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Bianca Benincasa, 24, stands for a photo outside of Osgoode Hall Law School at York University in Toronto, May 16, 2020. Graduating this year, she will be articling at a small Toronto law firm in the fall.Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The Globe and Mail

For law students and junior lawyers across Canada, the COVID-19 pandemic has upended school marks, delayed bar exams and thrown summer internships and future jobs into question, leaving law schools and legal employers scrambling to adapt.

Some students have had job placements rescinded, particularly at smaller and mid-sized law firms, but career development officers at law schools in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver say those numbers have been small. There have been delays and challenges welcoming new hires remotely, but in most cases the country’s largest law firms have continued with summer programs and plans to host graduating students for articling, a months-long apprenticeship-style term required to be called to the bar.

Like other businesses, law firms are trying to rein in expenses in the face of huge economic uncertainty. But recruitment professionals at several Bay Street firms say they did not consider cancelling student programs to cut costs, highlighting the importance of a steady stream of junior lawyers to their business models. Non-partner lawyers, known as associates, charge lower hourly rates and often do crucial work on files, and even if they later leave the firm for in-house legal jobs with large companies, they become potential clients.

“This is our talent pool and this is literally our most valuable asset. We need to protect them,” said Danna Donald, a partner and chair of the students committee at Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP, noting that for its Toronto office alone, the firm still plans to employ 38 students over the summer and 26 articling students later this year. It also offered jobs to 20 out of 22 of its current articling students and Ms. Donald said that as the firm shifted to working from home, the students adapted easily and even billed more hours than during the same period last year.

She recalled that after the 2008 financial crisis, the firm had a few years with smaller classes of summer and articling students, which led to fewer junior lawyers. “We know we need a certain minimum number of associates and students to fulfill our work and client needs.”

Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP also hired back 90 per cent of its current articling class, consistent with previous years, said Frances Mahil, senior director of talent at the firm. “Our goal is to provide seamless client service. It’s critical not to have any holes in our talent pool or pipeline.”

A range of large corporate law firms – including Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP; McCarthy Tétrault LLP; Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP; Borden Ladner Gervais LLP; Torys LLP; Bennett Jones LLP; Gowling WLG Canada; and Norton Rose Fulbright LLP – shared similar stories, saying they intend to go ahead with their summer and articling programs, although many noted the challenge of welcoming new employees into the firm virtually.

“Because of investments we’ve made in technology, for the most part, it’s been a seamless transition from the work perspective. But it’s the social aspect that we’re having to recreate in a virtual space,” said Eowynne Noble, director of professional development at Fasken.

When 15 summer students start at the firm’s Toronto office later this month, they won’t meet in person and will rely on video-conference gatherings with breakouts for small meetings between students and mentors. Social outings meant to build camaraderie could be replaced with online events such as virtual beer tastings that would see the firm deliver the beverages to students’ homes in advance.

Career development officers at McGill University’s Faculty of Law, Osgoode Hall Law School at York University and the University of British Columbia’s Peter A. Allard School of Law say major legal employers, including large law firms and government agencies, have worked collaboratively with the schools and provincial law societies in response to the pandemic. Law societies are moving bar exams online and in some cases, shortening the required articling term to allow new lawyers to be called to the bar as planned.

Firms and regulators have also agreed to push back some recruitment processes, which could give employers a better chance to assess the economic outlook and avoid making rushed hiring decisions that could potentially be overly conservative.

While most firms are honouring commitments – particularly for articling placements as they recognize students cannot become lawyers without completing that requirement – some first- and second-year law students have been unable to find work or have seen internships disappear. In some cases, law professors have stepped in with research funding to hire students for short internships, helping them add law-related experience to their résumés.

Peter Sankoff, a criminal law professor and associate dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Alberta, launched a fundraising initiative dubbed the 100 Interns Project in the early spring. As of last week, he raised more than $120,000, enough to offer 100 students three-week, part-time internships primarily with criminal law practitioners. “I had no illusions that I was going to fix the problem,” Prof. Sankoff said, adding that the criminal defence bar was suffering even before the pandemic. “The goal of my project was to provide some hope and some opportunity.”

Even students who have jobs lined up are still struggling with uncertainty, particularly as many will graduate with significant student debt.

"Just the unknowns, and not knowing how to prepare and how to budget and how to pay things back is a little bit frightening,” said Bianca Benincasa, who will graduate from Osgoode Hall Law School this year. Her articling job at a small criminal law firm in Toronto will start later than expected but still go ahead; however, she said she and her peers worry about salary cuts and job prospects in the future. “You get apartments or buy cars based on what you think you’re going to make and then things like this hit and everything changes.”

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