Tuesday, September 1, 2020 | By Julius Melnitzer
A monumental, pressure-packed collaboration has headed off the threat that COVID-19 presented to the 2020 law firm recruiting season.
In a concentrated endeavour that began in March, law firms, public sector employers, legal departments, law students, law schools and law societies have come up with a solution that ensures students completing their second year, and law firms seeking to employ them, will undergo an orderly — and perhaps enhanced — hiring process for summer jobs in 2021.
“Once COVID-19 hit, the collaborative dialogue started,” said Natalie Zinman, head of professional development at Toronto litigation boutique Lenczner Slaght Royce Smith Griffin LLP and co-chair of the Canadian section of the National Association for Law Placement’s (NALP) summer and articling working group. “Our focus was on maintaining the recruitment pipeline for students, law firms and other employers.”
As a significant pool from which articling students and eventually junior lawyers are selected, summer jobs are critical steps on many students’ career paths.
“All the stakeholders in the process focused on a student-first perspective,” said Angela Sordi, Borden Ladner Gervais LLP’s Toronto-based director of professional recruiting.
The key changes will see the summer student recruitment period shift to January through March, replacing its traditional time slot in September through November. Virtual interviews, conducted through the interviewer’s platform of choice, will replace on-campus interviews, and perhaps in-firm interviews.
“We concentrated on giving students time to prepare and present their best applications, as well as key issues like equipment, equity and access,” Zinman said.
Driving the timing was the pass-fail grading mode that many law schools adopted after the pandemic hit.
“As law schools are expected to return to alphanumeric grading in the fall, moving the process to next year allows students to present another semester of grades,” Zinman said. “And because many students take more than a year to find their legs in law school, moving past the first-year only evaluation model will make the process more equitable.”
Applications will be due in mid-January, and virtual on campus interviews will take place towards the end of January and most of February. Interview formats will remain at 20 minutes, with 20 interviews daily.
As well, open houses will likely be replaced by virtual events aimed at giving students a flavour and sense of what working in a particular office feels like.
But no decisions have been reached regarding the traditional “last-cut” in-firm interviews, a three-day process that previously took place in November.
“Whether these will occur virtually or in person will likely not be determined until later in the process as we continue to see how the pandemic plays out,” Zinman said.
What’s clear is that stakeholders have gone all-out to ensure that students are prepared and comfortable with the new arrangements.
“NALP prepared a toolkit for students to explain what’s going on,” said Anna Maria DeCia-Gualtieri, director of Career Services at the University of Windsor’s Faculty of Law, and co-chair of NALP’s on campus interview (OCI) working group. “The kit also provided a guide on how to do interviews virtually and how to feel more empowered.”
As well, the OCI group created nine online weekly presentations focusing on how to build competitive applications, how to navigate recruitment and career paths remotely and practice area expositions.
Apart from the travelling and the timing, then, it appears that the process of deciding whom to hire will remain intact — and maybe improve.
“The changes should make the process fairer and more diverse by encouraging applications from students who may not have been able to travel, either for financial reasons or because their schools were distant from firms in which they were interested,” said Shara Roy, the partner in charge of recruiting at Lenczner Slaght.
Georgia Brown, head of legal recruitment, diversity and inclusion at Torys LLP in Toronto, agrees.
“We do not expect our evaluation standards or methods to change,” she wrote in an e-mail responding to questions from The Lawyer’s Daily. “In adapting to new procedures, we’ll remain focused on recruiting top talent that is representative of the law school population at large.”
As the Law Society of Ontario (LSO) sees it, it all points to a “more level playing field.”
“A remote interview process without the added social and networking events may allow students to present their skills and qualifications to prospective employers without the pressures of social and networking events that can emphasize socioeconomic disparities,” said Priya Bhatia, the LSO’s executive director, Professional Development and Competence, in an e-mail response to written questions from The Lawyer’s Daily.
The virtual process should also encourage more firms to get involved.
“Law firms that wouldn’t be inclined to do the travelling and incur the cost of on-campus interviews could become involved as well,” said Decia-Gualtieri. “So whereas we normally get 30 or so employers at Windsor, we might have 50 involved in the virtual process.”
Otherwise, employers who have put off or delayed hiring due to COVID-19 now have more time to reconsider their positions.
On the whole, stakeholders seem optimistic about their direction.
“We’ve had several months since March to shift to a virtual model in our courts, classrooms and law firms,” Zinman said. “This experience gives us confidence that our model will not only be feasible, but that it will offer a high level of conversation and engagement through face-to-face dialogue.”
Particularly encouraging is the experience of current summer students, who for the most part have been working virtually.
“What’s interesting is how integrated they’ve become in their firms and how collaborative their experience has been,” Zinman said. “Giving these students lots of time on virtual platforms has made them feel very connected.”
In the end, however, what stands out is how much the profession can do when it engages its collective mind.
“This pandemic has shown us how truly critical collaboration is,” Brown said.
Julius Melnitzer is a Toronto-based freelance legal affairs journalist and communications and media consultant to the legal profession. He can be reached by e-mail directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or at his website, www.legalwriter.net.
Illustration by Chris Yates/Law360