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Is free firm merch ‘shallow and tokenistic’ or ‘enticing’?

Firms offering free merch have been urged to move away from stress balls and water bottles in favour of aligning themselves properly with the “environmental and societal values” of today’s law students.

user iconLauren Croft 15 May 2023 Big Law
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Earlier this month, UK-based initiative the Sustainable Recruitment Alliance published its Impact Report 2022, revealing that in the midst of a climate crisis, 50 per cent of students could care less for free merchandise from firms.

Further to the release of this report, Lawyers Weekly asked its readers how much, if at all, they valued free merch from firms, with only a third of respondents being done with firm merchandise.

According to the report, which surveyed 2,390 students and graduates, one in two students found free merch made them less likely to apply to a firm and that they had refused it in the past.


One student respondent even said that “merchandise is irrelevant”.

“I will apply to work with them if I have a good experience with their representatives, and if they have a post that I wish to pursue. Merchandise feels like bribery, and I’m not a fan,” they said.

Following this, Lawyers Weekly asked its audience, via a LinkedIn poll, if they thought law firms should stop giving out free merchandise to law students on campus. At the time of closing, the results were as follows:

According to the poll, 69 per cent said that free merch still holds value, with 31 per cent saying that firms should hold off on free merch.

This was supported by a number of comments, with one managing director stating that after running law student events, student feedback has been that they are “eager to receive free merch”.

However, in conversation with Lawyers Weekly, Australian Law Students’ Association president Annabel Biscotto said that from her experience, “the allure of firm merchandise seems to be on the wane among Australian law students”.

“We’re in an era where climate change and sustainability have moved to the forefront of societal consciousness, a shift that resonates deeply with the current generation. The practice of distributing firm merchandise as a recruitment strategy appears antiquated and less impactful in this new context.

“The key reasons driving this change are twofold: the growing environmental concerns and an emerging preference for meaningful interactions and practical experiences over material giveaways. On the environmental front, students, ever more conscious of climate change and sustainability, are acknowledging the environmental toll of manufacturing and distributing promotional items. Particularly when these items often end up as unwanted clutter, the ecological cost seems unjustifiable,” she explained.

“On the other hand, when considering what truly matters to students, meaningful engagement with a firm seems to hold far greater appeal than receiving free merchandise. A positive experience with firm representatives and the presence of relevant opportunities are the real draw cards for students contemplating their future career paths.”

ALSA executive and 2023 Sydney Conference convener Maddy Ransley echoed a similar sentiment — and said she’s seen “very little engagement” with firm merch among law students in recent times.

“One illustration of this was at the 2022 ALSA Conference — delegates who attended were offered mountains of free promotional merchandise (pens, notepads, books, sticky notes etc.), the majority of which was refused or promptly discarded,” she said.

“I personally had to re-box and dispose of mountains of leftover merchandise after the conference ended, which led to us ultimately deciding that in 2023, we’d do away with offering merchandise entirely (unless one of our partners happens to be extra insistent on it). We certainly won’t be actively seeking out firm merchandise to give away.”

Similarly, Sustainable Recruitment Alliance founder Laura Yeates said that in the UK, student views on sustainability were evolving.

“Despite COP26 commitments, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report published on March 23 delivered a ‘final’ warning on the climate crisis, as rising greenhouse gas emissions pushes the world to the brink of irrevocable damage that only swift and drastic action can avert. One clear message came from the IPCC report — act now, or it will be too late,” she told Lawyers Weekly.

“The Sustainable Recruitment Alliance has an important role to play in not only helping employers embed sustainability into the heart of their early talent strategies but also connecting the entire ecosystem of students, education providers and early talent supply chain partners. Alongside market-leading student research firm Cibyl, we commissioned the largest report of its kind exploring student views on sustainability, their expectations when engaging with potential employers through their attraction journey, green career choices and employer’s commitments to sustainability.”

This rings particularly true with items like pens, paper and other stationery, which Ms Ransley said is often redundant in 2023, with the vast majority of studying being done online.

“I do think that for many students, it’s perceived as quite a shallow and tokenistic effort to ‘win’ their favour. These kinds of useless/trivial offerings are not going to impress the likes of Gen Z, who are more connected to opportunity than any other generation, and whose consumption decisions are far more anchored on ethics than any generation before it,” she added.

“I believe many students see the effort that a firm is willing to put into their recruitment strategy as reflective of how much they value your skills as a graduate — how much they care, in essence. Nobody looks at a company that hands out free notepads in 2023 and says, ‘wow, they really care about this, and they really want me to work for their company.’

“When it comes to law students in particular, it’s no secret that the vast majority of them are putting in incredibly hard work, long hours, and have made many sacrifices for their education and career — a function of law being a highly competitive industry by nature. When you are finally near the end of that tunnel, and the best a prospective employer is willing to do to acknowledge all of that is hand you a pen that cost them 5¢ to produce — I can imagine how for some, it could almost seem insulting.”

Therefore, as one commenter on Lawyers Weekly’s LinkedIn poll suggested, “it’s about the type of merch and its usefulness” — and more so, the type of efforts firms make with students. For example, running events that benefit students and provide networking opportunities and providing merchandise that can offer a competitive edge or help with study. Another commenter noted that “while free swag may be enticing, it doesn’t necessarily lead to a deeper understanding of a firm’s culture, values, and work environment”.

Ms Biscotto agreed with this notion and emphasised that currently, it’s clear students are “seeking connections and experiences rather than token gifts”.

“This is where law student societies and associations across Australia come into play. They are doing phenomenal work, providing invaluable support to their peers throughout their law school journey. They organise a range of events, initiatives, and competitions that form an essential part of the law school experience. Law firms can harness the potential of these dynamic student-run bodies by sponsoring their activities.

“Rather than investing in stress balls and water bottles, firms can channel their resources into fostering significant engagement. This not only positions the firms favourably among the student community but also offers a more substantial return on investment. Law firms with graduate recruitment on their radar should be prioritising their resources and efforts towards supporting law student societies and associations,” she added.

“This doesn’t mean just having a stall at a careers fair; it means nurturing close relationships with local law student bodies, actively supporting law student competitions, and collaborating with them to develop unique concepts that authentically reflect the firm’s culture and values. This strategic shift will enable firms to connect with students on a deeper level, contribute positively to the student experience, and align themselves with the environmental and societal values of the current generation.”