Articles of Frustration – Part 15: Numbness

aint even mad

June 2015

I hit “Refresh” again.  Nothing.  The hustle and bustle of Victoria Airport seemed like white noise in my ears as the minutes slowly passed.  Down the row , my mother read a magazine and my father was dozing in his chair, head slightly tilted.  Gritting my teeth, I resisted the urge to refresh the page mere seconds after I had already done so.  This was silly.  Four fun-filled, sunny days in San Francisco were about to begin and I could think of nothing but an articling job.  What difference did it make if I didn’t find out before our plane took off?  Logical as these thoughts were, my thumb nonetheless found its way once more to the “Refresh” button.  The homepage of my UVic e-mail reappeared,  the subject lines of old messages appearing mundane and familiar.  Sighing inwardly, I stowed my phone as an intercom announced that boarding for our flight had begun.

_________________________________________________________________

There was no getting around it: time was running out.  Most 2015-2016 articling jobs were slated to start within two months, if they had not already.  A number of 2016-2017 jobs had begun appearing online and in correspondence from the Careers office of my school.  I tend to despise dramatics, but I have to admit that I felt a sickening twinge every time that  I noticed a 2016-2017 job being advertised.  Not only was the prospect of missing the articling boat daunting, the presence of these new positions forced me to confront a dilemma that I had hoped to avoid entirely.  Should I admit defeat and begin applying in earnest for 2016-2017 cycle?  What about signing up for the Law Practice Program (offered by Ryerson University) in time for 2015-2016?  Serious contemplation of either of these paths made me want to chew glass.

For those of you seriously considering the LPP or for those who have taken that path, please do not take my words here as any kind of authoritative indictment of the program.  It obviously fills an important niche that has (unfortunately) developed in recent years in Ontario.  It is fair to say, however, that very few would willingly select the LPP over an averagely paying, conventional articling position somewhere in the Greater Toronto Area.  Furthermore, there is a legitimate concern that the LPP creates a “two-tier” system of newly called lawyers.  Whether fairly or unfairly, I think legal employers would unfavourably compare applicants who were “good” enough to obtain a conventional articling with those who were not and who ended up enrolling in the LPP.

As a detailed, nuanced analysis of the LPP is beyond the ambits of this installment, suffice it to say that I did not yet consider myself ready to embrace it as a viable option .  My admittedly self-interested hierarchy was as follows:

  1. Paid 2015-2016 articling position
  2. Paid 2016-2017 articling position
  3. Unpaid 2015-2016 articling position
  4. Unpaid 2016-2017 articling position
  5. Priesthood
  6. LPP

Yes, that list is in descending order of preference.  There is also a clearly stated bias that emphasizes remuneration over timeliness.  As much as I desperately wanted to be called in 2016, there was (and is) something revolting to me about working a demanding job for free.  In this day and age, it’s almost fashionable for employers to offer remuneration solely in the form of “valuable experience” and “one-on-one mentoring”.  I view this trend and its promoters with particular abhorrence.  Furthermore, it was not realistic for me to article for no money, whatsoever.  The LSUC licensing process costs close to $5000 to successfully complete.  Where would this money come from?

Still, positions for the current articling year continued to pop up, here and there.  Throwing selectivity to the wind, I applied to each and every one of these rare jewels.  It did not matter if the firm/organization practiced in an area that I had never even heard of.  I still applied.  The job required a fluent command of Mandarin?  No matter, I applied.  The firm was only accepting applications from people with stellar academic transcripts?  What a coincidence, I once actually got a B+ on a paper in law school!  My days became a highly homogeneous mix of trolling google for “articling job 2015/2016” search results, writing cover letters and  checking beneath the couch cushions for loose change.

One sunny day in early June 2015, I received a call back from a legal aid clinic that I applied to in Waterloo, Ontario.  The clinic sought an articling student to begin in about a month’s time who was interested in social justice and poverty law.  Specifically, the student would assist low-income clients with landlord/tenant disputes and debtor/creditor issues.  Excited to hear back, I hurriedly returned the call and scheduled an interview for a morning early in the following week.  Waterloo itself is about 90 kilometres away from my home.  That might seem like a significant distance to travel for an interview to some, but it was but a stone’s throw for a man who had spent years crisscrossing the country in pursuit of employment.

Old habits die hard.  In the days leading up to the interview, I performed my typical ritual of obsessively investigating the real estate market in the vicinity of my prospective employer.  In a more pragmatic vein, I also came to learn everything there was to learn about the clinic, its mandate and its history.  So eager was I to maximize my chances of success that I even spent time familiarizing myself with landlord/tenant law and with the intricacies involved in the legal relationship between debtors and creditors.  Having never taken a course in law school in either of these subjects, my brief forays into these areas were not particularly instructive.

The day of the interview arrived with extreme heat and an abundance of sun.  The drive to Waterloo was smooth and uneventful.  I was even early.  I parked my car at a shopping mall across the street from the clinic and spent an hour perusing free magazines in the air-conditioned food court.  Leaving myself 15 minutes to walk over, I strolled across the street to the office building where the clinic was located.  After waiting for a few minutes, the executive director of the clinic introduced herself and took me to a small conference room.  The ED was also a lawyer and I soon gathered that I would be working directly beneath her if I was successful.

As interviews go, this one was quite good.  The director asked questions from a script, but often deviated from the exact wording or structure of the script in order to facilitate conversation.  Having worked at a halfway house before law school and for UVic’s Legal Information Clinic and Pro Bono Students Canada, I felt that I was doing a good job in demonstrating that I had a genuine interest in a practice that sought to benefit those from marginalized groups.  Furthermore, there seemed to be good chemistry and conversation between myself and my interviewer.  After about 45 minutes of one-way questioning, she asked if I had any queries.  I cannot recall exactly what I asked, but nothing too groundshaking: some inquiries into what a typical day looked like for an articling student at the clinic, what prospects there might be for hireback and the like.

I’ve mentioned this before, but I have come to believe that it is much more important to ask questions in interviews that you are actually interested in hearing the answers to, as opposed to asking questions that you think make you seem intelligent.  Most legal interviewers are sharp and can see through that jargon almost instantly.  As well, unless you’re Olivier, you will not look nearly as interested in the answers to questions you don’t care about.  Thus, I asked questions which, while not the most imaginative, were genuinely interesting to me.  In retrospect, I think the interviewer could tell that my interest was not feigned.  This helps enormously in establishing a good rapport with just about any person who interviews you.

A few more minutes passed before the director and I rose from our seats.  She graciously gave me a quick tour of the small office and introduced me to some of the other employees.  I pumped the hands of a few people and asked a few more questions.  The experience was, overall, a great one and I had a very positive feeling about both the organization and its constituent parts.  The executive director walked me out, shook my hand and said, “That was an excellent interview.  You did very well and it was a pleasure to meet you.”  I said something reciprocal in response and asked politely when I might expect to hear back.  The director advised that they’d be interviewing people for the next couple of weeks and that she hoped to have someone selected in that period.  She also noted that I was the very first person they were interviewing.

The drive back to Mississauga took a little over an hour.  Whilst trying to avoid being killed by motorists who, I assumed, must have performed sexual favours on certain MTO employees to have received driver’s licenses, I mulled over how the entire meeting had gone.  It can be a bad idea to overthink your interviews, but that does not make one any less likely to obsessively go over every detail.  With that said, I felt quite satisfied.  I had hit it off with the interviewer and had been able to demonstrate genuine, heartfelt interest in the areas of law most heavily practiced by the clinic.  Luckily, I was also the first person that they interviewed.  This may seem irrelevant, but remember the plethora of psychological research that emphasizes primacy and recency.  The most memorable parts of a series tend to be first and the last.  Obviously, you cannot always control the order in which you are interviewed against others, but it can often prove advantageous when standing out is critical.  It was a little depressing that the clinic was hiring only one person, but I supposed that was a silly reason to feel negatively about my chances generally.

The next few days were made up of packing and of finalizing travel plans.  My parents and I were headed to the west coast to attend my convocation ceremony at UVic.  This was a trip that I had been looking forward to for a while.  We were spending three days in Victoria before flying out to San Francisco for another four days.  I made a point of advising the director of the clinic of my absence from Ontario in the upcoming week and ensuring that she had my correct cell phone number.  She assured me this was no problem and that they’d be in touch if they needed me.

We touched down in Victoria on a sunny, mild day.  There wasn’t a cloud in the sky.  One of the great things about Victoria International Airport is how (comparatively) small it is.  Baggage pickup was a dream and it was not long before we had hopped an airport shuttle en route to Enterprise Rent-A-Car.  As I waited outside while my parents haggled with the teenaged employees for a more reasonable rental car rate, my cell phone began vibrating.  The call display flashed a Waterloo number.  A wave of anticipation and excitement jolted through me as I answered.

“Mr. Whibbs, hello.  This is the office manager from the Waterloo Legal Clinic.  The Executive Director would like to arrange for you to attend a second interview.”

“Oh, excellent.  I would love to.  When would she like this to happen?”

“Tomorrow, at 12:30 PM.  Does that work for you?”

The next day was convocation.  Convocation was scheduled to begin at 2 PM sharp, and you were expected to be present and gowned much earlier than this.  Also, how on Earth was I supposed to get back to Ontario by tomorrow?  Just as panic was beginning to seep through my being and my stuttering questions about the possibility of a Skype interview began to formulate, the office manager displayed true clairvoyance.

“And, of course, it would be a telephone interview.  It would be with the director and another, senior lawyer that works here at the clinic.  Is that agreeable?”

I stammered something about how that would work fine and that I looked forward to speaking with them.  A certain amount of relief washed through me, but an undercurrent of panic remained.  How long would this telephone interview last?  Memories of the Toronto articling recruitment week flashed into my psyche like the unwelcome spectres from past battlefields.  I was cutting it really close.  Again.  Still, like before, I rationalized this away with the comforting notion that I had little choice in the matter.  Scheduling as best I could from this point forward was key and that would be how I both attended a job interview and graduated from law school with a minimum of abject humiliation.

The next day was rushed.  I arrived on campus before pretty much anyone to collect my graduation regalia.  Then, I hopped back in the rental car and drove all the way back to the downtown hotel where we were staying.  By the grace of God/Zeus/Thor/Xenu/Tom Cruise, I arrived back at the hotel with my cap and gown at 11:45 AM.  I figured I had 45 minutes to peruse the clinic’s website once again, come up with some new questions to ask (if needed) and to generally chill before I had to appear vaguely impressive in the presence of strangers yet again.

My parents had ventured into downtown Victoria a few hours previously with wishes of good fortune and more than a little laughter at my predicament.  I scrolled through the font of the clinic’s tiny website display on my phone and wondered what kind of questions would be asked this time around.  At 12 PM exactly, my phone vibrated.  I let it ring two or three times, convinced that it was just my parents calling to excitedly tell me about a cheap breakfast deal that they had happened upon.  Looking at my phone, I realized with the force of a minor heart attack that it was the clinic calling.  I dove for the phone and swiped right to accept the call.

It was a conference call that sounded like the speakerphone was turned on.  As explained to me, it was the executive director once again, as well as another lawyer from the clinic.  It was a little difficult to make out the questions at some points, but the focus of this interview was mostly on my previous experience.  I talked (and tried to embellish slightly) my past work while also highlighting the fact that I was eager to join an organization where I could add to my experience.  The one question that I was a little weak in answering involved whether I had any previous court or tribunal experience.  Besides some shadowing, I did not.  I answered as such.

Mercifully, the interview was fairly short.  No more than 15 minutes or so.  A few moments before it ended, my parents walked into our shared room and looked at me quizically as I answered the interviewers’ last few questions.  Mouthing to them that the clinic had called early, I did my best to listen to the pair on the other end of the line as they explained that they were hoping to let all applicants know by Friday (today was Wednesday) about the outcome of their interviews.  Friday also happened to be the day that we were flying to San Francisco, but I did not bother mentioning that crucial detail to the clinic employees.  Instead, I thanked them profusely for their time and assured them, again, that it would be a privilege to work alongside them both.

The next two days were quite fun.  Convocation went off without a hitch and the rest of the time was spent with law school friends and with my parents.  It was quite nice having two days where I did not have to spend much time ruminating over the interview.  Still, tension mounted as Friday approached.  Yet again, I was in a position where a job seemed tantalizingly close.  All I needed was one break and I’d finally, FINALLY be in a position to secure articles and begin the licensing process in earnest.

We checked out of our hotel and had a quick breakfast on Friday morning.  It was another beautiful day and the mountains shone against the horizon as we drove north towards the airport.  I wondered if the beautiful weather was a positive omen or a sick joke.  After dropping the rental car off, we took another shuttle to the airport.  Security and check-in took almost no time at all and we were sitting at our gate with over 45 minutes to spare.  As happy as I was to be on this trip and to visit San Francisco for the first time, I knew the uncertainty of this job prospect would continue to nag me.

My mom and dad stood in front of me in the short line that had queued in front of the gate agent.  Cursing myself for letting unchecked obsession get the better of me, I took my phone out AGAIN and hit refresh one, final time.  The browser went blank for a moment and then displayed my home page.  I very nearly stowed my phone away almost immediately, but something caught my eye.  A new e-mail at the top of the page.  The subject line was bolded:  ARTICLING INTERVIEW RESPONSE.

My heart pounded like a drum in both my ears.  My thumb fumbled slightly as I hit the link to open the message.  I didn’t notice at all that the line had moved considerably forward towards the gate agent. The message text flashed in front of my eyes:

Dear Stephen:

I regret to inform you that we will not be offering you the articling position.You were in the top three of all the candidates we interviewed and it was very tough to narrow it down to a single candidate. You have excellent qualifications and we were very impressed with your interview. Thank you again for taking the time to attend the interview and to speak to Ms. Otherlawyer and myself by telephone. We wish you the best of luck with your future endeavors.

Yours truly,

Executive Director

It’s a funny thing.  I didn’t feel very strongly one way or the other as the meaning of the text sunk slowly into my brain.  If anything, it was a mundane sensation.  Just like boredom, in fact, but much more pronounced – almost as if you had just received news that the next six months would be nothing but boring shit.

“Sir?”

My head jerked up from my phone and I realized that I was standing alone in the line.  Everyone else had gone on.

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