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Advice for new law students from a recent graduate

advice from recent law school graduate for new law students nicholas waight

So, you got into law school. Congratulations! You’ve a hell of a ride ahead of you. There will be tears, very late nights, and lots and lots of coffee, writes Nicholas Waight.

You’re going to be assailed over the next few weeks with a hundred and one things to think about – assessments, readings, tutorial exercises, legal research workshops, something that sounds slightly naughty called “mooting”, career-building programs with intimidating acronyms, twenty-seven different law-related student societies, rationes decidendorum, and heavens knows what else.

I hate to add to your mounting pile of unpleasant things to think about. As you take your first steps into the Hunger Games of law school, though, I feel compelled, as someone who’s been through it all and recently come out the other side, to give you some advice for the journey ahead – the advice I wish someone had given me when I was in your place, six years ago.

Here, then, are my five top tips as a recent graduate.

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It’s not too late to drop out

At some point during your law degree, you will learn two unsettling things.

The first is that the job market you’re preparing to enter is comically oversaturated. I’m talking literally hundreds of applicants for every role.

The second is that, contrary to what you believed when you decided to study law, most lawyers are not fabulously well-paid, and the ones that are tend to work hours that would induce a nervous breakdown in most people. The rest don’t earn much more than anyone else with a university degree.

When these two pennies drop – as they did for me around my fourth year – you will ask yourself if it’s all really worth it; if you shouldn’t just drop out and try something else. I think many of us graduates and latter-year law students wonder, had we known these things when we were in your place, if we would have thought twice about our choice of careers.

Please don’t give up without giving law a chance. As you go through your first year, though, think about whether you’re enjoying it, and whether you could spend your career doing this.

Don’t study law if you’re only in it for the money. You may never see those riches. Even if you do, you’ll be miserable making all that money unless you actually like what you do.

Study law because you want to be a lawyer. Only if you want to be a lawyer, and you think you’ll enjoy being a lawyer, and you’re willing to work hard to get there, is law school the place for you.

Have something to put on your clerkship applications

Don’t be in the position I was when clerkship season came around. I had some interesting bits and pieces on my CV, but zero legal work experience to speak of, and had done nothing law-related except pass my exams. I’m still astonished I even got the four interviews I did, but wasn’t surprised when not one of those firms called back offering me a summer clerkship.

The depressing reality is that you’re competing with a veritable scrum of law students for a paltry ration of clerkships and graduate roles at the top firms. Unless you’re a whiz-kid with a stratospheric GPA, good grades alone won’t cut it.

Standing a chance means taking part in the CV Olympics with everyone else. That means getting relevant work experience (preferably in a law office), filling your evenings with extra-curriculars, and having miscellaneous other interesting uses of your time outside university. And, yes, impressive grades, too.

If I could have done one thing differently when I was studying, I would have tried to get experience in a law office sooner. It’s the thing that makes you most attractive when applying for clerkships and graduate roles. Many firms big and small take on early-year students as part-time clerks and paralegals. If nothing else, offer to volunteer at community legal centres, which are always starved of resources and need all the free student labour they can get.

No, fours don’t open doors

Having said this, amid the frantic fixation among law students for accumulating CV points, it’s easy to be lulled into thinking your grades don’t matter. It’s easy to assume that firms care more about how many hours you’ve spent in a law office and how many executive positions in your university’s Law Society you’ve held, rather than your Trusts A mark.

Yes, firms love “CV bling”. But, ultimately, they want to employ you to do legal work, and legal work is substantially intellectual work. You’re always going to be asked for your academic transcript in applications for any law-related role: they want evidence you have the intellectual chops for the job. Too many an unbecoming Pass on your transcript doesn’t inspire confidence, no matter how impressive your three-times presidency of the Justice Gummow Appreciation Society.

Don’t leave it until midway through your degree to take your classes seriously. As many other law students and I learned too late, a string of mediocre grades in your early years will be a drag on your GPA for the rest of your degree. Learn quickly how to study, do exams, and write assignments.

People study differently, and you’ll need to find what works for you. Personally, I used a spaced repetition flashcard application called Anki to keep on top of my notes throughout the semester, while also doing the obligatory marathon Swotvac cram before the exam.

This isn’t to say your unimpressive grades will hold you down for good. It just means you may initially have fewer opportunities to choose from. If you have talent and you’re willing to work hard, you’ll get ahead eventually, regardless of what’s on your final transcript. Law students with poor grades have ended up in high places before, including one current Federal Court judge who told me he “scraped through” his degree. In law, the cream tends to rise to the top, whatever its GPA.

There’s life after clerkship rejections

I was gutted when, two years ago, I failed to pick up even one clerkship. Aside from my disappointment, I was at a complete loss. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do, now that the path into the top-tiers was closed to me. I felt like my career was over before it had even begun.

There’s a chance you will find yourself in the same position. Even stellar students miss out on clerkships. I’m going to save you some trauma and soul-searching and tell you, now, that there is life after clerkship rejections. It wasn’t the end of my career when I didn’t get a clerkship, and nor will it be the end of yours.

If you really want to get into the top-tiers, there’s always a way. You can apply again for the following year’s clerkship intake (many firms accept final year students), and then again for their graduate program. Failing that, and if you still really, really want to work at Minters, there’s always a way to get in later down the track, with some outside experience behind you.

But what’s even more important for you to understand now is that the world of law is bigger than the top-tier corporate firms. There’s an attitude among law students that employment in one of the top-tier firms is the only path worth taking. It’s a poisonous attitude that causes needless anxiety and disillusionment. There are many legitimate, worthwhile paths you can take as a legal professional that don’t involve doing a summer clerkship at Ashurst.

You might find that, actually, you prefer working in the more intimate, human setting of a boutique firm, or in-house at an exciting tech company. And don’t neglect the wide world outside commercial law, as too many law students do. Maybe you want to make the courts your stomping ground as a criminal barrister, or pursue justice for the vulnerable and needy in the community legal sector. Maybe you want to take the skills you learned in your law degree and do something else entirely, like business, policy, or journalism.

Don’t narrow your horizons. The paths are many and the opportunities abound.

Enjoy the ride

You’re going to spend a long time in law school, so find a way to enjoy yourself. The pressure, endless readings, and career manoeuvring aside, you might find law school isn’t actually a bad place to spend four to six years of your youth before setting out into the real world.

Find your squad – the people who’ll make your early morning classes worth going to, who’ll swap notes and surreptitiously record unrecorded lectures for you, and who’ll drink the stress away with you when that dreadful corps law exam is finally over. They’ll feature in all your fondest memories of law school.

Giggle at your contracts lecturer’s bow tie and fruity English accent. Go to Law Ball and get fantastically drunk with your tuxedoed and high-heeled classmates. Go to Law Revue and cheer the unexpected comedic and musical talents of your peers. Be in Law Revue, if you’ve got any theatrical talent (or, even better, if you don’t).

One day, years from now, you’ll find yourself in a mortarboard and a great, unwieldy black gown, hopefully a graduate job fixed up, feeling oddly sad that it’s all over. However much you’ll wish it were already over in the years ahead, there’ll come a time when you’ll actually miss being a law student. So, be happy to be here and enjoy the ride.

Nicholas Waight graudated from the University of Queensland with a law and journalism degree in December 2018.

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