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battle for talent

Dressed in a dark suit, 23-year-old Emma Costante joins both hands with a fellow second-year University of Toronto law student in what looks like a prayer. She's says it's nothing spiritual.

Some of her fellow students pacing nearby, outside a conference room at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, probably are seeking help from on high. In a few minutes, they will all walk into an intimidating round of quick summer-job interviews - often likened to speed-dating - that could determine whether they realize their dreams of a career on Bay Street.

But Ms. Costante says she's just trying to warm up her fingers before shaking hands with potential employers, after she heard that a friend was chided for her cold hands.

"I haven't slept very much," she says. But seven years of singing opera and chamber music have prepared her well for this kind of performance. "I am a singer. I spend a lot of time on stage. So being in front of people or talking to people has never been something that bothers me."

Just behind Ms. Costante, blue curtains subdivide a cavernous room into dozens of cubicles. Inside, Bay Street's most prestigious law firms have precisely 17 minutes with each U of T student they have chosen to interview. An announcement over a loudspeaker warns them at the two-minutes-to-go mark. After the interview ends, students have three minutes to get to their next interview and start again. It's the beginning of a gruelling process that takes place each fall, governed by an exacting set of rules - drawn up by the Law Society of Upper Canada and the firms themselves - that dictate when students can be interviewed, taken out for drinks, or offered jobs.

Those students who succeed and win summer jobs after their second year join the almost-exclusive pool from which Bay Street draws its articling students and, later, lawyers for permanent jobs. Many law students aiming to practise in Canada's financial centre fear that missing out on this first round of summer jobs means their career is over, even before it begins.

Some in the profession say the recruitment process places too much pressure on people who have only completed a single year of law school. Others argue it is the only way to ensure firms interview as many students as possible. And besides, many say, the pressure is good preparation for the shark tank that is Bay Street law.

It's a process that was actually designed to protect students from pressure to accept early offers from law firms, which engage in cutthroat competition for top candidates. It replaced a more routine job-application process that offered far fewer students interviews at the big firms. The reason for the emphasis on face time is simple, say recruiters at Canada's top law firms. Selecting the students with the best marks or résumés is not enough: Confidence, poise, and the ability to fit in with a firm's culture are just as important to success.

The first stage of the process is known as the OCIs, or on-campus interviews, conducted by the major firms at most law schools in October. U of T's law school holds its OCIs off campus, at the city's Metro Toronto Convention Centre, over the course of two days.

Every 17 minutes, a platoon of students, some looking relieved, others immediately grabbing for their cellphones, exit the room - and another group goes in. The interviews with the major Bay Street firms generally steer clear of legal questions, focusing instead on the student's backgrounds and goals.

Daniel Michaels, 23, was forced to endure a relentless schedule of 20 back-to-back interviews in one day. (The sessions are scheduled by a computer. U of T says it is trying to improve the process for next year.) Mr. Michaels came prepared. He carried cue cards with key facts about each firm, something campus career counsellors advise law students to draw up. He also drafted a cheat sheet of 20 anecdotes about himself to impress potential employers.

"I was really wired. You're talking about yourself for that many sessions in a row, at the end of the day I was just in a very wired, talkative mood," Mr. Michaels says. "It took me an hour to sort of calm down, relax and send out thank-you e-mails to the people I interviewed with."

Things get more serious when the law firms call students a week or so later, for a second date. The Law Society's rules say the firms cannot call students to schedule second interviews until a few days later, usually at 8 a.m. on a Friday morning in late October. However, many send the students they like e-mails letting them know to expect a call.

This next round of interviews - scheduled over three intense days the first week of November - take place at the firms' offices on Bay Street. They take two hours and involve several partners. Afterward, some firms ask candidates they like to come back for yet another lengthy interview.

During these three whirlwind days, the firms are also allowed to invite students to dinners, lunches, breakfasts and wine-and-cheese receptions. They take them to some of the city's finest and most expensive restaurants - places many budget-conscious, debt-saddled students rarely go. The pressure clearly impairs some students' judgment. One law firm recruiter, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said one applicant tried to sell his interviewer a car. Another applicant had clearly Googled her interviewers, questioning one about coaching his child's sports team. She then told him she was "not a stalker."

The fierce competition between law students is rivalled only by the fight between the law firms to attract the best talent. Many set up "war rooms," where they keep track of whether their desired students have accepted dinner or job offers and try to guess which ones are likely to sign on with other firms.

After that second round of interviews, the rules force firms to wait until 5 p.m. on the Wednesday of the recruiting week before they can offer anyone a job. The firms are obliged to keep those job offers open for 24 hours.

The complex rules, which apply only to participating Toronto employers, date back to the 1990s. That was when the recruiting period was moved earlier - from the spring term to the autumn of a student's second year - in order to keep big U.S firms from scooping up the top Canadian candidates, explains Mary Jackson, the chief officer of legal personnel and professional development at Blake Cassels & Graydon LLP who helped draft the rules.

"It may seem odd from the outside," Ms. Jackson says. "But I do think it's probably the best method of giving the most people a good chance and also, from the law firm's perspective, seeing the broadest range of people."

The Law Society warned this year in its annual bulletin detailing the rules that it had received reports some firms still "put undue pressure on students to reveal their intention of acceptance of an offer of employment prior to the deadline."

Even some of the recruiters at the big law firms regret the pressure the process places on students.

"I think it is extraordinarily stressful for them. I think it's extraordinarily intrusive into their law school studies," says Deborah Glatter, the director of professional development and student programs at Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP. She and her firm participated in a 2003 documentary about OCIs called The Genuine Article, which is often shown to students.

U of T, which runs mock interview sessions for students to help them prepare, says just over half of its students get jobs in the fall hiring process. For many, the process equals disappointment. But most of the rest get jobs with other firms and government agencies or departments that hire in the spring.

Emily Orchard, the law school's director of career services, says even those determined to make it on Bay Street but who miss out on summer jobs often get a second crack. Some firms hire articling students from outside their summer-student pool, she notes. And Bay Street's leading firms now regularly poach associates early in their careers from elsewhere.

For Emma Costante, it seems, her background singing opera and chamber music helped her cope with the constant performance required to impress the recruiters. She said the whole ordeal was exhausting - but she did end up with a summer job at Blakes, her first choice and one of the top firms on Bay Street, where she hopes to practise competition law.

"It's stressful. … It's a lot of meeting new people very, very quickly," Ms. Costante says. "If you're not a person who enjoys meeting new people, if you're not a person who can keep their energy up for 16 hours … and keeping that smile on, it's not going to be fun and it's not going to go well."



An amateur hip-hop video about the process Bay Street uses to hire second-year law students for summer jobs might not look like YouTube viral material.

But a rewrite of Snoop Dogg's Drop It Like It's Hot entitled Tell 'Em They're Your 1st Choice (Even If They're Not) has been viewed 28,000 times on YouTube. Law schools have shown it to students preparing for the frantic application process for the summer jobs, which many believe are the only route to articling positions and success on Bay Street.

Andrew Black, the video's creator, is a former University of Windsor law student who did not win one of those coveted jobs. In the video, he gives interview advice while sending up hip-hop clichés.

Despite the setback, he still snagged an articling position at Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP: "I'm looking at it from a place of relative success rather than a place of maybe bitterness."

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