Canada is in a COVID-19 recession, but the job market on Bay Street looks just fine

By: September 1, 2020

After the 2008 financial crisis, the largest law firms learned that knee-jerk cost-cutting doesn’t pay off

The year 2020 has, to be blunt, been bad for jobs. Between February and April, the Canadian economy lost three million jobs, while some major law firms cut salaries, temporarily laid off staff and postponed their student programs.

That’s why the results of our annual Bay Street Hireback Ranking are a pleasant surprise. On average, the largest law offices in Toronto hired back 85 percent of their articling students as first-year associates. That figure is lower than last year’s stunningly high 98-percent average, but it’s roughly on par with the 2016 hireback season. This is an impressive feat, given that much of the world has been under an extended coronavirus lockdown.

So what’s going on? Where are the cautious, cash-conserving measures that usually accompany uncertain times?

For starters, Bay Street is trying not to repeat the mistakes it made during the 2008 recession. Amid that crisis, many large firms shed jobs and student positions, but, once work started to pick up again, they didn’t have enough associates to meet the demand. (In 2009, the average hireback rate on Bay Street was a mere 68 percent.) Today, firms are playing the long game. “We knew from experience not to overreact and under-hire in uncertain times,” says Frances Mahil, the senior director of talent at Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP. “It can have a domino effect on the future pipeline.” This year, Davies posted a 90-percent hireback rate.

At Stikeman Elliott LLP, the recruitment team took the same approach. “Our students are our biggest assets,” says Barbara Schechter, the firm’s senior director of associate and partner development. “When COVID started to hit, we wanted to take a long-term approach and tried our best to not be reactive. We stuck to the usual.” During the latest hireback season, Stikeman reported an 80-percent hireback rate, a number that’s well within the firm’s historical average.

The COVID-19 crisis hasn’t necessarily reduced the amount of work on Bay Street. At Torys LLP, for instance, business has remained steady. “We as a firm have been fortunate,” says Georgia Brown, the firm’s head of legal recruitment and diversity and inclusion. “We’ve remained busy with interesting and dynamic work over the past couple of months.” Torys was one of three law offices that recorded a 100-percent hireback rate in this year’s Bay Street ranking.

Torys decided to extend associate job offers to its articling students several weeks earlier than usual. “We knew levels of anxiety were high,” says Brown. “We wanted to give our students some comfort in knowing their long-term prospects were unchanged.”

Carrie Heller, president and founder of the legal-recruitment firm The Heller Group, says the 2020 hiring season shows that firms recognize the need to retain their talent pool so they’re prepared for when the market turns around. “Many firms and companies have started to recognize that this may be the ‘new normal’ for some time,” she says. “They still need talented lawyers in a variety of areas.”

That’s certainly the case at Davies. According to Mahil, the goal is still to offer every articling student an associate position, pandemic or no pandemic. While there are many unknowns, the firm is running on “bounded optimism” — a mixture of realism and faith in the future after COVID-19. “It’s unclear what the long-term impacts will be,” says Mahil. “Having confidence in the future while not downplaying the present challenges is how we’re operating right now.”