Nobody has to tell a new lawyer it’s a tough job market out there.
Law schools are churning out legions of grads; articling positions no longer necessarily turn into full-time permanent positions and law firms in general are running a lot leaner.
So how does a junior lawyer get his or her boots on the path to practising, gaining experience and building contacts?
One solution could be to become a locum—a contract lawyer who is brought in to a firm as a replacement to cover short- or long-term leaves, peak periods or whenever a firm is swamped and needs an extra pair of legal hands.
“Whether it’s three months, six months, a document review, a huge litigation file, you’re getting your feet wet and you’re getting that post-college experience,” says Salima Alibhai, a Client Partner with ZSA Legal Recruitment in Toronto. “Some firms get busy at certain times of the year and they will hire people on to work a couple of weeks or a couple of months to get through that crunch. We had one firm that was doing creditor and debtor remedies and they were backlogged with files that they could pay someone much less to work on those. So it works out to be economical for them as well. They’ll hire a locum to review these files, but they won’t pay them at the same level as the permanent lawyers within the firm.”
Alibhai says ZSA Legal Recruitment takes 25 per cent of the locum’s first year’s salary, pro-rated, and pays all of the locum’s deductions. While a junior lawyer may not be making top dollar, she says there are other financial advantages to doing a locum.
“The nice thing about locums is you’re paid on an hourly basis,” she notes. “Lawyers are exempt from any overtime payments under the Labour Standards Act. So when you’re working as a lawyer you will typically work 14-16 hours per day. You’re not paid for anything over eight hours. But on a locum you are. You’re paid an hourly salary so you can do quite well working on a short- or long-term locum. And quite often if it’s a long- term locum say, at a bank, you’re going to end up being kept on.”
But Alan Treleaven, director of Education and Practice for the Law Society of British Columbia, urges caution before hiring a newly-admitted or junior lawyer as a locum.
“The skill and experience of the junior lawyer has to match the locum placement,” he stresses. “One of the keys to the success of an effective locum is that the lawyer who is stepping in has the experience and savvy to handle client matters, whether they’re new client matters or client matters that are in mid-stream. For difficult things like matrimonial relations or criminal law clients that may be challenging files, I would recommend to any lawyer who was looking for a locum get someone to do it who is experienced. Not someone who is learning.”
In the right circumstances, he agrees a locum could be a good experience for a junior lawyer.
“Creditor/debtor file review, a big trial, helping a law firm that has a big work load whether it’s a backlog or a bump in the amount of work is a good example because then the lawyer receives guidance and peer support,” he says. His biggest concern would be a situation where a junior lawyer is working in isolation.
“The junior lawyer has to have the practical qualifications that are suitable for the assignment. If you’re working entirely alone, that’s a different assignment than if you’re working in a team environment.”
“If the lawyer is being asked to work from home, do some legal research and prepare some legal briefs, then come in and discuss them with the law firm, that’s not a bad situation,” Treleaven says. “It’s whether the isolation is a problem. Take this great pile of files home to finish up all these real estate deals and do them at home on the kitchen table, for an inexperienced lawyer that sounds like a bad idea. Take this pile of files home that need research or review, then do a report and come in and go through them with us, flag challenges for us, depending on the complexity of the files, that’s not necessarily a bad idea.”
Locums or contract lawyers and paralegals can register through some provincial law society websites, referrals from colleagues, trade publications and other legal directories. The Law Society of Upper Canada, for example, created a Contract Lawyer and Paralegal Registry in 2009 as a result of their Retention of Women in Private Practice study.
“We thought it might be helpful if there were lawyers or paralegals available to provide services for brief periods of time,” says LSUC Equity Advisor, Josée Bouchard. “However, the program applies more broadly. For example if someone decides to take a sabbatical to study for six months or wants to go on vacation for four weeks and needs someone to maintain their files they can retain someone on contract through our registry.”
Alibhai agrees the legal shoe has to fit. But when it does, a locum could help new lawyers professionally and financially in a rapidly changing employment market.
“You’re getting really good experience, you’re getting reference letters and you’re getting in touch with the legal community. So a partner might say, ‘I know this firm is looking’ or ‘I’m happy to write you a reference’,” she says. “Everything now is happening through contacts so it’s a way to reach out, get your legal skills up and frankly for a lot of these students it’s a way to start paying their debt. They’re coming out of law school with $100,000 student loans that they’re expected to pay six months after they graduate and they don’t want to leave law. So this is a way to remain in law even though they haven’t been able to find a permanent position.”