Exhibit A: Bay Street’s hiring slump slows

In the immediate wake of the economic downturn, the slump was in clear view. Across Bay Street, law firms hired back fewer and fewer articling students as first-year associates. Yet, in recent years, the bleeding has stopped.

Let’s go back to 2010. In that year, according to hiring data Precedent tracks each year, the largest 16 law offices in Toronto hired back 224 students. And by 2013 that number had fallen to 204. But in the last two years, that number has barely moved, settling at 200 this year — a historical low, yet also a sign of stability.

“At this point, just not having a decline is a good thing,” says Gene Roberts, a director at the lawyer-staffing firm Robert Half Legal. “It shows firms are becoming more stable.” His optimism is further fuelled by a recent survey, published by Robert Half, which shows that nearly one-third of Canadian lawyers expect their firms to “slightly” increase entry-level hiring in the next year. “I think things will remain steady, or punch up a bit.”

For mid-level associates, meanwhile, the job market is particularly healthy, says Adam Lepofsky, president of the legal recruiting firm RainMaker Group. “No one’s going crazy, but we’ve seen more hiring in the past six months than we did the last five or six years.”

Still, experts agree that a first-year hiring boom — or a return to pre-recession numbers — is unlikely in the short term. For one thing, large firms still have less work than they did a decade ago, says Chris Williams, co-owner at Branion Williams Legal Recruiting. “There don’t seem to be as many deals happening. We’re still hurting from the recession,” he says. “There’s less work trickling down to associates. And obviously you’re not going to hire as many students if you don’t have the work to sustain them.”

The post-recession law firm is also a less reactionary machine, says Lepofsky. So even if business soars, he says, firms might not go on a hiring spree, knowing that the market could turn at any moment, forcing them to purge lawyers. “Firms realize they have to be prepared for the ups and the downs.”

Even if major growth is not on the horizon, three years of consistent hiring of new calls is impressive, says Lepofsky. “This is still a very dicey economy,” he explains. “It’s amazing to see firms, in this climate, continue to hire and train lawyers.” The establishment of a new hiring equilibrium, he adds, shows that firms have adapted to the new market. “Firms are smart. They evolve and fine-tune themselves so that, like other organizations, they’ll stay profitable.”

Exclusive Precedent research shows how the number of articling students hired back at Toronto’s largest law offices has changed in five years:


Total Hirebacks 2010


Osler 29 18
Blakes 26 20
McCarthys 18 15
BLG 17 17 =
Torys 15 20
Department of Justice 14 3
Stikemans 13 13 =
Faskens 13 12
Bennett Jones 12 11
Gowlings 12 9
Norton Rose (previously Ogilvy Renault) 11 12
Davies 10 11
Cassels 10 8
Goodmans 9 13
McMillan 8 7
Dentons (previously FMC) 7 11
Total 224 200

Cover of the Fall 2015 Issue of PrecedentThis story is from our Fall 2015 issue.

News: What’s behind the shrinking pool of Bay Street articling jobs?

For students, the hireback stats look pretty scary. Back in 2009, Precedent surveyed the Toronto law offices that hired the most articling students to find out how many they hired back as first-year associates. Each year, we ask again and report those numbers online in our Hireback Watch. Over the last year, the number of articling jobs at the 16 offices that traditionally hire the most students fell from 297 to 282. Worse still, those numbers don’t include students from Heenan Blaikie LLP, which collapsed in February and, of course, won’t be hiring students in the future.

“If I were a law student looking for work on Bay Street, I would not find any of this encouraging,” says Jordan Furlong, legal consultant at Edge International. For the past 40 years, he explains, clients have blindly paid big legal fees for the work of students, at least in part. Now, that era is over: clients want lower costs, and they don’t think students, who spend most of their time completing routine legal tasks, are worth the money. For that reason, Furlong predicts that the number of articling gigs on Bay Street will continue to decline. “Firms everywhere are coming to the belated realization that they, not their clients, have to pay for student training.”

But the shrinking articling pool is only half the story: the proportion of articling students hired back is on the rise. This year, those 16 offices hired back 78 percent of students, up from 73 percent a year ago. In fact, the total number of students hired back remains steady, with 200 making the cut this year, compared to 204 in 2013.

A consistent influx of junior associates “means that firms are still looking to identify and invest in young talent,” says Adam Lepofsky, president and founder of the legal recruiting firm RainMaker Group. Despite the fall of Heenan Blaikie, stable hireback numbers indicate that firms “are optimistic about the next few years.”

Beyond hireback numbers, Lepofsky hopes recent growth in the American legal market — New York and California, in particular — will spill over into Canada within a year. “I’m getting demands from clients in the States that I haven’t gotten in a long time,” he says. “And generally our economy will follow the U.S. economy, especially in the business of law.”

The demand for legal work is hardly drying up, says Furlong. But that demand is not for junior lawyers — it’s for seasoned partners. As firms cut articling jobs, he says they’ll hire fewer first-years. The hireback rate could stay high, but Furlong expects the number of new lawyers on Bay Street to decline. “Firms are still overlawyered.” 

Bay Street looks bearish

In 2009, Blakes, Davies, McCarthys, Osler and Stikemans took on the most articling students at their Toronto offices. Since then, they’ve shed a combined 47 jobs, but the hireback rate at those firms has jumped up by 10 percent.

Toronto Articling Jobs










The biggest players, then and now

Toronto offices with the most students in 2009
Osler — 33
Stikemans — 33
Blakes — 29
McCarthys — 28
Davies — 22

Toronto offices with the most students in 2014
Blakes — 29
Torys — 25
Stikemans, Norton Rose — 20
BLG, McCarthys, Cassels — 19 

For a detailed rundown of all the numbers, check out our Hireback Watch 2014 chart.