Articles of Frustration: Part 21 -Excuse Me?

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I think that this has, to date, been the longest period between entries.  Depending upon your bias, you may be feeling either thankful or entitled to an apology.  How should I know?  I’m not a mindreader.  Suffice it to say that a lot happened between this series’ last entry and its current one.  I’m not sure if I’ll ever get to tell you all about it.  I hope that I do.

September 11, 2015

I huffed and puffed as Simcoe Street slowly edged closer.  Being mid-September, the slightest hint of fall crispness had begun to permeate the otherwise balmy days.  My pace was attempting to balance punctuality with my fear of sweating through my clothes.  I was wearing a charcoal blazer, faded jeans and a buttoned up, checkered shirt.  If one had to encapsulate my look for that day, it would probably be something like “disheveled pseudo-professional”, or “tacky millennial chique”.  It was a little difficult to know exactly how to dress for something like this.  It wasn’t an interview.  It wasn’t a social call.  If anything, it was an articling recruitment post-mortem: I was finally going to hear from a professional, in detail, about how exactly I managed to screw up yet another job prospect.

These thoughts and other cynicisms raced through my head.  Stopping at a light, I took a deep breath and forced some inwardly-focused positivity.  Today was my meeting with Sheila.  She was back from vacation and I had taken her up on her offer to meet.  An earlier, more prideful version of myself would have brushed this invitation aside.  Nowadays, I did not have the luxury of pride or hubris.  Besides, I reasoned, she seemed to want to help me.  As bitter as the charity of others can taste, it sometimes becomes necessary to latch desperately onto any of its incarnations.  Even if a job at McCann was no more likely than the prospect of this blog becoming successful was, I needed to marshal all of the help that I could find.  I grinned ruefully to myself.  If nothing else, maybe Sheila could give me some pointers on how best to avoid fucking up another interview that I had managed to scrounge.

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The weeks between the unsuccessful conclusion of the second Toronto articling recruit and my September 11th meeting had not been completely uneventful.  I can honestly tell you that the period of self-pitying paralysis did not last very long.  This has been alluded to before, but the job hunting process really does tend to toughen one’s sensitivities.  Losing out on the McCann job was especially difficult to swallow, but it was not as if total failure in this respect was anything new to me.  Previous, failed attempts at securing legal employment had not done in my resolve.   The latest edition of this brand of failure did not seem to have such power, either.  Instead, I continued looking high and low for any still-vacant articling positions.

I trolled Google, monster.com, Workopolis, the OBA database, the LSUC database and many other online resources in search of employment.  It did not matter anymore whether the positions were for the 2015-2016 period.  I would take anything that was paid and accredited.  By this time, I had gradually come to the peace with the idea that I would not be getting called to the bar in 2016.  It was not an easy prospect to embrace, but denying the reality of the situation has never tended to make the circumstances any more pleasant.  One day, however, a gem appeared in the form of an intriguing job posting.  The advertisement stated that a large, Canadian insurer was looking for an articling student for the 2015-2016 term in Toronto.  I think that my application was edited and submitted about twenty minutes later.

Besides the discovery of this tantalizing possibility, I had made the decision to commence the formal licensing process in Ontario.  Unlike in BC and a few other provinces, enrolling in the Lawyer Licensing Process (the Law Society of Upper Canada’s name for the procedure to accredit new lawyers) does not require one to have an articling position lined up.  While you obviously need to complete articling as part of the licensing process itself, you can get started on the other requirements (document submission, the bar exam and so forth) without having secured articles.  While perhaps a seemingly trivial point to some of you, making this decision was a pretty big step for me.  It had the effect of narrowing the scope of my job search to Ontario only.  There is something to be said for keeping your options open and applying broadly.  There is also something equally to be said for focusing on and concentrating one’s efforts when circumstances warrant it.  For better or for worse, I made the decision to select a singular path with a singular, jurisdictional destination.

In the midst of filling out the LSUC’s tedious forms and a few days after submitting my application for the in-house position, I got a call back from the insurer.  It’s not really a revelation to admit that I was excited.  Even then and even after all of that failure, I still felt a jolt of excitement and anticipation with each call-back.  In retrospect, I feel pretty fortunate that I retained this sense of fresh-faced excitement with each development.  I think that it fueled me and helped to keep the depressing, jobless sense of ennui at bay.  In any event, the phone call was made by a member of the in-house department’s HR contingent.  After a brief screening interview, the representative invited me to an in-person meeting that would occur the following week.  At the absolute minimum, it was comforting to know that I was not yet so irredeemable a candidate to be filtered out by a screening interview.  The in-person evaluation would be with the HR person and the head of the in-house department’s lawyers.  The venue would be the offices of the insurer’s legal department in the Yonge and Sheppard area of north Toronto.

Time, as it often does, seemed to crawl at a snail’s pace between the receipt of my invitation to interview in person and the interview itself.  I whiled away the time by trying to contain my excitement and by learning what I could about the company.  Jokingly, I asked my Mom and Dad if they had any advice.  More remarks were made about my limp-wristed handshakes and too-long hair.  I thanked them for their thoughts, regardless.

The morning of the interview came with a copious amount of humidity and threateningly dark clouds.  It was difficult not to take this as an omen.  My suit was pressed, the driving directions printed and my canned interview responses memorized.  Traffic was typically heavy for rush hour, but I made good time.  The only difficulty came in the form of locating free parking.  I have been informed since then that looking for free parking in a cosmopolitan area is entitled, silly and should be discontinued.  So, I found a side-street and parked in the apparently public lot of a seniors’ home.  Don’t worry, it was (nearly) empty.

That familiar, pre-interview stomach fluttering was in full-tilt as I waited in the reception area for my potential employers.  After a few moments, I was ushered to a small board room and introduced to a middle-aged woman (the HR representative that I had been in contact with) and an older man (the head lawyer for the in-house department).  We shared some initial pleasantries and small talk.  It soon became apparent, however, that the interview structure was largely scripted.  Both of my conversation partners had printed forms that they seemed to be reading off of and recording answers within.  This was not altogether surprising, as it has been my experience that most large corporations and government institutions tend to interview with a formalized, mechanical focus.  A lot of the items probed behavioural attributes and consisted of “Can you tell us about a time when you had to…” type questions.   The only question that seemed to throw me for a loop (and which was most certainly not scripted) was from the head lawyer.  Glancing at my transcript, he asked me why I thought it was that Legal Ethics and Professionalism was my highest mark in law school.

Chuckling in what I hope was a good-natured fashion, I told him that it must have just been because I possessed a keener sense of morality than most people.  He and his partner laughed, but not for very long or in a very genuine way.  Gauging that reaction for what it was, I expanded on my joke and talked a little about how interesting I found the class and how the professor’s eccentricity had kept me hooked (this was completely true).  They nodded to themselves and marked something down on their questionnaires.  Before long, they were asking me if I had any questions for them.  My queries were mainstream and safe.  I asked them about what a typical day would look like for an articling student at the office, what I could expect regarding hireback and some other, fairly boring stuff.  Promising that they would be in touch with me within three weeks, the duo shook my hand and thanked me for coming.

Looking back, I did not have particularly strong feelings one way or the other about my performance.  Unlike with the private firms, however, my dismay at not making an especially memorable impression was not as pronounced.  As mentioned, it is harder to establish lasting chemistry (and indeed, perhaps not as important to do so) when the employer is a large, imperious corporation that employs behavioural-based interviewing techniques.  Still, I certainly hoped that I had done well.  It was the insurer’s practice to ask for references and I had made sure beforehand that these were current and willing to speak positively.

_________________________________________________________________

My walk to the downtown coffeeshop where I had agreed to meet Sheila was mentally punctuated with a review of all of the above.  The insurer interview had happened about a week prior and I was still awaiting an answer.  I knew better than to start writing petulant e-mails inquiring about the status of my application.  There is a fine line between appearing industriously eager and coming off as obnoxiously insistent.  If in doubt about where the line is, do nothing.  In my case, I figured that asking Sheila what she thought about my course of inaction might be helpful.  To be honest, though, I really had no idea what to expect from this meeting, either.

I arrived a few minutes before our meeting time.  Sipping a hot chocolate, I checked my hair and did a last minute inventory of my suit jacket’s condition.  Sheila arrived a few minutes later.  We shook hands and sat at a window table that faced the street.  Awkwardly, I sipped my hot chocolate while Sheila sat beverage-less.  I asked her about her vacation and about how the rest of her summer had been.  She was as pleasant and friendly as I remembered her being during the articling interviews.

It was not long before the conversation moved on to brass taxes.  She asked me, rather seriously, how I was doing and if I was feeling all right.  Shrugging slightly, I relayed quite honestly that, while it sucked, I was rather used to failing.  After all, Sheila knew all along that my candidacy with McCann was part of my second foray into the articling process.  She nodded in an understanding fashion and said that it seemed as though potential articling students were hurting everywhere.  Giving me a slightly quizzical look, she asked me if I would consider the LPP as an alternate route to licensing.  Unsure of whether this might just be another test (of what, I cannot imagine), I told her that I thought that this plan was fraught with risks and that it was not palatable to me.  She nodded and told me that her thoughts on the system were similar.

The conversation moved from the state of the articling system to what my plans were.  I told Sheila that I would keep on plugging.  Also, I mentioned that I was awaiting to hear back from the insurer’s office.  Being in the insurance defence business herself, Sheila asked about the office and about who I had spoken to there.  Interestingly, she was acquainted with the head lawyer who had interviewed me and had, in fact, worked with him on a few files in the past.   As quickly as I realized that an opportunity had presented itself, Sheila was offering to send the head guy a reference e-mail on my behalf attesting to my abilities and speaking in favour of my application.  Again, I was taken aback by this person’s willingness to help me.  It was not a feeling of suspicion as much as it was a sense of wonder about why she was so eager to assist me.  She may have liked meeting and speaking with me very much, but she still had no way of knowing what kind of work I would be turning in.  Nor did she have any real idea of what kind of employee I would be.

Still, philosophical ponderings were not enough to have me start looking a gift horse in the mouth.  I gratefully accepted her offer and tried to emphasize how much I still appreciated any and all assistance.  She smiled kindly and assured me it was her pleasure.  Then, she frowned slightly and said something that completely threw me.

“You know, I’m in a bit of a bind when it comes to you.  As much as I like you and want you to find a job and get articling done, I’m not crazy about helping you get on with some other firm.  I don’t like the idea of losing you to someone else.”

I tried not to stare for too long in confusion.  It’s difficult to remember exactly what I said in response, but I think that I chuckled and said that I understood where she was coming from, or something.  The truth is that, back then, I had no idea what the fuck she was talking about.  In all honesty, I was very flattered and more than a little annoyed.  If she spoke as a representative of McCann and was unhappy with the idea of me getting on at somewhere that WASN’T McCann, why on God’s green earth wasn’t I hired by McCann?  Maddening though this line of inquiry was, I tried not to let it derail the rest of our pleasant meeting.  We shook hands and I thanked her profusely for taking the time to meet with me.  I also promised to pass along some contact information for people at the insurer’s office so that she could send along a reference e-mail.

I had a headache by the time that I got home, but it certainly hadn’t led me to any answers.

 

 

 

 

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