Goodbye job applications, hello dream career
Seize control of your career and design the future you deserve with LW career

What I wish I’d known as a first-year or second-year law student

It is never too early in your law degree to start thinking about and working on your career planning and prospects, writes Jimmy Ngo.

user iconJimmy Ngo 19 December 2023 Big Law
expand image

Are you a high school student who has just finished Year 12 and is considering studying law at university next year? Or have you just finished the first year of your law degree after choosing to “take it easy” in your first year?

Whether you are a Year 12 student who is hoping to attend law school next year or a law student who has just finished their first year, you may have heard some unwarranted doom and gloom like “there is an oversupply of law students” or “you need a high distinction average to work at a top-tier law firm”. While there is an abundance of over-exaggeration and myths out there, what is probably true is that it is important to stand out among the thousands of university students vying for legal and non-legal jobs.

You might be thinking that you have plenty of time in your four-, five-, or six-year degree and that you do not need to worry about your career direction until your penultimate or final year. However, making yourself “stand out” is unfortunately not something that can be done overnight in your final year of university and will take some time and effort in prior years. In that regard, the great footballer Lionel Messi said it best, “It took me 17 years and 114 days to become an overnight success.”


So, what can you think about (or even action) from day one? As someone who is a few years into their legal career and has had the benefit of lived experience, here are five (not always obvious) things that I wish I had known or appreciated in my first year of university:

  1. Your law school grades probably matter more than you think (at least for certain employers).
You probably know that a strong job candidate is “well rounded” across their grades, work experience and extracurricular activities. In other words, grades are not everything and you do not need to start panicking if you do not have a high distinction average. However, this does not mean that you can “let go” of your grades and pursue work experience and extracurricular opportunities at the significant expense of your grades. At the end of the day, your grades will be a marker of technical excellence for legal employers, in particular (whether it is a BigLaw firm, a judge or a government agency).

The reality is that the most sought-after graduate roles in the law are often filled by well-rounded law students with strong academic transcripts. As some recruiters may tell you, some employers may request a candidate’s academic transcript and look for a “strong academic record”, even for roles pitched to lawyers with a few years of experience. In other words, your academic transcript may end up following you around even after your first role.

So, spend some time developing good study habits and exam strategies and techniques as early as possible.

  1. Work on your interpersonal and interview skills as early as possible.
While a strong résumé (including grades and work experience) and a well-written cover letter are important, what ultimately gets you a job is doing well in the interview. For some students, interpersonal and interview skills may come naturally to them. However, if you are anything like law student Jimmy and job interviews seem to be your kryptonite, these skills will need to be practised so that you gradually become more comfortable with interviews. You can read more about interviewing at law firms as a law student here.

Whether it is interviewing for casual and part-time jobs or leadership roles in student clubs, find as many interviewing opportunities as you can. Given the importance of interviews in any job application process, you definitely do not want your first interview ever to be an interview for a clerkship or graduate position at a law firm.

Remember that your interviewers will probably be asking themselves, “Would I put this person in front of a client?”

  1. Personal development is a part of professional development.
Firstly, you should try to figure out your personal preferences. Find out what you like or don’t like so that you can prioritise the types of jobs you would like to apply for in the later stages of your law degree. Are you interested in commercial law? Criminal law? Family law? Tax advisory? Public policy? Legal operations? Something outside the law? The best way to find out is to engage in as many different experiences as you can and talk to as many lawyers as you can.

Secondly, interviewers are often interested in also getting to know you as a person (beyond your grades and work experience) and your interests outside of the law. So, remember to cultivate your personal interests and hobbies as you progress through your law degree.

  1. Become informed about the legal industry.
Unless you have family members who are lawyers, you will probably have plenty of questions about lawyers and what they actually do. What are the differences between transactional, advisory and litigious work? What are the differences between private practice and in-house? Which practice area should I choose? How do you become a barrister? What do law firms look for in a student applicant? What does a good cover letter look like? What is a clerkship? What is practical legal training? Should I choose family law or criminal law? Do I get to close deals like Harvey Specter as a merger and acquisition lawyer?

Getting a mentor who has “been there, done that” (whether it is via formal mentoring programs, networking, LinkedIn or personal connections) is a great way to get those types of questions answered and become “informed”. A mentor will also be able to tell you important things they did (or wish they had done) to improve their chances of securing their most desired roles.

For those interested in commercial law, some BigLaw firms run programs and workshops targeted at pre-penultimate year students who are not yet eligible to apply for seasonal clerkships. These programs are a great way to hear about the life of a commercial lawyer straight from the horse’s mouth, build your professional network and demonstrate your interest in commercial law.

  1. If you are interested in commercial law, seasonal clerkships are beneficial but not the “be-all and end-all”. You can read more about this topic here.
Remember that it is never the end of the road, and there are many different ways to get to where you ultimately want to be in your career. The same employer who turned you down once may very well be your employer in the future. In other words, a “no” at one point does not have to be a “no” forever.

As the year winds down, there is no better time than now to think about the steps you could take to put yourself in the best position as a job candidate in a few years. So, as the new year approaches, it might be a good time to write up those New Year’s resolutions or do some goal setting for 2024.

Jimmy Ngo is an in-house lawyer who is passionate about mentoring law students and graduates. He currently runs a blog (Aus Legal Careers Advance) at (@auslegalcareersadvance on Instagram), where he writes about tackling the career-related challenges commonly faced by law students and graduates.