Next week’s Queensland Law Students Careers Fair will be a brief chance for students to check out their employment options. And this year, the State’s firms want to sample the talent out there even before students graduate. Shaun Drummond investigates
While every year there seems to be a growing number of law students graduating, out of the hundreds of applications they will receive every year, law firms still have to capture and retain the ones that have the right mix of academic ability, talent and who fit the “culture” of the firm.
“With the recent debate about client service and work/life balance, a major issue for graduates and young lawyers is ‘cultural fit’,” says Amber Agustin, acting president of Queensland Young Lawyers.
“Some graduates will thrive in an intense, challenging environment and will not object to long hours, while others will prefer to maintain a more relaxed lifestyle.”
As a result, like their southern counterparts, top and mid-tier Queensland law firms have been refining their graduate recruitment programs to ensure they can get to know the potential candidates as much as possible. This has led to a shift in favour of vacation or seasonal clerkships as the primary source of recruits, meaning the pressure is on for students to start thinking about where they want to practise by at least their penultimate year.
Agustin says in fact there are indications clerkships are becoming the preference for firms and law students who wish to practise law should try to secure a number of vacation clerkships during their studies.
“I think in Queensland it is becoming more and more like the southern states, in particular more and more graduate positions are being filled out of vacation clerkship positions,” says Rolf Moses, HR Director at Minter Ellison’s Brisbane office.
Unlike most firms in the southern states, many Brisbane firms have or are introducing both summer and winter clerkships, but these run for much shorter periods and students will often have the chance to get experience at several firms.
“It’s relationship-based recruitment,” says Moses. “You can bring people in at a fourth-year graduate level and give them four weeks’ clerkship experience and really get to know them and they can really get to know you. So when you make a graduate offer, it’s based on a stronger relationship. [It] just brings some science and purpose to the clerkship program.”
Peter Cranitch, senior manager human resources at Queensland-based firm McCullough Robertson, says the way law firms recruit graduates needs a “fantastic shake-up”, particularly not just focusing on the few with the highest grade point average.
As part of this, he agrees some firms are expanding their seasonal clerkship program. In addition to their summer clerkships, McCullough Robertson introduced winter clerkships for the first time this year.
“We’re putting our foot in the water with that particular process and seeing how successful it is,” he says. It is a response to the high degree of competition for the best recruits, which is particularly acute in a small market such as Queensland.
“The traditional [way] has been to chase the top academic lawyers. I think that sort of approach to recruiting is probably one of the reasons we have such high labour turnover [in the profession],” he says.
“If you look at the way we’ve recruited people into our firms I think there are other ways we can do it because the legal profession has an extremely high turnover rate at the moment and so you have to address why that is happening.”
While the clerkship programs have been there for some time, he says they were more seen as a “service to the industry” rather than as a “pure recruitment tool”.
“I think what’s actually happened from my point of view is that the major firms are chasing the same candidates with the traditional approach.” As well as limiting the pool of candidates, he says focusing on high academic achievers may mean the firms miss the graduates who have a range of other qualities that may be equally important.
Katrina Mills, HR manager at McInnes Wilson Lawyers, says her firm is really looking for “allrounders” as well as people “who are going to have a really good work ethic, but also have a good sense of fun about them”.
McInnes Wilson prefers to recruit students with a grade point average of 4.5 or above, but Mills says that’s “pretty flexible”. Also important are good social skills and that they can demonstrate they can work well in a team, “whether it’s debating, or the chess club, as long as they have been involved in something around teams”.
The Brisbane office of Dibbs Abbott Stillman has both summer and winter clerkships, but their main intake is over the summer period as a mid-year clerkship clashes with the busy period at the end of the financial year. People and operations manager Shameelta Pratap says vacation clerks then provide the candidates for their main internal graduate recruits, who are chosen from their research clerks.
The split between direct graduate recruits and internal hires varies, but she says at Dibbs it is about 50/50. But importantly, she says anyone who has a research clerk position has a good chance of gaining a graduate position.
Mills at McInnes Wilson says vacation clerkships are particularly important because they give the firm a chance to test people out “without making a big commitment to them”. “And also the same goes for [law students], they can test out firms to see if it’s what they are interested in.”
Like Pratap, Mills says many of those who do clerkships then move on to part-time law clerk positions in the final year of their degree. “We find that works really well, it gives you a really good feeder pool [for graduate positions],” she says.
“Even if someone hasn’t done a clerkship with us, it gives them more of a chance with us because we can see they have the interest to go and do one plus they have the practical experience.”
While there is a trend towards more graduates being sourced through seasonal clerkships in Queensland, Moses at Minters says clerkships are unlikely to be as important to graduate recruitment as they have become in NSW. This is particularly because seasonal clerkships in Queensland are generally only between two and six weeks compared to the 10 or 12 weeks common down south, and students can try out a few firms.
“It’s a cultural difference. In Queensland, most firms offer vacation clerkships of around four weeks at a time, which means that traditionally law students can do more than one vacation clerkship.
“So there’s just this culture here that it’s good to do a few clerkships and then make your mind up. That’s one reason why I don’t think we are going to go to recruiting exclusively out of summer clerkships.”
Mills also says recruiting students who have already graduated is equally as important as clerkships, but how many of these they take on will often be contingent on how many vacation clerks were recruited in previous years. For instance, there will be a bigger intake of graduates this year as the firm recruited a lot fewer vacation clerks last year.
Many of the top-tier and mid-tier firms adhere to Graduate Employment Guidelines, which set the dates for graduate applications and offers in March/April every year. This year, however, Mills says McIness Wilson chose to recruit in September/October.
This was to ensure changes to its graduate training program under the national profession laws implemented last year in Queensland were bedded down. This includes moving from a two-year to a one-year article clerkship combined with practical legal training courses.
At the same time, like Cranitch, Mills says it is important to not be trying to recruit the same top candidates as all the other firms and delaying the main graduate recruitment intake to later in the year avoids this to a certain extent.
“At the beginning of the year you’ve got the kids that are really keen and applying for everything. So I don’t think they are necessarily at their best,” she says. “I didn’t want to be in a situation where we had found the top 10 but they are the same top 10 that every other firm had.”