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They are about to leave university and embark on their careers, but what is it that graduate lawyers are looking for? Kellie Harpley finds outBy the time most students reach the end of their…

They are about to leave university and embark on their careers, but what is it that graduate lawyers are looking for? Kellie Harpley finds out

By the time most students reach the end of their university days, they are brimming with enthusiasm for their prospective new careers. It is time to apply the knowledge they have painstakingly accumulated over the years.

While they are impatient to get into the workforce, few are willing to settle for the first job that comes along. And their ideal position must meet far more criteria than just a desk in a city firm.

In line with their generalist Generation Y profile, today’s graduates place great emphasis on work/life balance and fulfilment in their work. With no option but to work through the ranks, to a certain extent they want to do it on their own terms.

It is, therefore, the firms that not only talk about belief in a life outside the office but demonstrate their commitment to it, and those that are willing to give their young charges interesting work, that are winning the race to attract new talent.

In their penultimate and final years at university, law students are inundated with information from the firms. “At that time to get to any firm is a big achievement,” Mayank Gupta, a first year lawyer at Gadens, says.

But once he had secured offers from a few firms, Gupta says some of the deciding factors for him were the personalities of the people who interviewed him, the firm’s “sense of humour” and the treatment of the work/life balance philosophy.

“I thought Gadens had the sense of humour and the style that I looked for, and that’s probably what got me interested.”

Alison Barnett, in her second year at Allens Arthur Robinson, was also focused on her prospective colleagues. “The main thing I was looking for was somewhere I felt really comfortable with the people. The people I met at Allens were the biggest driver for me coming here,” she says.

She found them to be “really open and friendly, intelligent and really dedicated lawyers” and felt the firm would be encouraging of her development as a lawyer, “both intellectually and professionally”.

Barnett entered the firm through the summer clerkship process after two interviews, the first with a partner and senior associate and the second with two partners. “It was a really good opportunity to talk through what my goals were and what my personality was like.”

There were also numerous opportunities to go to the firm for social occasions, including its twilight seminars for students going through the summer clerk recruitment process. This enables them to talk to partners about the culture of the firm in a more informal setting, and have a drink and a chat afterwards.

“It’s a really positive experience because you can come in and talk to people on a really natural level rather than just having those formal interviews,” Barnett says. It was that mix of formal and informal networking elements that helped her get a feel for the firm.

Susan Jones, a lawyer with Freehills, says the firm stood out for her in the recruitment process because it seemed to take “a more personal, less adversarial” approach. It used one on one interviews with partners, which she says encouraged “really good discussions” about what it would be like to work at Freehills.

“What I was looking for was a good work environment with challenging work, high profile work and high profile clients, and the opportunity to work closely with and learn from top of the field senior lawyers,” she says. “But what was also really important to me was the environment. That came across with Freehills obviously being highly professional, but at the same time quite relaxed and offering a diverse mix of people.”

Gupta says this was more important than elements such as being assured that he would be able to work in a particular practice group. In fact, he says, he was quite open in that respect.

With so many different legal subjects to be studied at uni, he found it almost impossible to pinpoint the area in which he would like to specialise, and almost a year into his career, he is still uncertain.

“I don’t want to be pigeon-holed into a particular area early in my career,” Gupta says. “The firm’s quite open about that and has got a very good policy in terms of making sure that the employees, young lawyers especially, are given a broad opportunity to get all this legal armoury and skills.”

Some of his friends, working in other firms, already feel as though they have been “pigeon-holed”, but many firms have rotation policies that enable graduates to experience different areas of law. At Gadens, Gupta says, “if you ask for a rotation, generally you are given one”.

“It really lets you feel the firm, feel the area of the law you’re interested in.”

At Allens, graduates complete two one-year rotations and Barnett has just finished her first. After a year in intellectual property, she has now been in the litigation group for three weeks.

“I was doing mostly litigious work in IP as well, so I am using the same skill set that I was developing, but in more general litigation work,” she says. “I know that I want to be a litigator, so it’s a matter of, as I progress through this year, deciding on how I want to specialise.”

The same system is used at Freehills. Jones is just finishing her rotation with the projects team and is in the midst of deciding where to go next. While her placement will depend on business need, she says the graduates are able to give “very definite preferences” and are heavily involved in the decision process.

With the projects team, she was exposed to “different experiences” on a “really good range of different matters”. The work was challenging with the opportunity to work on both government and private sector work, and she was able to get involved in “some really interesting infrastructure deals”.

“It was a good balance of tasks that I was asked to do, and I had a good level of client interaction,” she says. “I actually worked on some really interesting big deals. It was incredibly exciting, and it was what I was looking for in a way — high profile work that you have the potential to read about in the paper.

In line with that responsibility, Jones says she has received a level of training, support and mentoring that is more than adequate. “That is really important and I’ve really felt that has helped me through my first year.”

Gupta is currently working with the banking and finance team at Gadens, dealing with matters such as mortgages, mortgage enforcements, insolvencies and commercial litigation. “I never learnt these things at university and I think even if I had, it probably wouldn’t have helped that much,” he says.

His matters involve a lot of court work and as such, he is sometimes required to make submissions to judge or the registrar. “As a lawyer [with less than one year experience] to be standing up on your own feet and doing that is great. The partners here basically push you and throw you in the deep end and get you to feel what it is to be up there in court and getting that first hand experience.”

Being challenged early speeds up the learning process, Gupta says. “There may be firms out there that want to shelter their people and just let them steadily build up, whereas here, you’re really given some great work up front. That is probably what makes it so enjoyable.”

Which is not to say it is not intimidating. “When I first went to court — I think it was to return a subpoena — it was probably the most harrowing thing I’ve ever done,” he says. But with partners and solicitors all available to give advice, after a few hearings, “it becomes quite easy”.

His court experience has progressed to the point where he has driven matters in the Court of Appeal, with his partner overseeing the matter. “That was amazing. Sure, I made some mistakes but just to be able to do it was brilliant.”

In order to have the best chance of making a compatible match between candidate and firm, Jones says, it is vital that all parties be “open and honest” about their expectations. “If you present yourself in an interview or throughout the recruitment process as something you think employers want, you will probably end up suffering for it,” she says.

“You’ve really got to remember that this is the place where you’re going to work five days a week, so it has to be somewhere that you’re going to be happy to do that.”

According to Gupta, the recruitment process is an ideal way for aspiring lawyers to “learn a lot more about yourself, learn more about the firm and learn more about the profession that you’re going into.”

And firms need to ensure they are doing the right things to remain an attractive option for those lawyers. “I’ve still got a lot of mates in their last year of uni and they keep asking ‘What are the work hours like?’” He says every firm advertises work/life balance, but unless they are demonstrating their commitment to it, that is not enough.

Career development is another important consideration. At Gadens, Gupta says the HR teams and partners “basically nurture the young lawyers” and make sure they progress.

In terms of the interviews, Barnett says the most positive experiences she had were those conducted by the partners she would potentially be working with. “You had the opportunity to really get to know the people in the practice group that you would be working in,” she says.

“It was more difficult at firms where there was a quite formal HR type interview in the first round —it was more difficult to actually get a feel for the firm and the people you would be working with.” As well, any situation that provided the chance to mix with junior lawyers from the firm, who had just been through the graduate process, was “really helpful”.

“I guess what I wanted to know was that right from day one I would be able to get involved in interesting work, where I would be learning and developing skills and confidence, and getting the opportunity to have contact with the clients.”

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