3 tips for reading the Hireback Watch

By: May 9, 2014

Annual hireback numbers are valuable, but interpreting them can be tricky

Hireback Watch

Year after year, Precedent’s Hireback Watch generates a sea of statistics on the legal industry. Indeed, reporting how many articling students return to Toronto firms as first-year associates provides useful, insider data. What that data means, however, is not always obvious.

When a firm’s hireback numbers plummet, does that suggest it’s strapped for cash? Does one great year mean a firm is on the verge of growth?

For guidance, we turned to an expert: Jonathan Veale, managing director at the legal recruiting firm, Vision Legal. His answer to the above questions? Maybe, but maybe not: analyzing dense statistics is difficult, so it’s important not to jump to rash conclusions.

Here, Veale offers three tips for how to interpret the Hireback Watch in a thoughtful way.

1. Don’t look at individual numbers. Look for trends

If a firm hires back 50 percent of its articling class in any given year, that number, on its own, doesn’t mean much. But what if a firm hires back 50 percent of its students every year? In that case, explains Veale, the consistency tells a story: the firm probably views articling as a try-out — after 10 months, only the best survive.

Now imagine a firm that hires back its entire articling class every year. Veale says that in this scenario, “the firm might want more than 10 months to evaluate its students” and make a long-term hiring decision. Or, says Veale, the firm could have decided to hire more junior associates than it needs, knowing that in a few years a handful will move in-house or leave law altogether.

Interpreting patterns in hireback numbers is not a science, but it can provide a unique insight into the mechanics of a firm’s recruitment policy.

2. When a firm bucks its historical trend, take note — but don’t overreact

In 2013, after years of hiring back most of its articling students, one firm suddenly hired back less than half. That firm was the now-defunct Heenan Blaikie LLP, which collapsed in February 2014. So statistical anomalies can be a harbinger of things to come.

Still, says Veale, they don’t always portend disaster. He says firms that hire back far fewer students than their historical average could just be restructuring their articling program, deciding to hire fewer students each year. In other words, an anomaly could be the start of a new trend.

3. Don’t decide where to article solely on the basis of hireback numbers

Articling students who get hired back — even if they’re fired after a year — will have a stronger resume than someone who doesn’t get hired back at all, says Veale. Thus, there is an advantage to articling at a firm that maintains a high hireback rate.

However, Veale encourages students to think of hireback numbers as just one piece of the decision-making pie.

Students should also find out which firms have strong mentorship programs and allow articling students to meet with clients, he says. “Even if you have a better chance of getting hired back, that doesn’t mean you’re going to be a better lawyer at the end of the day.”

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