Articles of Frustration: Part 18 – It Comes Together

breakthru

August 11, 2015

It was much brighter than yesterday.  The sunlight from outside the window appeared as thin beams that managed to penetrate the closed slats of my blinds.  Blearily, I checked the time.  Only 10 AM.  I laid my head back down on the pillow and shut my eyes.  What would the day bring?  As soon as this question entered my skull, I pushed it away.  The task that lay ahead of me should not be examined in terms of fate or destiny.  The day itself was not capable of bringing me anything, one way or another.  That was up to me.

The rest of the morning was a blur of showering, shaving, ironing and dressing.  It seemed almost second nature to be parking my car in the GO Train lot and boarding the express bound for Toronto.  While it was tempting to use my phone to furiously browse McCann’s website for the thirty-seventh time during my commute, I contented myself with staring out the windows.  While I had previously shot down the idea of fate playing any kind of role in my job search, I could not deny the favourable omen that the weather seemed to imply.  It was a cloudless, beautiful day.

The journey from the train station to McCann was a little farther than the one to Sterling Cooper had been.  Still, the prospect of a lovely summer’s day walk appealed to both my nerves and my sense of aesthetics.  I strolled leisurely up Bay Street, making a left at Queen and then hanging another right to go northbound on University Avenue.  The building that housed McCann was about 25 stories high, dark brown and had formerly been a headquarters of Zurich Insurance.  It was conveniently located directly across the street from one of Toronto’s largest courthouses.  How fortuitous, I thought, with a slight smile to myself.  Even now, my imagination was running away with the prospect of working and going to court on a daily basis.  Just the notion of DOING law as a job and finally stopping this nigh-unending cycle of application/interview/rejection seemed an incalculable treasure.  I realized, just then, how long it was beginning to feel since I had embarked on this insane quest for employment.  At that moment, I really did wonder if the search would go on forever.

These thoughts awash in my psyche, I arrived at the building and headed for the elevators.  Zooming up to a floor in the mid-teens, I exited and found the reception area.  For what seemed like the trillionth time, I flashed a smile to the receptionist and stated my business.  She advised me to take a seat and that my interviewers would be with me shortly.  Sitting across and to my right were a couple of fellow candidates.  Indeed, I recognized them from the night before.  We exchanged nervous, polite smiles before the male half of the pair engaged me in some light conversation about the day’s news.  We chatted for a few moments before Sheila stuck her head through the door separating the reception area from the inner offices and called my name.  After shaking her hand, Sheila led me to her office.  There I found Gary, already seated behind Sheila’s desk.  We exchanged similar pleasantries before the pair asked me to tell them a little bit about myself.

To this day, I don’t know what made the next forty-five minutes go as smoothly as it did.  It might well have been that meeting and spending time with the two during the night previous had helped break the ice.  It might have been that we just had great chemistry.  Whatever the reason, I just clicked with these two people.  After going over the basics of my résumé and experience, we got talking about our interests.  We chatted about books.  I mentioned that I had recently read The Shining, by Stephen King and Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius.  It just so happened that Gary’s daughter was in grad school for ancient philosophy, so that sparked a bit of a conversation about Stoicism.  Lucky break, but I was willing to capitalize on anything.  The conversation drifted over to film.  Sheila and I talked about our mutual enjoyment of Interstellar, even getting into a lighthearted debate about the quality of its third act.  Occasionally, I’d break out some crappy one-liner and they’d laugh.  Their laughs were reassuring, but not in volume or exuberance.  Instead, they were reassuring in their authenticity.  The pair seemed to really enjoy chatting with me and I with them.

Inevitably, the question of my status as a repeat articling applicant was brought up.  I had anticipated this and had several self-serving lies at the ready for why I had applied for Toronto firms in both the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 cycles.  By this point, however, I was feeling very comfortable and at ease with these two people.  Whether rightly or wrongly, I decided to be honest and contrite.  I told them of my previous failed attempts at securing employment in Toronto and of some of the mistakes that I had made.    Again, I detected nothing but interest and even a healthy dose of understanding as I told them a little bit about my employment tribulations.  Sheila and Gary mentioned that they were beginning to see an increasing number of second-time applicants and that the market was likely at fault.  While this may or may not have been true, it was certainly nice to hear when you were one of these desperately nervous, second-time applicants.  Ending with some humour, I quipped that my mother’s theory on my previous failures was simple:   my limp-wristed handshakes were to blame.

It seemed like only minutes had gone by when Sheila checked her watch.  She mentioned (seemingly as much as Gary as to me) that they had other candidates to get to.  They asked if I had any final questions.  I decided to recycle the one that I had used the day before at Sterling Cooper: “Do you get in touch with applicants on your short list at all before the formal call day?  Or, more specifically, do you host certain candidates for lunch or dinner?” My only moment of unease during the entire interview followed after asking this question.  Sheila looked awkwardly at Gary and they both sort of answered in an ambiguous fashion.  In essence, their reply was: “sometimes”.  I knew better than to push the issue.

I rose and clasped both their hands, assuring them that it would be my privilege to work alongside them and the other lawyers at McCann.  Sheila walked me out to the elevators.  Before I got on, she handed me her business card and we shook hands again.  She grinned at me.  “Well, make sure you tell your Mom that, this time, your handshake was just great.” I smiled back and got into the elevator.  Moments later, I was squinting in the mid-afternoon sun as I walked south on University.  The typical cogs were turning at full-tilt in my post-interview brain.  This time, however, they were unanimous in their assessment.  It had been an excellent interview and there was a substantial chance that I had made a lasting, favourable impression.  I decided to take advantage of the positive momentum and send my thank-you e-mails immediately.  I was even close to the Sheraton with the free lobby computers.

Still, every passing minute of silence weighed on me.  Call Day was tomorrow and, as much as I liked Gary and Sheila, I felt as though McCann would certainly be sending dinner invitations or some kind of pre-Call communication to its favoured applicants.  The walk to the Sheraton took no longer than ten minutes.  I had to wait for a computer to become free.  Once it had, I quickly signed onto my UVic e-mail account and plugged my cell-phone into a nearby outlet.  After being in these kinds of competitions for so long, all of the housework portions seemed nearly second nature.  I was about to click “Compose” on the homepage of my e-mail when something caught my eye.  It was the bolded text of a new e-mail.  The subject line read “Dinner invitation” and the sender was someone from McCann.

My heart rate quickened and I quickly gathered that it was Sheila who had sent it:

“Hi Stephen,

This may be sooner than you were expecting to hear from us!  We were wondering if you would care to join us tonight for dinner at 5:30 PM.  Give me a call back to discuss at your earliest convenience.

Thanks,

Sheila”

It’d be absurdly funny if I were to tell you that I delayed calling back for a few hours.  The truth is that I had my cell phone in my hand mere milliseconds after my brain had finished processing the last word of Sheila’s e-mail.  I called her number and Sheila picked up after a couple of rings.  Try as I did to play it cool, excitement seeped into my voice.  Sheila told me that the dinner would be held at Frank, which was the restaurant attached to the Art Gallery of Ontario.  She also mentioned, somewhat apologetically, that she wished she could have told me about it at the interview.  She went on to explain that she had to confer with her colleagues and the articling committee before any formal invitations were sent.  I laughed inwardly at the absurdity of a partner at a prominent law firm apologizing to me over anything relating to hiring.  Still, I assured Lisa that it was no problem and that I looked forward to seeing her and the others at 5:30 PM.

After making the requisite, excited call home to advise my family of my progress, I went to lunch with a friend who resided in the area.  In retrospect, it may not have been wise to stuff my face with Pho just a couple of hours before an important dinner, but I was too giddy to care.  My friend graciously listened to my excited yammerings about the dinner and how much I liked the firm and what my chances of getting hired were likely to be.  I wolfed down my lunch and went for a final walk with my pal towards the Art Gallery.  We split up about a block away from the restaurant.  Hugging me, she wished me the very best of luck and asked me to let her know how it went.  Good friends really are a priceless commodity.

I straightened my tie, took a quick look at my reflection in the gallery’s windows, inhaled deeply and entered the restaurant a few minutes after 5:30.  I was one of the earlier people to arrive.  Only a couple other applicants preceded my arrival.  We chatted amiably, still uncomfortably aware that we were in direct competition.  The restaurant had set up a smaller, standing-room “cocktail area” just adjacent from where we would be sitting down for dinner.  It became quickly apparent that tonight’s festivities would open with another version of yesterday night’s larger cocktail party.  I milled about the room, taking care to talk to everybody (especially members of the firm).  It was a relief to see Gary and Sheila arrive.  Understandably, I gravitated towards them.  Interestingly, they sort of blew me off.  At first, I was perplexed, but Sheila soon came to my rescue.  Leaning in, she said: “You already have mine and Gary’s vote, but you need to focus on all of the other members of the firm who you haven’t gotten to know as well.”  I nodded my thanks to her and moved on to another partner.

The formal dinner commenced at just after 7 PM.  I was seated between two partners (one of whom was Mike, the articling committee chair) and across from three applicants.  Seated to my left and at one of the heads of the table was McCann.  He was an amiable, older gentleman who had tons of funny practice stories.  The menu was prix fixé and had a number of options.  Ultimately, I selected a tuna salad, steak dinner and chocolate mousse as my courses (I only mention this because the thought of such delicious food makes my mouth water – please don’t take my food selections as any sort of guide to articling success).  Looking around the table, I counted roughly ten applicants and eight members of the firm.  McCann would be hiring three people.  While math was never my strong suit (and after several furious minutes of doing advanced equations in my head), I deducted that I had a 30% chance of success if I did absolutely nothing at all.  As always, I didn’t care for these odds.  So, I worked as hard as I could to make myself memorable and likable during the next three hours.

It’s a delicate balancing act, to be sure.  You must contribute enough to conversations with near strangers so as not to be a doormat, but not so much that you get a reputation as overbearing.  The applicant seated directly opposite of me seemed to be a born schmoozer.  He easily breezed in and out of conversations with the firm members and pretended to listen whenever another applicant (like me) had something to say.  Upon careful scrutiny, one would realize that he wasn’t actually speaking substantively to anyone who wasn’t already a member of the firm.  It seemed as though this guy would be my main competition, or, at least, the one guy seated close enough for me to be compared against.  On a fortuitous note, I observed that he wasn’t all that funny.  I decided to use that to my advantage, punctuating his longish stories of surfing in Australia or working on a farm with caustic one-liners.  Mind you, these one-liners were not at his expense.  Even if I was enough of a prick to do that, it comes off as transparently mean-spirited.  Instead, I tried to let his stories have punchlines and for these punchlines to be mine.

Looking back, I’m a little disgusted at how much I had come to view this evening through the lens of shrewd, strategic planning.  I don’t feel as though I did anything immoral or underhanded.  In fact, the schmoozer and I spoke a little when the dinner had broken up and he seemed like a perfectly nice guy.  The fact is, however, that we had to do what we could to come off well.  More than that, we had to do what was necessary to appear better than seven other people.  Though the evening was tiring, I was happy with my performance.  I had struck up a rapport with both Mike and the partner seated next to me (both of whom I had only met briefly the night before).  In fact, the partner seated adjacent to me took it upon himself to introduce me to an associate seated further down the table and strike up a conversation between us.

After dessert and coffee had been served and consumed, Mike stood up and politely asked for our attention.  He told us that the restaurant would be closing shortly and how nice it had been to meet us all.  Mike also stated that the firm would be meeting during the earlier part of the next day to discuss prospects and would be in touch with us in accordance with the Law Society of Upper Canada’s policies on recruitment.  With that, people slowly got to their feet and began the process of clasping several dozen hands.  While I made sure to say my good night’s and thank you’s to everyone, I made a special effort to thank Gary and Sheila for their help and guidance.  Gary pulled me aside.

“Listen, Steve.  You’re a great candidate and I’m telling you now that you absolutely have my vote.  But, did you make sure to talk to the other lawyers tonight and let them get to know you?”

“Yeah…I-I really think I did.”

“Then, I think that’s all they needed.  The rest is out of your hands, but I don’t think you have anything to worry about.”  He smiled reassuringly at me and patted my shoulder.

Though it was after 10 PM, the city was still alive with the energy that only summer generates.  Anxious though I was for my second Toronto Call Day, I felt a hope coursing through me that had been conspicuously absent the year before.  It felt as though, at last, I had found a firm that I jived with and who I had connected to.  Despite having just met them, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of warmth and gratitude towards Sheila and Gary.  Here were two people who, not only took the time to meet me on three different occasions during the last two days, but who had also given me advice and guidance on how to succeed at this process.  The last two years had made me cynical and suspicious about being led on in an employment sense, but I was thankful that I still had the capacity to feel valued.

Yet again, I called home during my walk to the train station.  My mom answered.  I filled her in on all that had happened since my update in the afternoon.  She listened intently and told me that it all sounded really good.

“Yeah, honestly, this year was way different.  The scheduling was obviously a lot easier, but something just felt…right.  It was easy to talk to them, you know?  I tried really hard to connect with the people there.”

“Did it work?”

I stopped for a second and looked up at a clear sky packed with stars.

“I think it might have.”

 

 

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