Many would-be lawyers may question their decision to pursue a career in law when the ratio of graduates to jobs is so disproportionate.
Ben van Poppel, who is totally blind, cleared his final PLT hurdle at the end of last year and began job-hunting, at age 35. Admitted among the ranks of new lawyers in 2016, he spoke to Lawyers Weekly about his experience of landing a job in law.
“The fortitude learnt through successive job knock-backs is a valuable skill, whatever career one ends up in,” Mr van Poppel said.
“I wasn’t even that worried about having my first post-admission job as a practising lawyer because the main thing was to get a first job and [develop] a reputation,” he said.
Before commencing his Juris Doctor at Monash University, he was a freelance German language tutor for high school students. Like many would-be lawyers, Mr van Poppel was told he had the gift of the gab, and others encouraged him to consider law when he found himself at a career crossroads.
“As people rightly or disparagingly say, I’ve got the gift of the gab.
“I like the jousting and also even the preparation of advocacy work. I love that sort of conceptual process – where you lose yourself in the facts, and you’re combing through the detail – it’s sort of like learning a piece of music,” Mr van Poppel said.
Graduating with a distinction average in 2015 and awarded an advocacy prize in his GDLP course, Mr van Poppel set off in search of a job. He said he was selective about the kinds of advertisements he replied to – screening out paralegal roles that put a premium on efficient paper-handling and looking for organisations that emphasised inclusivity.
He admits being daunted by advice that said heavy networking and cold calls were an essential measure to secure work in a competitive market.
“I had heard all the strategies – cold calling firms and emailing people, I was always a little bit too anxious to take that particular plunge,” Mr van Poppel said.
“It’s sort of a catch-22 situation – where there is nothing ventured, nothing gained. But by that same token, I knew that those people would already be inundated with grads looking for work and my concern was they would be looking for ways to knock out a vast number of those, to find the people that they wanted,” he said.
While he knew getting his foot in the door would be difficult, Mr van Poppel admits that the many, protracted knock-backs did leave him feeling “battered”.
He said that not knowing whether his applications were overlooked on merit or due to some underlying prejudice was an uneasy thing to deal with. It was also difficult to push aside the possibility that prospective employers were putting him in the ‘too hard basket’ as someone who was blind.
“I knew that factors would sometimes be in play that had nothing to do with the numbers game or my performance in applications.
“Like many people with disabilities, I had been self-employed and my work was not of the sort you could imagine as being marketable.”
More than six months after his admission, the young lawyer received news that he had been accepted into the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s graduate program. He will commence his new role in February next year.
To his peers who are currently on the hunt for a job in law, Mr van Poppel offered practical, understanding advice.
“You’ve got to be prepared that the way you get somewhere is not necessarily the way you think you will and that it’s going to batter you – and it’s okay to be a bit battered.
“I was cognisant of the challenges of the market and I had lawyer friends who I trusted to give frank assessments,” Mr van Poppel said.
“Have no illusions about how competitive and difficult it is – also know that the only way to be sure that you won’t get a job is to not look,” he said.