What to do if the pandemic has derailed your summer-employment plans

By: May 13, 2020

Across the country, summer and articling positions are being cancelled or postponed. Here’s how to handle the setback

An illustration of a man holding a ladder to climb over a barrier.

Kathleen O’Brien is in a state of limbo. A few weeks ago, she was on the verge of securing an articling job at a criminal law firm. But then the COVID-19 pandemic triggered a nationwide lockdown. In short order, news broke that some law firms were cutting salaries and temporarily laying off staff. At the firm where O’Brien had hoped to article, a hiring freeze was put in place.

“The competition was just paused indefinitely,” says O’Brien, who just completed her final year of law school at Dalhousie University. Though the current lockdown could last for months, O’Brien is holding out hope that the criminal-defence firm will eventually revive its articling program and offer her a position. For now, all she can do is wait.

O’Brien’s story is a common one. Across the country, law firms are cancelling or postponing their upcoming student programs. So, what should you do if the job you expected to have this summer no longer exists? In truth, there’s no simple solution, but here’s how to make the best of a terrible situation.

Stay professional and maintain a good relationship with the employer

The decision to eliminate a student position isn’t personal. “Employers are facing a lot of logistical and economic uncertainty right now,” says Robyn Marttila, the director of the career and professional development office at Western University’s faculty of law. “Some firms may even be laying off full-time staff at this point, so students aren’t the only ones caught up in this.” If you’ve lost a job amid the current downturn, take a deep breath — and don’t react in a way you may regret later.

If you’re a second-year student whose summer position has been eliminated, consider asking the firm if it can promise to hire you next year as an articling student. According to Marttila, some firms have already made that commitment to their second-year cohort. In the meantime, let the firm know you’re willing to work part-time over the summer if they need help on a few files.

If you’ve lost an articling job, the firm that cancelled your position might be able to help you find another opportunity. Start by asking for a reference, particularly if they’re familiar with your work as a summer student. “That would be the lowest hanging fruit to request from them,” says Travis Usher, a senior recruitment partner at ZSA Legal Recruitment. And if you have a relationship with lawyers at the firm, it’s worth asking them to make introductions to contacts who may be hiring.

Be proactive in your job search

Because the legal market is in a rut, you’ll have to be creative. It’s never a bad idea to set up a LinkedIn alert to track job postings or to watch law-firm websites for openings, but that strategy is unlikely to yield results in the current economic climate.

Instead, work your network. “Reach out to people you know, and reach out to people you don’t know,” says Usher. “Start making those contacts.” The best approach, in his view, is to send an email that explains your situation and asks for advice. Most lawyers are open to helping students, and that’s especially true during this pandemic.

You should also contact your law school’s career-development office, which can help you kick off a coordinated job search. Many schools are adding research positions or internships for law students, and these offices will have the latest on those jobs.

Pay attention to how you’re feeling

Resisting or ignoring negative feelings can make them worse, so make sure you process your emotions. “Don’t feel bad for feeling bad,” says Usher. “Allow yourself to go through the negative emotions you’re feeling and don’t beat yourself up.”

You can also seek out help. Most law schools offer counselling services, and students are often eligible for mental health-services funded by their provincial law societies (such as the Law Society of Ontario’s member-assistance program).

And if you know other students who’ve lost a job, it might help to set up a video call to share experiences. Usher points out that it will remind you that you’re not alone. You can also lean on each other for advice and job-search tips.

* * *

As O’Brien waits to learn about the ultimate fate of her articling position, she has managed to land a three-week internship with a criminal-defence lawyer. The job was created through the 100 Interns Project, an initiative that Peter Sankoff, a criminal-defence lawyer and law professor at the University of Alberta, launched to help law students land short-term work placements with lawyers and academics during the lockdown.

For O’Brien, it’s a way to gain experience in criminal law and some much-needed income. “It’s making a tough time much more bearable,” she says.

To her fellow students, O’Brien has this advice: accept that your future is uncertain. “Coming to terms with the fact that things might not occur on the schedule that you had originally thought, or assumed they would,” she says, “is probably the most vital thing you can do for your mental health at this point.”

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