How an arsenal of soft skills can set lawyers up for competitive legal careers

How an arsenal of soft skills can set lawyers up for competitive legal careers

29 November 2021 By Naomi Neilson

The competitive space of criminal law can be very hard for new lawyers to break into and even harder to prove that they belong there. One lawyer told Protégé that for him, it meant exploring other legal avenues and careers first and building his skill base from the ground up, even if that meant discovering administrative work first.

As is the case for many new lawyers hoping to get into the flashy world of criminal law, Ben Watson told Protégé that his transition started with “a lot of areas that I wasn’t particularly interested in and that I wasn’t particularly looking to do for the rest of my life”. Despite not wanting to invest further in those areas of law, it was this experience and the skills he learnt there that set him up for a role in criminal law.

“I understood pretty early on in my degree that I needed to get some experience quite quickly,” Mr Watson said on an episode of The Protégé Podcast. “I knew that any experience that I was going to obtain would help me down the track.”

Mr Watson got his start at national firm Gadens where he learnt mortgage law and clerked on behalf of a large international bank. He said this gave him the skills that are now required of criminal law, “in terms of management, deadlines, competing pressures and deadlines”. Those skills were built up as he jumped from Gadens and into smaller firms where he did much of the same mortgage and banking work.

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From there, Mr Watson said he started applying for “hundreds and hundreds of jobs”. Although inexperienced in criminal law, he said his persistence – including the countless emails, letters and conversations with lawyers – paid off in the end when he met a barrister that had been working in some criminal law matters.

“The number one tip that I always have is that, generally, a lot of these roles aren’t advertised, and they’re generally word-of-mouth. Sometimes, you just have to know who to speak to, and I was lucky to be able to speak to this barrister who knew of a couple of people looking for somebody,” Mr Watson explained of this chance. “They put my name forward, and I made contact and was able to get an interview.”

When Mr Watson started criminal law in 2017, it was to work in legal assistance where he helped three to four lawyers at a time. This meant everything from answering the phones for clients and diarising new dates, opening files, legal aid applications and doing “everything from the ground up”. Mr Watson said it’s now work he does daily, “but it was so crucial to have that base knowledge” back then.

Reflecting on what made him stand out for a role in criminal law, Mr Watson explained that he “pretty much worked all the way through” his university degree, even if that meant working in legal fields that weren’t related to what he wanted.

“I made sure that I was working in the legal field in some capacity and then, when I finished law school, I had a four-year career essentially in the field, which set me apart from other candidates that may have competed their university full-time but had not stepped foot in a law office,” Mr Watson said. “It’s even those simple things, such as learning how to use a printer and how to scan, [that helped] – all those soft skills.”

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To learn more about how Mr Watson got his start in criminal law and to hear many more useful tips, have a listen to the episode here.

If you have any questions about the episode or if there are any topics that you might want us to look into, please reach out – we would love to hear from you! 

We’re also always open to new guests, so if you have an exciting story to tell, if you’re standing out as a student or graduate, or if you can offer some tips for our young lawyers, get in touch.

How an arsenal of soft skills can set lawyers up for competitive legal careers
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