In the last decade, law students eyeing a career on Bay Street have come to accept a harsh reality: it’s never been harder to land a summer job.
But that narrative has ruptured. For two years in a row, according to exclusive hiring data collected by Precedent, the largest 16 law offices in Toronto have hired 278 second-year summer students — up from 265 in 2014.
To be sure, the latest numbers are a far cry from the 323 summer students that Bay Street firms hired in 2008, just as the global economy began to tremor. But it shows that the job market, at least in the short term, has regained some ground. (First-year hiring on Bay Street remains at an all-time low, but it has steadied over the past three years.)
The explanation is, in part, simple: the legal market is getting healthier.
Student hiring is an imperfect proxy for the broader economy, but it offers a rare glimpse into how much work a law firm expects to have over the next year.
“We don’t want to bring on people if we don’t have the work to appropriately train them,” explains Natalie Zinman, the director of student programs at Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP.
The recent bump in hiring also indicates that firms still believe in their student programs.
“These are not trivial investments,” says Jordan Furlong, a legal consultant at Edge International. “These are 278 people who, even for four months in the summer, are going to make a good wage. Firms clearly think this is the best way to recruit and train future lawyers.”
Echoing that sentiment, Zinman says student programs are, indeed, an “important building block for the firm.” And Kari Abrams, the director of student programs and junior associates at Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP, says hiring top-notch students is one of the key ways they try to maintain “a leadership position” in the market.
Both Zinman and Abrams also say their firms feel a professional duty to hire and train law students. “We want to train people very well,” says Zinman. “Even if they don’t come back to work for us, we want to make sure we are investing in the profession.”
So far, all of this amounts to a pretty good news story for future law students, but Furlong is dubious that the student job market will remain at its current heights.
“In the coming years, firms are not going to need as many, and I’m sorry to say this, low-skilled lawyers and students as they have in the past,” he says, pointing to how firms will use technology and outsourcing to complete much of the work — such as document review and due diligence — that they historically assigned to students and young lawyers. “That summer jobs have tread water for another year does not change this inevitability.”
Over time, Furlong expects firms to hire fewer students.
“I won’t cheer if the numbers go down. And I don’t mean to rant against law firms that want to hire law students: firms clearly see the value in their programs and I don’t want to question their internal geometry,” he says. “But long-term, the demand from clients for low-skilled legal work is going to decline precipitously.”