On the Record: Bay Street cuts more first-year associate jobs

The fact that the job market for junior lawyers on Bay Street took a dive this year is hardly a surprise. It’s been shrinking, on a regular basis, over the past seven years. Back in 2010, the 16 historically largest law offices in Toronto hired back 224 articling students as first-year associates. And this past year, those same firms hired back 188 students — a 16-percent drop.

These numbers prompt a delicate question: is the broader legal market in a tailspin? “I don’t think so,” says Carrie Heller, president of The Heller Group, a legal recruitment agency in Toronto. “There are still big deals happening in the corporate world and firms are busy. So the market is not weak. But it is changing.”

Take document review and due diligence: a mere 10 years ago, such tasks were mainstays of a rookie lawyer’s job description. No longer. More and more firms, says Heller, now outsource that work to contract lawyers who cost far less than associates. So firms may be just as busy as they were last year, but they can do the same amount of work with a shallower pool of juniors.

There’s another reason to be optimistic. Though first-year hiring on Bay Street has wilted, the number of job opportunities in some areas of law has grown. One of the best examples is the rise of in-house departments. Since 2005, the number of in-house lawyers in Ontario has mushroomed from about 3,400 to nearly 4,700. That’s an increase of 38 percent.

And that surely, says Heller, has offset some of the losses on Bay Street. “Companies are doing more and more routine work themselves. Some in-house departments now function as mini-law firms.”

Heller adds that the junior-associate job market at the largest firms is a poor proxy for the legal economy as a whole. “I wouldn’t look at these numbers and say, ‘Well, the legal market is deteriorating.’ I just don’t think that’s the case.”

For an in-depth look at the hireback numbers across Bay Street, visit our annual Hireback Watch.

Cover of the Fall Issue of Precedent Magazine

This story is from our Fall 2016 issue.

Meet the junior lawyers taking on Heenan Blaikie’s veteran counsel

It’s not every day that a rookie lawyer gets to sue a giant law firm. Yet, out of the seven ex-Heenan Blaikie legal assistants suing the now-defunct firm, six have tapped junior associates to lead their claims. Why? As employment lawyer Andrew Pinto explains, young lawyers are all “the assistants can afford.” So these lawyers can thank their lower billable rates for getting the chance to go head-to-head with a fallen Goliath, represented by Greg McGinnis, a partner at Mathews, Dinsdale & Clark LLP. He’s a labour and employment lawyer with almost two decades of experience, and a former Heenan Blaikie partner.

The rookies

2012 call
· Cavalluzzo Shilton McIntyre & Cornish LLP
· Working with Christopher Perri
· One joint lawsuit, total claim: $56,886.26


2012 CALL
· Samfiru Tumarkin LLP
· Two lawsuits, total claim: $125,006.37



2011 CALL
· Koskie Minsky LLP
· Two lawsuits, total claim: $530,000



2010 CALL
· Cavalluzzo Shilton McIntyre & Cornish LLP
· Working with Daniel Rohde
· One joint lawsuit, total claim: $56,886.26



What we know about the law suits so far

Since the collapse of Heenan Blaikie LLP more than 10 months ago, seven legal assistants have launched lawsuits in Toronto against their former firm, seeking a combined total of close to $1.1 million, according to court documents obtained by Precedent. At the time of the dissolution, according to one statement of claim, Heenan Blaikie’s Toronto office employed more than 160 legal support staff. These claims, which range in value from around $15,000 to $418,000, offer a window into how Heenan Blaikie might have treated its support staff after it dissolved in February.

In one suit, two assistants (who found work after the collapse) claim Heenan Blaikie failed to pay them the minimum amount of termination and severance pay required by law. They allege the firm should have paid them eight weeks of termination pay, plus severance based on their tenure. Instead, according to the statement of claim, Heenan Blaikie gave them just two weeks of working notice. “I do find [Heenan Blaikie’s alleged conduct] very surprising,” says employment lawyer Andrew Pinto. Most employers “have no difficulty whatsoever paying the minimum standard.” (Heenan Blaikie says it will defend the claim, but, at press time, had not filed a statement of defence.)

Three other assistants, still unemployed, claim that, when they joined Heenan Blaikie, the firm agreed to recognize years they spent at their previous employer when calculating tenure (in fact, Heenan Blaikie reportedly gave them service awards acknowledging those previous years). But, when Heenan Blaikie drew up their severance packages, they allege the firm reneged on that promise, only counting time they spent at Heenan Blaikie. In one statement of defence, Heenan Blaikie says it agreed to recognize the assistant’s “prior service… if at all, only for the purposes of benefitsrelated entitlements such as vacation.”

Four assistants are also seeking punitive or bad faith damages, on the grounds that Heenan Blaikie misrepresented its financial health in the weeks leading up to its collapse. Heenan Blaikie, in one statement of defence, denies this allegation and says there is “no basis for punitive or exemplary damages, ‘bad faith’ damages, or any other form of damages.”

That only seven assistants out of a possible 160 have filed lawsuits is not surprising, says Daniel Lublin, partner and co-founder of Whitten and Lublin LLP, a Toronto employment firm. When it comes to enduring the stress of a lawsuit — and the prospect of cross-examination — he says “some people just don’t want that fight in their life.”

Lublin also says that, even if the ex-Heenan Blaikie assistants win, they might not collect any money. Before Heenan Blaikie pays out, he explains, the firm may have to first pay large creditors, such as banks and property owners, that have secured loans. Once these assistants resolve their cases, the firm could be out of assets, leaving them with no more than “a paper judgment.”

Legal assistants aren’t the only former employees suing Heenan Blaikie. At press time, a patent agent, a non-equity partner, an engineer and a mining lawyer all had pending lawsuits against the firm.

Trial & Error: Essential reading for the junior lawyer

Are you seeking inspiration, insights or talking points? Check out my list of essential reads for the junior lawyer —four that have profoundly impacted my practice: 

1. Chris Hadfield’s an Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth

It’s not a book about law, but there are many takeaways that apply to any ambitious lawyer, such as the value of working hard and parking your ego. The biggest lesson I gleaned from this book was to plan for every contingency. I found myself reflecting on this advice earlier this year as I geared up for my first trial. I considered all possible permeations and equipped myself appropriately. I came prepared with materials that my team may need in the face of possible objections and while I did not think of everything, I was able to plan for most contingencies and add a great deal of value to the trial team. 

2. The Rules of Civil Procedure (or whatever legislation is most relevant to your practice)

Phil Moore, Senior Vice President, Deputy General Counsel and Corporate Secretary of TD Bank Group, advised me as an articling student to read the Canadian Business Corporations Act cover to cover… in one sitting. He explained that in so doing, I would obtain insight into the contents and structure of the statute. Regardless of your area of practice, I firmly believe his advice holds true. I recently familiarized myself with the most relevant legislation to my practice, Rules of Civil Procedure, which has helped me immensely. With a thorough understanding of the Rules, I know exactly where to turn when I face new issues in my practice. 

3. Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In

This one is worth the buzz. The messaging in this book is essential for all junior lawyers. There are many useful nuggets in this book, and I’ve previously shared one in my article on how to properly take a vacation. Lean In is packed with so much practical wisdom that I could write an entire column about this book alone.

4. Daily news

You’ll hear it often in your career that reading the news is important. It took me a few road trips with colleagues and a handful of awkward elevator rides to truly understand the necessity of being current with the daily news. Being current not only provides you with a litany of talking points to fill elevator silences, but it also deepens your perspective of the world around you. 

Notable mentions:

While I haven’t yet carved the time out to read these books, they came highly recommended by my colleagues and sit on my current “to-read” list:

  • Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: The Essential Guide to Thriving as a New Lawyer by Grover Cleveland. This book was provided by Osler to all of its first year associates.
  • Tomorrow’s Lawyers: An Introduction to Your Future by Richard Susskin. This one describes what the future of technology has in store for lawyers.

Got any other great must-reads? Let me know

Atrisha Lewis is a second-year associate in McCarthy Tétrault’s litigation group. Follow her on Twitter: @atrishalewis

Trial & Error: How to survive a performance review

Performance reviews are one of the more nerve-wracking rituals at law firms, but they’re a crucial part of your career development. They really do help you become a better lawyer by learning from your successes and your inevitable missed marks.

As important as they are, they’re not easy. Here are a few strategies for navigating your first few performance reviews. Underlying each strategy is the idea that you should never be surprised by your results — by the time you arrive at your review, you should already have a pretty solid idea of where you stand. Seeking feedback year-round will ensure that you consistently meet expectations (and then blow them out of the water).

1. Gather your own feedback

I supplement my annual review with extra feedback that I collect through two avenues: non-lawyers and assigning lawyers.

360-degree feedback

Collecting feedback year-round from non-lawyers is essential — I rely on these colleagues to be an effective lawyer. In particular, I ask for feedback from those I delegate work to, as they may not be as forthcoming with advice. I schedule quarterly coffees breaks with my assistant to discuss how we can better work together or how I can be more effective. I also ask for feedback on my managing and delegating skills from articling students with whom I work closely.  


At the conclusion of a major project, I will ask the assigning lawyer for an informal debrief on my performance. In my experience, asking for this type of feedback has been well-received — it shows initiative and an eagerness to learn. The key is timeliness. Seek out feedback just after a project is finished while it’s still in the assigning partner’s memory. That way you’ll get concrete and relevant advice.

2. Critically assess your work

Self-reflection is crucial to the success of a performance review. Before my annual review, I use the SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis tactic to examine each of my files. This allows me to speak confidently in my review and present concrete examples of areas where I excelled and areas where I can improve.

3. Advocate for yourself

This can be daunting. It’s tough not to feel like you’re bragging, but it’s important for your reviewer to know about your successes. To prepare, I jot down three or four points — such as my business development activities or my contribution to Precedent — that I want to highlight for my reviewer. While my work on cases and files is usually evident, the work I do behind the scenes is just as important, but it’s less obvious. Not only is speaking to your successes empowering, but it demonstrates to your reviewer a level of professional maturity.

In your early days of lawyering, performance reviews are critical for giving you insights into your progress. The key to a successful review is being open to the feedback, learning from it and growing as a professional. 

Atrisha Lewis is a first-year associate in McCarthy Tétrault’s litigation group. Follow her on Twitter: @atrishalewis

Trial & Error: How to take a vacation like a boss

When I started as an associate, I’d just returned from a relaxing three-month backpacking trip across Europe and Asia. After a busy articling year, I needed to take time to travel so I could clear my mind before entering the next exciting chapter of my career.

Being an avid traveler, I couldn’t wait to plan my next adventure, but I wasn’t yet versed on vacation etiquette. So I asked lawyers across an array of practice groups and firms if there’s an ideal time or length for a vacation. Here, I’ve compiled some helpful best practices.

When to take a vacation

On this point, I heard a range of opinions. “I didn’t feel comfortable taking any vacation in my first year of practice,” one lawyer told me. Others said: “It’s taboo for juniors to take time off during March break or in August” and “you can only take one month off at time if it’s your honeymoon.”

Despite these comments, most lawyers I spoke to said life — not gossip — should dictate your vacation strategy. Be open and honest with everyone you work with. Doing so will allow you to find the best time to step away from the office for some much deserved R&R.

How to really enjoy your time off

With that reassuring tidbit, I planned my first vacation: to visit my sister in France during her spring break in April. While it’s often tough to step away from your workload, here are five tips I gleaned from my peers:

  • Announce it from the rooftop. With so much on the go, it’s difficult to track your colleagues’ schedules. I repeatedly reminded co-workers that I’d be out of the office and unavailable. The week before my vacation, I added a line to all emails I sent to say: “Please note, I will be on vacation out of the country from X date to Y date.”
  • Book buffer days. Even though I only left the country for eight days, I booked a buffer day on both ends of the trip that I could use to tie up any loose ends and deal with issues that erupted on my return. Only my assistant knew I was in the country during the buffer days, which allowed me to focus on what needed to get done before and after my trip.
  • One hour a day. While this tip is a matter of preference, I found it helpful to spend up to — and no more than — one hour a day to comb through my emails. This small step gave me peace-of-mind and made my return a lot less daunting.
  • Have a backup. During my vacation, I left a major file behind. So it helped to have another associate on the ground to assist with the file while I was away. My backup was a trusted colleague and she really allowed me to enjoy my vacation. Bonus points for a backup who scolds you for checking in while you’re away.
  • #urgent. Set up an email filter. I haven’t done this before, but I’ve seen it used by other lawyers. For instance, a litigation partner at my firm tells everyone he is working with to add “#urgent” to the subject line of any email that requires his immediate attention. Then, he uses an email filter to route those emails to his phone. This ensures he only reviews emails which are truly urgent.

Having returned from my vacation, I am convinced more than ever that they are vital to finding success in your career. Indeed, in her book, Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg points out that people who quit their jobs because they’re exhausted often have a significant number of unused vacation days. I know it might seem difficult in the short term, but going on vacation is necessary for long-term success. 

Atrisha Lewis is a first-year associate in McCarthy Tétrault’s litigation group. Follow her on Twitter: @atrishalewis

Photo: Moyan Brenn