On paper, I thought I was a good candidate. I boasted three years of experience working across a number of different law firms. I had a range of extracurricular activities from the Law Students’ Society to running my own business. I had volunteer experience in a few Community Legal Centres and with a couple of charities with which I had a personal connection. Despite a few personal setbacks, I had managed to maintain a low 70s average; with many of the firms constantly reassuring candidates that they consider more than just grades, I didn’t think it would be an issue.
Off paper was a different story. As the portals on CVMail opened, I was being wheeled out of an operating theatre after having a procedure to manage a chronic illness I have battled since I was a toddler. When hoards of bright eyed candidates flooded to the LIV Careers Fair, elbowing their way into conversations with HR Representatives, I was binging Netflix and trying to distract myself from the pain. The emotional side of managing my condition was taking its toll on me and I knew in my heart of hearts that I wasn’t in the right headspace to be applying for clerkships. Despite this, the fear of regretting missing out on an opportunity to work in a commercial law firm, a career I wasn’t sure I was even settled on, persuaded me to apply.
I put in seven applications. I’ll admit, I probably really put effort into four of them. I personalised cover letters, I researched, I LinkedIn stalked and contacted every single contact I had at the firms and asked them for their tips and permission to drop their name into my cover letters. For a very brief moment, I stopped feeling awful about everything I had been through and started imagining my life as a hot shot lawyer raking it in at a commercial law firm.
Given everything I’ve said above, it probably won’t be a surprise to some that the rejection emails waddled into my inbox like a small row of ducklings following a mother duck of misguided hope. Four times I was thanked for my interest but wasn’t included in the group of ‘very high calibre applicants’ whom I envisaged as my peers laughing at me while they held their cheap champagnes and schmoozed with recruiting partners. I wasn’t even good enough for an interview. I was upset and frustrated that my hard yards doing discovery and cleaning up files and being palmed the tasks which the lawyers didn’t want to do had counted for nothing. I felt like I had wasted my time despite convincing myself that I wouldn’t be suited to a career in law anyway.
After I cried all the tears I had in me and begun to imagine my life jobless and sponging off my parents, I reflected on why I ever applied in the first place. I knew in my gut that I didn’t want to make it as a lawyer, so why had I invested so much in this process that the rejections left me crying myself to sleep?
It’s no secret that studying and working in the legal profession puts you in a risk category for mental illness. We’re a breed of people who seem to live two lives. On the outside, we’re untouchable, smart and ambitious high-achievers whose mothers are so proud that they have or will have a lawyer in the family. But inside our heads and the bubble we exist in, we’re insecure, always trying to outdo our peers who are on the other side of the negotiation and are so far into the depths of self-deprecating humour that we probably start believing it. Our self-esteems are inextricably tied to our performance at work or uni.
Despite widespread knowledge of the statistics, law firms and universities are slow to do anything. Well-intended initiatives in firms need to be crafted to foster an environment where people (of all levels) feel comfortable talking about their mental health without fear of the repercussions. It’s just not enough to advertise flexible working arrangements in clerkship guides; we need to change mindsets. We need to change the belief that if you’re not suffering, you’re not trying hard enough. And we need to do this at the university level, so students can set healthy expectations of themselves before setting foot into the workplace.
Maybe I just applied for clerkships to convince myself I wasn’t destined for a career in law. Maybe I was just scared of the uncertainty of not having a pathway. I don’t know. What I do know is that I learned that I just didn’t fit the mould, and that was okay. I am smart in my own way and creative in many ways and like to drink tea and sew things and hang out with my dogs and buy too many houseplants and these are all things which made me special and unique even if they didn’t land me a job. Although I’m still learning this, there’s great opportunity in uncertainty.
To all the students going through this process at the moment, whether you’re walking around house dressed in a business shirt and pyjama pants as you look for a suitable video interview location, wondering what to expect from an ‘information session’ or fielding the rejections, remember that you are enough. You are good enough, you are smart enough, you have done enough things, you are a full enough person. You were all these things before the clerkship process, and you will continue to be these things afterwards. Your achievements are impressive, your time volunteering or playing sport is admirable, and your efforts at networking events is remarkable given how tough they can be. Even if you have been rejected from every single firm you applied for, someone will be lucky to have you.
There’s a job out there for everyone, even if it’s not one in a commercial law firm. Hey, it might not even be in the law, but it’s still there. Even if (or when) my final three applications are unceremoniously rejected, I still consider myself a winner because I hit submit despite everything stacked against me. Perhaps if we spent as much time celebrating the things which make us special as we did framing our achievements to look like the most desirable candidate, we wouldn’t be such a sad bunch.
Flynne Tytherleigh is a law student at Monash University and is the owner of men’s accessories brand PocketMan.