No Wooden Nickels: Encouraging Millennials to Want the Right Job

What a different world law school would be if Jordan Furlong’s recent column, Millennial Fever was required reading for current law students. While I hold out hope in the accuracy of Furlong’s vision of generational turnover and its resultant culture change in Canadian firms, the balance of power is still largely seen by students to rest in the hands of the employer.

Early November is the time of year when many 2L’s from Ontario law schools are off to interviews (the majority of which seem to be in Toronto), with the hopes of winning a job offer for next summer. And believe me, there is a LOT of talk of this in the school today. What I haven’t yet heard much about, however, are students — Millennials — expressing awareness of their bargaining strength or assets that employers are seeking (Furlong calls the young lawyers “natural-born sellers,” a phrase has seems to have the right mix of flash and certainty that many use to depict the current generation of students). Part of the explanation for this lack, I believe, lies in the over-focus on BigLaw, for whose attention students are told they need to compete.

I think a broader take on the job hunt would benefit today’s students. Wouldn’t it be terrific if students thought less about going to great lengths to secure a job, any job (in a big firm of course), and instead were more cognizant of what they have to offer and what type of work they would be satisfied doing? But I guess that’s the hitch: many of my classmates are (understandably) uncertain about the various fields of law, and look to 2L positions as a sample pack of sorts. The point that goes missed far too often, however, is that students tend to only be sampling the variety of work offered by firms, and appear to be unaware or uninterested in other options that are out there.

The hierarchy that holds firms in a revered position and relegates in-house/NGO/government experiences to secondary spots is still very much in place at law school. It must be the case that the Millennial attributes are sought by these ‘alternative’ sectors. I’ve thought about what perpetuates this hierarchalized view of the world within law schools and don’t feel as though I’ve come up with a good answer. Part of me wants to point to the influence firms have over career services and recruitment initiatives within law schools (i.e. money = marketing), but surely this can’t be an entirely fair or complete explanation.

While I’ve decided in this column to talk less about black-letter legal education and/or the tech-side of learning (Slaw seems very well versed in the tools, gadgets, and other resources available to enhance legal skills and knowledge), I’d like to dedicate a bit of space to thinking about the education one receives about the profession itself. In short, there is little active legal education on this subject; the material that is used for learning is that largely accessed by those seeking it out, rather than anything being put forward by schools. In other words, there is a fair degree of self-selection that allows those already interested to develop further their understanding of the wider world of legal employment.

It’s undeniable that there is a contingent of students who have been exposed to firm life in some way (a relative or friend most likely, or in some cases firm work as an assistant), and for whom the path to a firm job is the only one of real interest. However, in addition to those who already know they are fit for firms and those who know they want something else, there remains a group of students who are undecided yet get caught-up in the BigLaw bustle.

Surely there is nothing inherently good or evil about firm or non-firm work, but the prospect of students pouring their heart and souls into securing employment in a work world of which they are almost entirely ignorant is downright disheartening. A more robust legal education would be one that did more to introduce first- and second-year students to the various types of work that are possible in this changing, sprawling world of law.

There are, in fact, a few resources out there that provide good information about the full spectrum of legal careers:

I wonder how different the Millennial job search would be if law schools made this type of information required reading?


  1. The hierarchy that holds firms in a revered position and relegates in-house/NGO/government experiences to secondary spots is still very much in place at law school.

    This is a bit misleading, because it holds out these things as alternatives. They are not.

    Many law students — I recently graduated, and this was certainly the case among many I knew — were quite interested in in-house/NGO/government experiences.

    But most of those law students also knew that in-house and NGO positions don’t offer the kind of training that you can get at a firm. They don’t have the in-house law libraries, subscriptions to law research services, legions of senior lawyers with advice from various walks of the practice, and other broad exposure that law firms do.

    So most of the law students I knew who were interested in in-house and NGO positions figured they would start their practice with a large law firm that would train them. And then, after a few years, move to an in-house or NGO position once they had something to offer the place offering them a position.

    Many law students see where law graduates are headed, and believe that to be a barometer of what kind of law graduates want to practice. A much better barometer is to look at where people are at 5 years out.

  2. Government, I should add, is a bit different. It has the critical mass and scale to take the time to truly train new lawyers. Certainly at the school from which I graduated, many students gravitated towards government for that reason.

  3. I’m solidly behind the concept of making any of my writings required reading anywhere. :-)

    Part of the reason that students believe in a hierarchy of legal job options (large law firms #1, small law firms #1A, everything else #2 and lower) is that the legal profession believes in it, too. You don’t have to buy your average private-firm lawyer too many drinks before they’ll tell you that in-house lawyers “couldn’t cut it” in the trenches, that law professors are afraid of “the real world,” and that public-sector lawyers are basically civil servants with a law degree. It’s an asinine chauvinism, but one that’s still quietly held by too many private-practice lawyers (and that still resonates too much with some in-house/government/academia/NGO lawyers). That’s changing, but it’ll still be a while before our profession’s system is flushed of it completely.

    Considering the broad range of legal careers out there, private firms (especially the large national and most prominent local firms) do have a disproportionately large footprint at law schools. These firms throw a lot of money, time and effort into branding themselves at the schools, resources that smaller firms and non-firm employers simply don’t have. You won’t see the Sierra Legal Defence Fund at too many OCIs. Little wonder that students assume law firms represent the be-all and end-all of legal careers, and focus their efforts accordingly.

    But it’s also a fact that large firms are disproportionately represented in the pool of “employers willing to hire new lawyers.” Many large firms will hire two dozen or more articling students a year in one office alone — there are smaller and even midsize firms out there that won’t take on that many articling students in their lifetime. The associate pool at many large firms is larger than the full lawyer complement at most Canadian law firms.

    Law firms are, effectively, the engine of post-call new lawyer training in Canada. A lawyer at one large firm in Alberta related that right before the firm announces which articling students will be hired back, she gets calls from other firms and legal employers inquiring about the ones who won’t make the cut. She’ll soon see those lawyers, whom her firm has spent a lot of money feeding, clothing and training, opposing them in court. That happens across the country.

    How long firms are willing to subsidize post-call legal training in Canada is an open question – I keep thinking they’ll eventually run the cost/benefit analysis and rethink their policy. But for the time being, the legal profession requires these firms’ annual willingness to hire a lot of graduates who will eventually turn into few senior associates and even fewer partners. And all the students graduating with $50,000 in debt — which they won’t pay off with a job at the Ministry of the Environment — require it too.

    All that said, I’m sympathetic to the plight of the excellent legal employers outside the law firm community who have little or no profile among law schools. But as Serge suggests, their day will come. When third-year students and young associates talk longingly about “alternative careers,” they’re belatedly turning their attention to the other 90% of the legal profession outside of large law firms. I’m a ’95 call, and I and many of my friends articled and “associated” (is that a verb?) with law firms. Today, the great majority of us work for government, corporate law departments, or NGOs.

    Law schools ought to do a better job informing students of the wide world of legal careers. But that’s encompassed by the much larger and more significant question of the relationship between law schools and law firms – a relationship in need of some serious work.

  4. Colin, although it’s a bit hidden, there’s a good bunch of stuff on the Osgoode Career Services site dealing with social justice, particularly a link to an Osgoode student group, Just Law whose mission it is “To provide support and inspiration to students interested in social justice and public interest careers and opportunities.”

  5. Serge, your idea of a 5-year-out survey or review is a great one. I wonder what the best way to go about this would be? I would hazard a guess, judging by the anectodal evidence I’ve come across, including Jordan’s comments about his cohort finding their way into non-firm positions, that the attrition rate of associates leaving firms is perhaps higher than many believe. I think it would be very useful for today’s students to know some of the reasons why the associates choose to continue their careers in other areas.

    I should say here, in response to Serge’s comments in his initial post, that I wrote of “alternatives” in quotation marks in an attempt to question the depiction of gov’t/NGO/in-house careers as somehow secondary; certainly, I would regret further maligning or marginalizing non-firm work.

    Simon, thanks for the social justice and Just Law links. I’ll make sure to get these out to some fellow students.

    And, finally, thanks Jordan for coming right out and saying what I was a bit hesitant to say: the private firms’ disproportionately large footprint in law schools ought to be scaled back.