Stephanie Quine reports
When Stephen Spargo recalls his first year at what was then Arthur Robinson and Co in 1974, he remembers himself as a young lawyer that was “pretty green and wet behind the ears”.
When given the task of reviewing and summarising a document he’d never seen before, Spargo worked diligently for two days and thought he’d prepared a “masterpiece” for the client.
The revised document came back from the partner in charge of the young Spargo with lines through most of his comments.
“It would have been just as easy for him to put a line through every page and roar at me for being incompetent, but that wouldn’t have helped me learn,” says Spargo. Instead, the partner sat down with him, said it was a “fantastic job” and explained what parts of his work were relevant, which were not, and why.
Watch and learn
Today, Spargo is a senior partner in Allens Arthur Robinson’s banking and finance group in Melbourne, and he himself mentors a number of young lawyers, including Belinda Loke. Loke started with the firm as a summer clerk in 2005 before joining as an articled clerk in the banking and finance team in 2007, completing a 12 month tax rotation.
She has recently been made a senior associate in Melbourne and says that working with Spargo and other senior partners inspired her “not to be complacent” upon coming out of university.
“There’s a lot of informal training working with those partners on a deal … I’m able to learn a lot from them through observation,” says Loke, adding that she sometimes thinks Spargo should be a UN diplomat because of his “great diplomacy skills”.
“I just take that characteristic and observe how he deals with clients and then try to develop those characteristics in my own career.”
In March 2010, Loke travelled to Papua New Guinea with an Allens banking team to sign and close the deal for ExxonMobil in an $18 billion PNG LNG project. Spargo says that despite it being a highprofile transaction, he was not hesitant in allowing Loke to work on the major crossborder investment.
“I think you’ve got to be fair, to make assessments of the relative seniority of people and their ability to add value to what the client needs. But you’ve also got to free people up to take on those responsibilities because you never quite know how they’ll perform,” he says, adding that Loke learned a lot and had a “fair degree of responsibility” in an interesting and challenging jurisdiction.
In the same way, Mallesons Stephen Jaques adopts “on the job” learning by encouraging partners to deliver the firm’s formal graduate learning programs, as well as share an office with, or work in close proximity to, a graduate.
Mallesons’ Melbourne managing partner of people and talent, Caroline Coops, says that graduates “merely overhearing conversations” between partners and clients is an important part of the learning process.
“If they are shut away in an office, it is more difficult for them to develop skills naturally,” says Coops, adding that Mallesons takes a “70, 20, 10” approach. “Seventy per cent of training and development is done on the job, 20 per cent is by exposure to experiences, mentoring, coaching and the like, and 10 per cent is the formal learning program component.
“We’ve been much more conscious in making our lawyers understand that spread in recent years.”
Finding your feet
When Coops joined Mallesons in 1996, the firm had a different structure to its formal learning program, now called the International Graduate Program.
Coops completed four three-month rotations as an articled clerk, which she remembers as being “very short” with lots of information divulged in a short space of time.
“I think we’ve improved it by changing the program to three six-month rotations, because it offers more exposure … What we’ve done over time is place a more formal structure around learning programs and tailored inhouse practical legal training (PLT),” she says.
Such structure is similar at Legal Aid NSW, where a two-year career development program for new lawyers features an induction program, rotation program, ‘buddy’ or mentoring support and performance review.
In the same fashion, graduates at Allens complete in-house PLT (designed by the College of Law in consultation with large law firms and tailored to Allens), as well as two 12-month rotations in two different practice groups.
Loke, who rotated in banking and finance and tax, says there were extensive training courses tailored for banking and tax grads to equip them with banking jargon and basic practical tips and skills for conducting transactions.
“[The courses] started in Sydney where we had the opportunity to meet with interstate graduates. Following that, we had weekly morning seminars from 8.30 to 9.30 that were presented by partners and senior associates,” says Loke.
“Breakfast was always provided and then we’d have lunchtime seminars for the national training sessions, which occurred maybe once or twice a month.”
Despite the growth of structured learning programs in mid to large law firms, there remains a disparity between graduate expectations and employer expectations.
The Law Institute of Victoria’s (LIV) preliminary research into a “lawyer of the future”, to be released in late February, showed that many graduates found working as a lawyer to be nothing like what they expected. LIV president Michael Holcroft says this is largely due to the business culture within law firms and how that differs from the theoretical principles, such as upholding justice.
To fill this educational gap, law societies and even university faculties are increasingly offering mentoring programs which offer a chance to network, valuable real-world experience, and the opportunity to make sure graduates have chosen the right career path.
The NSW Young Lawyers Mentoring Program unites newly admitted lawyers (under the age of 36 or in their first five years of practice) with more experienced lawyers who meet them regularly to discuss predefined issues.
“You get satisfaction and enjoyment out of what you do in supervising younger lawyers, but those young lawyers also feel valued,” says Spargo.
Coops believes that taking an interest in a mentee’s life, both professionally and personally, is crucial for building confidence.
Having had three children while working as a lawyer, she has been able to use her experience to support women at Allens with questions about juggling career and family.
“I’m happy and open to share my experience and those conversations are really important,” she says.
“A piece of advice I give is that it’s a long distance race, not a sprint, and when you’re developing your career, that can actually relieve some of the pressure younger lawyers might feel about their decision making.
Things like what practice area they end up in might be really critical for them at that time, but the long-term impacts are probably less than they feel at the time.”
Secondment opportunities are another excellent way to develop a lawyer’s career. As well as offering an opportunity for the firm to build or establish relationships with clients, secondees gain a deeper understanding of the client’s environment and the pressures of a particular industry.
“Secondments really build skills around time management, dealing with different stakeholders, and understanding corporate levels of urgency. [These are] all skills which are critical to being a successful commercial lawyer,” says Coops, who is a corporate M&A partner herself.
Opportunities outside private practice (including voluntary work, internships and exchanges) and a lawyer’s established place of work can also offer invaluable learning experiences.
Loke will soon be heading to Japan to participate in the Jenesys program, Future Business Counterparts, to promote economic ties between Japan and Australia With 50 other young professionals from different industries based in Australia, she will fly to Japan to meet the Japanese minister of foreign affairs, participate in briefings and lectures, and visit Japanese trading, finance and energy companies, as well as the Australian Embassy.
“There’s a full-on itinerary,” says Loke. “It will be a great chance to network and develop my career in a business and legal sense.”
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