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Out of the frying pan

Out of the frying pan

For those stepping out into the great unknown that is their future legal career, the world can be a terrifying place. But, writes Gaurav de Fontgalland, there are some easy ways to make it…

For those stepping out into the great unknown that is their future legal career, the world can be a terrifying place. But, writes Gaurav de Fontgalland, there are some easy ways to make it through that first year

The world can be a tough place for lawyers. From the astronomical marks needed to enter a law degree to the competition and politicking involved in being offered graduate placements, law is a career in which social approbation, nepotism and big firm mentalities merge into a heady and ruthless mixture.

But some survive those scary first years in the far-reaching world that is the legal sector — they must, else we’d have no lawyers. The question is how. Lawyers Weekly asked for some advice from some of Australia’s legal top guns, to help those starting out get a leg up.

Outdated expectations

The first issue that most lawyers face after their first few years of practice is reconciling the discrepancy between expectation and reality. Law students’ expectations of the legal profession are often based on an antiquated vision of the law.

Justice Marcus Einfeld, formerly of the Federal Court, agrees that the legal profession has changed since he first graduated. “Big changes have occurred ... Perhaps the biggest is that the fun has gone out of it, replaced by a hardness of spirit and avarice.”

Echoing these sentiments, a current Queens Counsel says that while law used to be a distinct profession, like medicine or finance, law firms are increasingly becoming more like businesses. “Now the edges are blurred, with big firms operating more like big banks than bastions of legal acumen. Problems arise when the gravitas that was associated with our profession becomes self-importance; when intellectual rigour turns into clever word games”.

On the whole, the message is clear: pre-admission graduates and law students should understand that the legal profession has changed, and be prepared to adjust their expectations accordingly.

Choice of practice area

Lawyers’ comments suggest that job satisfaction and success depend greatly on the choice of practice area. The question then becomes; how do pre-admission graduates figure out which area suits them best?

Both the College of Law in Sydney and the Leo Cussen Institute in Melbourne offer various practice options in their practical legal training courses.

For the young lawyer embarking on his or her first year of employment, exposure to a variety of different law areas at a pre-admission stage is an invaluable experience. A lecturer in real property at the College of Law agrees: “We at the College recommend to all our students that they try their hand at law areas in which they have had little experience. If they don’t know what else is out there, how will they know their choice of practice area is right for them?”

Professional experience

The experience gained at these practical legal colleges and in the workforce is as important as the knowledge gained at university. During tertiary education most law students tend to focus on the subjects they enjoy — firstly so they receive good marks and secondly to tailor their skill sets for prospective employers.

The problem with this lies in the fact that studying property law, for example, does not prepare you for the experience of actually working in the area. There is a disparity between substance and procedure that only becomes evident for most lawyers after their first year of employment.

When asked what advice she would give to a pre-admission graduate embarking on a legal career, a first year lawyer in a mid-tier litigation firm suggests: “Get yourself some hands-on experience. It doesn’t matter with whom and in what law area. Just start somewhere. That way you know what you’re in for.”

The fact is that legal employers look favourably on legal work experience in a resume. Quite often experience is valued above raw marks. A senior partner at a boutique law firm unequivocally summed this up by arguing that marks are not everything. “Marks don’t mean that a person can work in a group environment. Marks don’t necessarily translate to lateral thinking or persuasive ability”.

Networking

Another practical reason to gain as much work experience as possible during university and at the pre-admission stage is the generation of a personal network. The legal world is highly political in nature. Contacts made during university and just after graduation can facilitate the search for a job after admission and create opportunities for future career progression.

Justice Einfeld says that at the Bar, such contacts can become extremely valuable. “Some of us became barristers immediately after completing our degrees. I would advise against that now. Spending even just a year making contacts whilst with the prosecution or at a litigation firm increases the odds of surviving your first year as a barrister exponentially.”

The other advantage of networking is that it allows for the possibility of a career change later in life. As most universities only offer graduate or combined law degrees, lawyers have auxiliary skill sets to fall back on. A recent Arts/Law graduate, now a financial consultant with Macquarie Bank, says: “Studying and working in law gave me an analytical edge. I found it much more enjoyable applying those skills to finance — the transition was painless”.

Looking forward

It is clear that lawyers can survive their first year of employment with significantly less trauma if they equip themselves with a thorough understanding of the various practice areas available, obtain practical work experience early on and keep an eye out for possible contacts in the profession.

With these issues in mind, prospective lawyers need not wander blindly into a career in the law and can instead spend the first year after admission honing skills in a practice area that really suits them.

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