September 2014 – January 2015
When I look back on my three years of law school, it’s striking how different they all were. 1L was an absolute, endless blast of fun, wonder and ignorance. 2L was, by and large, terrible. Although the stress of trying and failing to secure a job was a downer, there were a lot of things going on for me at that time. I also had a weird sense of foreboding at the beginning of second year – almost as if a large piano was hanging over my head, ready to drop at any moment. The piano did drop and that, in itself, was actually a fairly relieving thought as I entered my third and final year of the JD program at the University of Victoria.
The summer, though it had not been any more fruitful in an employment sense, was relaxing and therapeutic. I felt unencumbered and much calmer than I had a year previously. Admittedly, it took me quite a while to get back into the social swing of things at school. There were a lot of events and functions that I quietly avoided. It got to a point where friends of mine would remark at what a hermit I had become. Truth be told, I found it difficult to care. My mind and body were mending and I felt more content than I had for a long time. My absence at these pseudo-obligatory (or so I was led to believe) law school events was not borne from pain – instead, it sprang from a sincere desire to continue feeling good and to avoid situations that might remind me of the crappier times.
Mixed in with this self-imposed isolation was a commitment to self-improvement. I took to going to the gym frequently and completing prescribed physiotherapy on a regular basis. I felt healthy, strong and in possession of a clearer vision of myself and the world around me. It felt wonderful. Still, I felt bad for the friends and colleagues who believed that I was purposely avoiding them. It’s difficult, sometimes, to balance your own sense of well-being with the expectations and desires of others. To this day, I sometimes wonder if I did the right thing or if my sense of balance was totally unrealistic. Mostly, though, I was just happy to be improving.
Entering third year without an articling gig lined up was not comforting. As always, the careers office at my school did everything it could to advertise postings to its students. I applied to some of these, bur I also started Googling insurance defence and personal injury firms in Toronto and Vancouver. After ensuring that I had not already applied to them, I would add their names to a growing list of firms. Once the lists (separated by city) were compiled, I would go through each name/firm in detail. As long as the firm website did not mention having already hired articling students for the 2015-2016 year, I would send off an application package by e-mail. I will be honest with you – there were virtually no hopeful replies. 70% or so of the firms did not respond at all. The other 30% either said that they were not capable of taking on students or had already hired them (despite my aforementioned research).
The work involved in cold e-mailing was not extensive, so I do not feel as though my efforts were wasteful or misguided. The sad fact remained that the days of organized recruits and plentiful job opportunities for the 2015-2016 articling term were over. Instead, people like me had to go hunting wherever we could for jobs. Another, looming question remained: if this streak of bad luck went on long enough, would I need to consider applying for the 2016-2017 articling term? I tried to keep this most distressing of prospects from my mind during the first semester of third year. By early October, I had managed to secure a callback from a criminal defence firm in Vancouver. The firm wanted me to come for an in-person interview at their office in downtown Vancouver.
It was an exciting little trip. The interview was scheduled for mid-afternoon on a Thursday. Wanting to avoid hectic experiences like August, I booked a room at a Best Western in Vancouver for Wednesday night. I reasoned that it would be nicer and more relaxed to walk a few blocks to the interview (in exchange for paying for a hotel) than it would be to do an entire, exhausting day trip to Vancouver and back. Late on Wednesday afternoon, I packed my suit bag and left for the ferry terminal after my last class. Reaching Swartz Bay in good time, I purchased a ticket and sat down to await my vessel in the lounge area. Only a few minutes went by before I heard someone call my name. Turning my head, I noticed a fellow third year law student from my class sitting just a few seats down. It did not take long for us to realize that we were headed to Vancouver for the same purpose and to vie for the same job.
In many other settings, such an encounter would have been unpleasant and tense. Say what you will about the culture at UVic, it is a wonderfully warm and non-competitive place. It was great to have a kindred spirit to share the long, transit-filled journey to Vancouver with. The job itself never really came up in our conversation. What’s more, she was nice enough to invite me to a late-night dinner with some friends of hers in the city. The entire experience was fun, low-stress and put me in a great frame of mind for the next day’s interview. While I cannot say that all of my time at UVic was enjoyable, it was the little events like this that really make me look back on it all with an overall fondness. Bidding farewell to my colleague and new friends, I walked to my hotel, settled in and even got to bed at a half-decent hour.
The next morning went smoothly. I checked out of my hotel at a reasonable hour, stowed my luggage with the concierge and made it to the office building of my prospective employer with twenty minutes to spare. The interview itself was in front of two gentlemen – the principal of the firm and his junior partner. The conversation was good and I felt as though I made a good impression. As mentioned, the firm practised criminal defence exclusively. This being an interest of mine, I made sure to ask questions about the practice area in general, as well as the boilerplate interview questions that we are told to ask at every juncture. The meeting was not particularly lengthy and lasted no more than a half hour. Bidding me farewell, my interviewers stated that they enjoyed meeting me and would be in touch shortly. I headed back to Vancouver Island in time for burgers with friends in the evening.
Neither myself or my colleague heard anything from the firm for over a month. What we did end up hearing came in the form of a voicemail left by the firm’s receptionist. Thanking us for our time and ensuring us that we were great candidates, the message went on to note that the firm had decided to hire back its summer student and that it wished us the best of luck. This was more than a little annoying for a number of reasons. Of course, rejection on its own is not particularly enjoyable. On top of that, however, many of us had spent money and time to come to an interview that was never really advertising anything. It would only have made sense for the firm to hold interviews if it actually expected its summer student to compete with outside candidates. In my experience, this is almost never the case. In short, this was a minor, albeit particularly sharp example of the type of maddening processes that go into the articling hire process.
As I have elucidated earlier, the dejectedness that comes with job rejection tended to shorten in duration as the articling hire process went on. This particular rejection was more annoying than it ever was depressing or heartbreaking. On some level, it was satisfying to feel that I could rise above the job rejections that had so sorely affected me previously. On the other hand, I was not any closer to securing employment. I went back to my lists and dutifully continued sending cold e-mails. In addition, I took to searching “articling student jobs” on Google and looking for these types of positions on LinkedIn, Indeed.com and other search engines. Interestingly, I would even take the odd look at Craigslist.
That’s right, even Craigslist. In fact, Craigslist factors significantly into this installment. The very next interview that I landed came from an advertisement that I replied to on Craigslist. This occurred during the very beginning of January, when I was still home in Ontario for Christmas break. Trolling the “Toronto-Legal” jobs section of Craiglist, I came across a posting that sought an articling student for a personal injury firm in Mississauga. These three qualifiers were precisely up my alley, so I promptly e-mailed an application package to the address specified. The very next day, I had a voicemail message from the firm asking me to call back and schedule an interview. Speaking for a few minutes, the man on the other end gave me a quick telephone interview before asking me to come to his office for an in-person meeting the next day. He mentioned in passing that there would be a small “written evaluation” to be done the next day that had to do with administrative law. As soon as we had hung up, I dug out my old administrative law outline (which I was surprised hadn’t been incinerated) and tried to recall the difference between “correctness” and “reasonableness”.
As excited as I was at this opportunity, I was in a bit of a pickle. My “interview” suit was hanging in a closet in Victoria and I was a little out of things to wear for the occasion. My darling mother took me out that evening to purchase an off-the-rack suit and to get a haircut. Mothers, they’re the reason this articling process is doable. At any rate, I made my way to the north Mississauga office of the firm by early the next morning. The interview itself was short and fairly formal. The lawyer asked me a little about my background but mostly explained the position and what would constitute the “written evaluation” he had previously mentioned. Instead of taking place that morning, my prospective employer told me that he would be e-mailing me my “assignment” in the next few weeks and would expect me to complete it and send it back to him shortly thereafter. I was slightly nonplussed and confused, but assured him that I was looking forward to hearing from him and completing the assignment.
Previously, I had only ever heard of written assignments being used as evaluation tools for Crown departments that were hiring articling students. Even then, the assignments were in-person, timed tests that lasted no more than an hour or so. Still, I reasoned that there would be nothing lost by waiting for the Mississauga lawyer’s e-mail and seeing what the assignment asked of me. I headed back to school and forgot about the entire experience for a while, being busy with the new semester and a five course schedule. By the end of January, I received an e-mail from my prospective employer with instructions as follows:
"Write a research paper (maximum 5000 words excluding any bibliography or appendices). The research paper should be for administrative law from a critical perspective. There is flexibility in terms of the research paper topic although a typical research paper might briefly lay out the general subject ( for instance : threshold of the duty of procedural fairness, money remedies), identify a more specific topic relating to the general one (for instance: a provision in an Act or other regulatory scheme, a recent court decision), and evaluate that topic from a critical perspective (for instance: novelty of the statutory framework, impracticality of a decision, etc.) Please send me the research memorandum outlining the topic you will be working on and your goal for the research paper by coming Friday."
I was, in effect, being asked to write a term paper on Administrative Law. In addition, I was expected to prepare a research memorandum that described the topic of the paper, as well as my my “goal” for it. I would have thought the goal was fairly simple: get a fucking job. Of course, I could not be so abrupt and still maintain a modicum of professionalism. As well, beggars could not be choosers. Being in the middle of third year with no articling job meant that I could not be choosy about opportunities. Still, this seemed well beyond the pale of anything I had ever heard of. I consulted with just about every fellow law student who listened and they agreed that this sounded ridiculous. One of them had the excellent idea of making an appointment with the careers officer at my school to get a professional, second opinion. I did just that and scheduled an appointment for two days after I had received the above e-mail.
Sitting down with the careers officer, I mentally prepared myself to be told that this was what I had to expect when looking for jobs, that I should just suck it up and that I was lucky to get any replies at all. Instead, the officer gaped as I told the story and assured me wholeheartedly that she had never heard of such a thing being asked of prospective employees. She told me that I would be fully justified to turn down the assignment and that it was not at all a reasonable thing to ask of an articling hopeful. As a middle ground alternative, she also suggested that I offer to provide writing samples from other courses for the employer’s consideration. I could not help but feel that familiar, nagging sense of paranoia about missing out on an opportunity. Confiding as much to the careers representative, she confidently replied that I was worth more than this and ought to say as much.
After meeting with the careers office, I carefully drafted an e-mail to the Mississauga firm. In it, I respectfully declined the assignment (due to, in part, my heavy course load and final semester of school) while still maintaining my interest in the position and offering to attach writing samples. I must have written and re-written the short e-mail at least ten times. When I was finally satisfied, I sent it off and waited. It was not long at all before the gentleman from the firm replied and assured me that he understood my position. He also encouraged me to send writing samples in lieu of the assignment. In response, I thanked him for understanding and attached several different writing samples for his consideration.
After that, I heard nothing. A few days later, I went back on Craigslist and noticed that the exact same advertisement had been reposted.
C’est la vie.