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All articling students know that their job is temporary and that their future is not guaranteed. And yet, as their articles draw to a close, it usually comes as a painful shock when they hear that they are not being hired back as lawyers when they are called to the bar. In many cases, the hire-back decision is not performance-related and the cause is a timing, practice area or business-related issue. As the person tasked with delivering the bad news to students over many years, I always knew that it would be a heartbreaking conversation. But until I was on the receiving end of this kind of news, I wasn’t truly aware of the mental and emotional gymnastics they experienced after I closed the door and walked away.
One year later, I have the peace of mind of knowing that the elimination of my position was for the best, both personally and professionally. Articling students who weren’t hired back don’t have the benefit of hindsight as they struggle to figure out what to do now. If you are in this situation, consider following these steps to move forward with the next chapter of your career:
Feel Your Feelings
Not getting hired back hurts. It’s a loss of opportunity, financial stability, relationships with colleagues and a vision of the future. As such, it’s natural to experience many of the 5 stages of grief. Trying to push past the emotions without feeling them is counter-productive and can have a negative impact on your mental health. Speak with someone you trust to help you process these feelings so that you can move on. Lawyers Assistance Programs in most jurisdictions offer free counselling and workshops for articling students and lawyers, whether they are employed or not. I have benefited from these resources during my career, and strongly believe that there is no shame in reaching out for help when you need it.
Don’t Burn Bridges
Even though you may be angry (grief stage 2), resist the urge to speak negatively about your former employer to anyone but your close family and friends. The legal community is small and you never know where you may land in the future. The partner you have been publicly calling out for destroying your career may switch to another firm and be the person with the power to decide whether or not to hire you as a lateral. To keep your options open, it’s important to take the high road and preserve your reputation and relationships.
Take Your Time
Not having a job when you have student debt and living expenses is terrifying, especially if you don’t have any additional financial support. Fear causes your self-preservation instinct to kick in, which can drive the need to secure another position as quickly as possible, regardless of whether it is a good fit for you. If you can manage it financially, try to resist the urge to jump at the first opportunity that comes your way if you know deep down that it’s not going to work. Invest the time to ask yourself honestly what you need to be happy in your career. Many lawyers who were hired back after articles have well-established practices by the time they finally ask themselves this question. You have the chance to get a head start on a career that makes you happy now.
Think Outside The Box
Most of us had a vision of what our legal career would look like when we started law school. Take the time now to consider whether this vision has changed. As you face unemployment, it’s easy to forget that you don’t have to follow a traditional path, either because you think it’s your only option or because of others’ expectations. It may even mean considering a step away from legal practice, either temporarily or more long-term. To facilitate this thought process, make some notes about what your ideal work day would look like at a granular level, from the time your alarm goes off until the time you wrap up for the day. Envision your work location, the types of tasks you would be doing, your work space, the day-to-day office vibe and your interactions with people. Next, make notes of the elements that you would want to avoid in your work day to be happy. Once you complete this exercise, a picture of the career that is right for you should begin to come into focus. You should also be able to identify your “deal-breakers” before engaging in an application process that would be a waste of time.
Create a Strategic Plan
Once you have a better understanding of your ultimate career goal, you can identify a path (or paths) to achieve it. At this point, it’s important to recognize that an articling student probably doesn’t have the experience needed to obtain their dream job. But if you know what you want, you can create a strategic plan to obtain the experience and education that you need to get it. For example, in most cases a first-year call would not be sufficiently qualified to practice as an in-house counsel. But if this is your ultimate career goal, look at postings for general counsel roles to understand the minimum number of years of practice and the specific type of work experiences employers expect of qualified applicants. If there is a requirement for additional education, such as certification in project management or an executive MBA, you may wish to factor those goals into your strategic plan. To identify the steps to achieve your goal, look at website profiles of people currently in the type of role you are seeking. In many cases, there were probably multiple steps in their career path, so you need to consider what your possible steps should be. Once you have identified those steps, it’s time to search for opportunities that will position you to be qualified for your ultimate career goal when the time comes.
Re-write Your Resume
Usually when articling students are not hired back, their first step is to update their resume. However, simply adding a Work Experience entry to a student-focused resume may be insufficient for the next role they are seeking. To achieve your career goal, follow the preceding 4 steps before diving head first into your resume. Your strategic plan should be reflected in your resume, so that every entry and corresponding description targets the opportunities that you are applying for. This may mean creating different versions of your resume if you are applying for different types of positions. For more tips on re-writing your resume, click here: 3 Common Mistakes that Law Students Make on Their Resumes (That They May Never Know They Made)
Customize Your Cover Letter
Once your resume is re-written to align with your strategic plan and has been reviewed by a second or third set of eyes, it’s time to write a cover letter that specifically targets the position you are applying for. You may be tempted to dig out an old cover letter, make a few changes and call it a day. But that cover letter may be 3 years old if you were hired as a 2L summer student. Rather than using the old letter as a template, start from scratch and create a new one that is customized for the employer and aligns with your strategic plan. For more tips, click here: How To Efficiently Write A Custom Cover Letter: A Step-by-Step Guide For Law Students & Lawyers
Grow Your Network
Now is the best time to start being intentional about growing your network. Even if it’s small now, the effort and connections you make at this time could set you up to reach the subsequent steps in your career path sooner rather than later. Expanding the circle of people you know in the legal and business world should be a part of your strategic plan. Consider identifying opportunities to volunteer, join an association or become a member of a Board of Directors, both for the experience and the connections. It’s important to have a presence on LinkedIn, so complete a profile if you haven’t already done so. If you have a LinkedIn account, make sure to update it so that it shows that you have been called to the bar and that you are no longer employed as an articling student. Recruiters and employers often look for candidates on LinkedIn, so make sure that your profile is complete, strategically written and searchable by using key words associated with your career goals. Make it a habit to invite the weekly maximum number of people relevant to your network to connect so that you can attain the 500+ connections level. To learn more, click here: LinkedIn For Law Students: If You’re Going To Do it, Do It Right
For those of you who weren’t kept on in the last round of hire-backs, it will take some time to recover from this blow. I know first-hand that the last thing you want to hear right now is “it’s probably for the best”. But I also believe that it usually is for the best. You may not be a silver-linings person, but if you approach this time between articles and your next chapter as an opportunity, you can set yourself up for a more meaningful career that may not have happened otherwise.