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Pay it forward: Five ways to help new lawyers with job search

Friday, July 31, 2020 @ 1:47 PM | By Noel Courage


Noel Courage %>
Noel Courage
Many lawyers recently called to the bar have found themselves without a job in hand. I have seen many down job markets in my 20-plus years of practice. I was starting my career in one of them many years ago, and recently reflected on this in a podcast, which got me thinking about today’s job seekers. To state the obvious, it is a difficult job market now for new lawyers in many areas of practice.

Law firms and companies are sandwiched between a global pandemic and a weak economy. They are still a bit shell-shocked, worried about revenue, expenses and debt. Hiring freezes are often the norm. During this precarious period, freshly minted lawyers are using cold e-mails, and trying to arrange phone or video calls to seek job help. 

Calls can start awkwardly — by nature, lawyers like to solve problems, and a struggling job market doesn’t have a ready solution. Suggesting directions for a new lawyer to pursue feels like pointing at a few different hills in a desert: “climb them all, maybe you will find water on the other side, I really don’t know, I’m sorry.” Even though we may have little to offer in terms of immediate job opportunities, it is still important to take these calls. Keep in mind that job seekers get a lot of gratuitous advice from all sides, but are specifically seeking your advice. My practice is to never ignore a call or an e-mail, and I encourage other established lawyers to do the same. If someone else at my firm is better equipped to answer the call, I will make an introduction.  

Become an effective ally to new lawyers  

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to assisting new lawyers, since we all have different backgrounds and interests. Here are my top five suggestions on how to make your “call with a new call” productive:

1. Tools of the trade — skill-building: New lawyers want to know what tools to bring on their journey. What skills are in demand in your practice these days? What associations, courses or volunteer opportunities can help to acquire those skills? If a new lawyer doesn’t yet have much practice-specific experience, what transferable skills could be developed and leveraged towards their ideal role? New lawyers also appreciate direct feedback on how to improve their resumé and highlight skills for a targeted job search.

2. Provide insights into legal landscape: It can be a daunting task to figure out the next step in a legal career. New lawyers want to know our perspectives and insights into career pathways. In other words, what areas of growth do you foresee and what areas are becoming commoditized or dying off? What opportunities exist that they may have not yet considered? Can the landscape be broadened by considering non-traditional legal jobs or non-law jobs that leverage their law degree and fit their interests and aptitude? Flexibility in adapting to the job landscape is important. By way of example, determining that I needed to change cities was key for me to secure an associate job and land on my feet after articling ended.

3. Tap into your network: Try to recommend career guides. Guides are established lawyers with similar interests to the job-seeker that may help orient them in the right direction. They are role models. Create introductions to your network however you can. In short, be a doer. If you don’t know guides for a particular area, suggest potential forums to make connections (legal associations, companies and professional networking sites). Guides are more likely to empathize, bolster confidence and keep the lawyer on their radar if a vacancy crops up in their network. If a new lawyer had a difficult and discouraging experience at their prior firm, then it may be helpful to connect them with someone you know who also had a difficult experience and overcame it.  

4. Acing the landing: After canvassing their options, new lawyers are often faced with the question of what an acceptable destination looks like for them. Taking a job that is not likely to work out may be worse than continuing onward with the search. What are the hallmarks of good law firms and companies? Who are good professionals to work with (specific types or specific names)? How should an associate expect to contribute to a new role, and what support should an associate expect in return? After landing a role, how can a lawyer keep it and build? Sharing your own experiences and general approaches can help the lawyer better assess job opportunities.

5. Prioritize professional relationship: As a final point, invite new lawyers to stay in touch and update you about their job hunt. These are your peers, so support and encourage them. In every case, a collegial connection is created by being generous with your time and advice. For those that want to keep in touch with you occasionally, it provides a great opportunity to catch up and hear about their accomplishments. It is gratifying when a lawyer circles back to tell you that they found a great job, or later on seeks your perspectives again as they traverse different stages of their career. 

Concluding advice

A simple call or e-mail reply is a very helpful act of “micro-mentoring” if it solves a problem or gets the job seeker a couple of steps farther ahead. I recalled in my podcast that I had two professors in university whose simple acts of mentoring still remain important to my own career. An English professor once told me that I wrote well and encouraged me to write more. His positive words gave me confidence in my writing. Also, my biochemistry prof told me about career opportunities for scientists in patent law. Before that day, I did not even know that my future career path existed.  

All things considered, the cold-calling job seeker knows that we probably don’t have a job for them, so you can get that out of the way early if that is the case. A realistic new lawyer isn’t asking us to tell them where the oasis is, but just to help them prepare to find it. We have all benefited from advice from a more senior lawyer when starting out, so take time to pay it forward, and make your own lasting impact.

Noel Courage is a partner and patent attorney at Bereskin & Parr LLP in Toronto. His practice focuses on patenting and licensing inventions. He can be reached at ncourage@bereskinparr.com. The author respectfully acknowledges the assistance of Maneesha Gupta in the preparation of this article.

Photo credit / z_wei ISTOCKPHOTO.COM

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