If the Queensland Law Students Careers Fair was ever a yawn on the calendar, it won’t be this year. As the Brisbane commercial market heats up, and national firms are building their Queensland practices, it’s likely to become a battleground for talent.
National firm Freehills has doubled its intake of Queensland graduates in the last few years, responding to dramatic growth in the Brisbane market for the firm. “We’ve been experiencing a fairly substantial growth phase in the last 12 to 18 months, and our future plan is for that to continue,” says Lisa Kane, HR manager at Freehills’ Brisbane office.
Tresscox Lawyers has signed up for the Queensland fair for the first time this year. The firm, which The Australian ranked as the third fastest growing law firm in Australia this year, saw particular growth in Queensland, as well as in Victoria. “We want to raise our profile within the graduate community along the eastern seaboard,” says Colleen Weiler, Tresscox’s national HR director.
Tresscox only plans to recruit one or two graduates in Brisbane this year. But the firm is seizing the opportunity to market itself in the university community as one that truly understands the needs of Generation Y — among them, flexibility and autonomy. “We see the graduate program as a mutual relationship,” says Weiler. “The approach is simple — real experiences to attract, quality work to engage. We do understand that the current workforce is a transitional one. But we intend to hold onto them for as long as we can.”
The top-tier firms are particularly focused on clerkships as a time when they can get a lot out of talented graduates, while giving them very real experience which will engage them early on with a sense of ownership in the firm’s future.
This focus on clerkships has filtered down to the students themselves, and despite the talent squeeze, they see the market as “incredibly competitive”, says Kate Boomer, careers officer at the University of Queensland Law Society. “They are becoming concerned about their career paths earlier and earlier.” That’s why the three-university organising committee has tried this year to broaden its marketing target to include all students, not just those in the penultimate year.
Such diversity of attendees — at least 700-odd of them expected — means firms will face a challenge in appealing to all of them. “The fairs get both those students who’ve only just found out about these things called clerkships, as well as those who are hammering the firms on their work-life policy, and really want to know what makes one firm different from the others. It is difficult to pitch to the two crowds,” says Cameron Forsaith, vice president (education and ALSA) at the University of Queensland’s Law Society.
So how to appeal? Free stationery is always welcome, but will get you only so far, says Forsaith. One tip - students like seeing as many fresh graduates as possible on the booths, to bond and share their real life experiences. Kam Dosanjh appreciated the former students on the booths so much last year that she’s volunteering to man her current employer Sparke Helmore’s booth this year. “I remember last year that they put me at ease because they are so impartial,” she says. “There are some questions you don’t want to ask HR because they are the ones who are going to interview you; some questions might give a bad impression.”
Dosanjh had very little work experience in the legal field, so she saw the fair as a valuable opportunity for learning. Her strategy, now that she is on the other side of the fence? “Be open and honest,” she says. “People can see when you are telling it straight or bunging it on, and in the end they make their own minds up, anyway.”
The graduates who impressed Dosanjh last year had been open about things like their strategies for studying their college of law subjects at work before official office hours, so that they could have weekends free from legal matters. The concept of the sacredness of the weekend appealed immediately to Dosanjh.
What finally decided things for her, however, was the informal drinks night that Sparke held before the interviews. “At the fair you get similar information from all the firms, so I didn’t come away knowing where I wanted to work,” she explains.
Unfortunately, although students are all highly interested in working hours and work-life balance, they get tired of hearing the slogan dragged out again and again. Rather, they are looking to get a sense of what distinguishes one firm from another. “They want to get a sense of what the firms are really like, rather than a motto and the work-life balance thing over and over again,” says Forsaith.
Organisers are trying to bring out those distinctions by attracting more than the large national firms. “A lot of the students don’t want the top-tier firm career,” says Cameron Green, vice president (education and activities) at the Queensland University of Technology Association of Law Students. “They want firms that will help their family life, and that’s usually overlooked at the career fairs.”
The Association has focused this year on marketing the fair to smaller firms. “We want to give students a wider range of options,” says Green. “Otherwise they’re all the same, preaching the same work-life balance thing and how they’re the best. The big firms tend to do that a lot.”
“Smaller firms get more than their share of attention at the fairs because students are keen to speak with them, and will come to the fair specifically for that,” says University of Queensland’s Boomer. “They have fewer opportunities normally as the smaller firms don’t tend to have on-campus presentations.”
Despite the efforts of the student associations, smaller firms are taking a while to enter the water. “It will take a few years yet, because the HR people I’ve spoken to at the small firms are very sceptical about what the fair can do for them,” says Green. “They think it’s all about the large firms’ prestige. Of course, there could possibly be a bit of truth to that.”
The associations, however, are after changing that situation. “We want to expose students to what law firms are really like. The top-tier firms are only showing one side of that,” he says.
Another group of firms have been cranking up the level of competition. At the Brisbane fair, accounting firms Ernst and Young and PricewaterhouseCoopers will run booths hoping to catch bright young legal types in their net. Students associations have been wooing the firms. “At our uni in particular, students are often wanting to be open to other options,” says Green. “Not everyone wants to be a solicitor, and at the accounting firms they can do a bit of business with their law.”
Talented QUT business and law graduate Simone Dahl was one such. She did two one-month full-time clerkships at mid and top-tier firms in Brisbane, and worked part-time at a law firm while she did her degree. But the experience had turned her off law firms by the time she was in her fifth year. “From my three experiences, I didn’t find the culture friendly or lively; it was a stale, boring kind of culture,” she says.
Still uncertain about her future, Dahl turned up at the Careers Fair last year, her fifth year at university. PricewaterhouseCoopers had a booth, and she was bowled over. “PricewaterhouseCoopers is more fun, less serious and not as competitive [as my experience in law firms],” she says. “One thing, it’s not the PwC culture to expect you to stay until 8pm; you don’t stay just to look good. My friends at top-tier law firms seem to stay behind, automatically. They’re under a lot more pressure.”
Just as all firms will be in Brisbane next week, trying to attract those mercurial Gen Yers.
For a full list of the firms that will be at this year’s Queensland Law Students Careers Fair see pages 26 to 28