In a sense, what’s happening to articling student salaries on Bay Street defies basic business logic. For more than a decade, the largest firms in the city have, by and large, paid their students the same weekly salary: $1,450. Two firms, meanwhile, stood out in front. Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP set its student compensation at $1,600 and, at Bennett Jones LLP, that number sat at $1,700. Both firms enjoyed their status as the well-established market leaders.
It’s been a surprise, then, to see both firms increase their articling-student salaries even higher — up to $1,850 a week — over the past two years. If they already held a lead over their competitors, why would they run up the scoreboard?
“It’s a fair question,” says Frances Mahil, the senior director of talent at Davies. “It certainly would have been easier to wait for other firms to match us before we made an adjustment.”
But the firm had its own reason to make the change. It had recently given its first year associates a raise — from $120,000 to $130,000 — and it wanted to reduce the gulf between student and associate compensation. “I look at my articling class as associates,” says Mahil. “We ask them to contribute right away and take on significant responsibilities. So we wanted our pay scale to reflect that reality.”
Bennett Jones offers the same explanation. The firm wanted to follow up a pay raise for its junior associates — whose salary recently went from $105,000 to $110,000 — with one for its students. “We treat our students just like our first-year associates,” says Christopher McKenna, the firm’s manager of student recruitment. “If the work is comparable, the salary should be, too.”
According to both firms, the story is that simple. No other factor played a significant role. That includes, for instance, the rising cost of living in Toronto. “We all know that the city has become more expensive,” says McKenna. “A decade ago, the cost of a two-bedroom apartment was $1,900. Now it’s probably $2,700. But that didn’t really come up when we made our decision.”
McKenna also insists that Bennett Jones didn’t announce the latest pay raise to boost its position during recruitment season. “As the market leader, we do get brand recognition when students are first deciding where to apply,” he says. “But as they move deeper into the recruitment process, money matters less and less. In the end, students will make their decision based on which firm can give them meaningful work, autonomy and transparency.”
Mahil, for her part, doubts that Davies has ever landed a top student on salary alone, but she’s certain the firm has never lost a great applicant because it doesn’t pay enough. “Compensation isn’t the top driver of talent,” she says. “But we don’t want it to be an issue that comes up at all.”
This story is from our Summer 2019 Issue.
Illustration by Alina Skyson