would do if I received an offer in Vancouver before hearing from Toronto.

Nowadays, I just wonder at how I could have been so presumptuous.

More to come!


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