Lessons from the last recession

By: May 25, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic is wreaking havoc on the economy, but history is on our side

After my first year of law school, I attended Ontario’s Call to the Bar ceremony to watch someone I knew make the official leap from law student to lawyer. As I sat in the audience, I thought about how much these new lawyers had sacrificed and how hard they had worked to earn a place on that stage.

But something in the air was bringing down all the excitement. The year was 2008, and the planet had sunk into the worst recession in nearly a century. The majority of the new calls in that room had started law school in the middle of an economic boom. Now, after spending three years working themselves to death and accumulating student debt, they were headed into a world of deep economic uncertainty.

The ceremony ended, however, on a reassuring note. The final speaker reminded everyone that the economy moves in cycles and that, eventually, things would turn around. That prediction came true. By the time I graduated from law school, a couple of years later, the market was already on the upswing. Across the country, law firms had increased hiring, cultivating a feeling of optimism in the profession. Over the coming decade, the global economy continued to recover. As 2019 came to a close, many law firms were celebrating their best year ever.

That all changed in March. As the coronavirus pandemic forced most of humanity into a lockdown, unemployment rates rose to their highest levels since the Great Depression. The legal industry was not immune to this economic disaster: some firms have already instituted reduced partnership draws, salary cuts across the board and heavy staff layoffs. Once again, a new crop of law students and junior lawyers — who entered law school in a buoyant market — now face the prospect of unemployment and uncertainty. This is not an easy pill to swallow.

Now for the good news. Although the effects of the current downturn are more abrupt and far-reaching than the 2008 recession, chances are that we will see a quick recovery once the worldwide lockdown subsides. Indeed, most law firms seem to be planning for this scenario. If you look at this year’s hireback data, the largest firms in Toronto have committed to hiring about the same number of first-year associates as they did last year. Many of them are pushing their start dates back to the fall, but, by the year’s end, they clearly expect to have plenty of business. That is a hopeful sign.

At the same time, there are students and recent grads who are staring down unemployment as a result of the pandemic. If you’re in that position, there are some proactive measures you can take to ensure that you’re not left out when firms and businesses begin refilling their ranks. Your first step is to establish a profile in the legal community. One way to get your name out there is to make proper use of social media. If you don’t have accounts on LinkedIn and Twitter, set yourself up and start becoming active. Expand your networks, post interesting content, write articles and make connections. I also recommend reading articles and books on how to use these tools effectively. (As a starting point, here’s a piece I wrote on how to best use LinkedIn.)

You can also reach out to people who might be able to help you find a job. Consider which law firms, organizations and public bodies you are interested in working for and contact the people who make hiring decisions. You can do this through LinkedIn, by email or even by phone. Get in touch and ask to have a friendly chat over the phone or on Zoom (or a similar platform). Also, feel free to reach out to lawyers (myself included) who may be able to give you some good advice. Don’t be shy; you have nothing to lose. The worst that could happen is that they say no.

Finally, be patient. These are unprecedented times, so things are naturally going to be more difficult. Keep your head up, even when things seem hopeless. Once things turn around — and again, they will turn around — make sure you are ready to hit the ground running.

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