Summer hiring is on the rise for the first time in five years. But what does it mean?

By: December 19, 2014

Year-over-year fluctuation has more to do with the vagaries of the student recruitment process than a firm's workload

Summer Job Watch

With the completion of our 2015 Summer Job Watch, law students can enjoy a welcome dose of good news: summer hiring at the largest law firms in Toronto is up five percent over the past year. To be exact, the number of summer jobs climbed from 265 to 278. And at three firms — Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP, Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP and Stikeman Elliott LLP — the number of summer jobs shot up by more than 30 percent.

This is the first time student recruitment has spiked in recent years. In fact, since the economic downturn, the number of summer students at the city’s largest firms has consistently declined, falling from 323 in 2008 to 265 last year — a drop of 18 percent.

Still, this year’s uptick in summer hiring means more students are finding their way to Bay Street. But, beyond that, what do the numbers reveal about specific firms? Is it fair to assume that, if a firm bolsters its student class, it has more work than it did a year ago?

According to Jonathan Veale, managing director at the legal recruiting firm Vision Legal, fluctuation year-over-year has more to do with the vagaries of the recruitment process than a firm’s current workload.

He offers a common reason that a firm’s summer job numbers might jump. “Most firms have a target number of students they want to hire, but they still put a few extra job offers out there in case their top picks go to other firms,” he explains. “Once in a while, all of the job offers are accepted and a firm ends up with a larger group of students.”

Indeed, firms never know for certain if a student will accept a job offer, says Frances Mahil, director of student affairs at Davies, a firm that hired 17 students this fall, compared to 13 a year ago. So it’s almost impossible, she says, to go into recruitment season with an exact target. “We think anywhere from 14 to 18 is probably a healthy number,” she explains. “This year, we ended up with 17 fabulous people, but I could have ended up with 15 fabulous people or I could’ve ended up with a few more fabulous people.”

Which is why Mahil doesn’t see her firm’s increase over the past year — from 13 to 17 students — as a major jump: both numbers are within her range.

A firm could make the same number of job offers two years in a row and end up with a different number of students, says Danielle Traub, head of legal recruitment and student development at Torys LLP. “It’s really hard to predict.”

She says her firm’s numbers are up this year — from 17 to 19 — not because Torys set out to hire more students but because the firm “met so many great people . . . and had a very strong acceptance rate.”

Mahil also cautions against using summer job data to draw larger conclusion about the health of a firm. Even if business were slow, she says she would not make a “knee-jerk reaction” and slash the number of summer students she hires. Her logic is simple: if she doesn’t hire enough students today, then, once business does pick up, the firm won’t have enough associates to meet the renewed demand.

But Mahil does see the overall upward trend — the largest firms added 13 jobs this year — as a positive economic indicator. “I think we should read it as good news,” she says. “Activity levels are high, especially in terms of capital markets and securities work.”

Veale, however, is less sanguine. “I don’t want to say we’re on the cusp of doomsday, but there is certainly a change afoot within big firms,” he says. “And I don’t think that trend is going to go away any time soon.” Indeed, big firms are up against tough competition, all while clients continue to demand lower costs. No matter how many students firms decide to hire, says Veale, those industry forces aren’t going anywhere.

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