Some say a law degree is the new arts degree, but should they actually want to practise law, law students will increasingly have to give up their summers long before they give up their weekends. Shaun Drummond spoke to students and recent graduates about some of the big decisions ahead
Despite a strong economy, a big intake of graduates a few years ago and high growth in law student numbers is conspiring to keep competition for graduate legal positions fierce. The shift to seasonal clerkships as the primary source of recruits among many firms in NSW also means students have to have their ear to the ground and find ways to gain introductions to the firms they would like to work for well in advance of their final year.
So, like the firms, the students will be keen to use the opportunity of the Sydney Law Careers Fair to put a face to a law firm, get a feel for what’s on offer and maybe even get a foot in the door.
To practise or not?
Although some say there has been an “exponential” increase in law students in recent years, many are not looking to practise. Perhaps a reflection of this is the larger proportion of the 38 exhibitors at this year’s Fair that are not law firms — up from four to twelve.
Danny Yap, UNSW Law Society vice president, marketing and careers, says deciding whether you are going to start your career in a law firm, or use your legal skills in other areas is one of the most important decisions to make. “That’s important because if you go into a non-legal career, it’s a harder to go back and into law afterwards. The pressure is on to get your practising certificate straight after university,” he says.
Like many, he is opting for a less “traditional” direction and intends to go into the “financial area”, which is in line with his interests and, he says, pays better than the law.
Firm intake fluctuates, and demand over the last few years appears to have been particularly flat. He says this fact allied with the unabated increase in the number of law students means looking for other careers outside the law is more than worthwhile.
“It’s very hard to get a position. [Law firms] generally recruit exclusively from their clerks,” he says. “So in our penultimate year everybody basically applies for internships and if you don’t get one of the internships at one of the top firms, it’s very difficult to secure a graduate position because the big firms …[on year] they recruit around 30 to 40 clerks, then they take their graduate intake straight from them. The next year they might just recruit about five or six grads.”
He says 2003 was a particularly lean year. This year the intake “feels like it’s on the up again”, partly due to a booming economy.
The return of clerkships
Although NSW did away with article clerkships some time ago, internships seem to be making a comeback in the form of summer clerkships, with many of the top-tier firms only recruiting in this manner through a centralised recruitment website.
Christopher Palmer, a recent recruit at Middletons, says that there was a big intake a few years ago and the firms are still absorbing those. “I think it has been particularly difficult for graduates in the past two years.” Although their figures were inflated because they advertised outside the normal recruitment period starting in March, Middletons, had more than 400 applicants when he applied at the end of last year, from which they took on eight, two of which had already been working as paralegals.
Palmer says the shortage of opportunities is not so much to do with an oversupply of new graduates, but partly because law firms focus on recruiting from those who already have experience. “The year before I did my clerkship [at a top-tier firm], 2000 it must have been, they had a massive intake. I remember Mallesons took something like 50 summer clerks, and that was replicated across the big firms, and it took a while for the law firms to absorb all those graduates at various intakes.”
Cara Hegarty, the president of the UTS Law Students’ Society, says more and more students perceive they have to get a clerkship to have any chance of finding a job at a law firm. “The general understanding is … that if you get a summer clerkship, you are pretty much guaranteed a graduate job unless you stuff up terribly.”
To some extent, though, Hegarty believes the importance of the summer clerkship is overstated. “Not everyone is suited to a corporate law firm, you have to be a specific type of person to fit into that environment and I think people get caught up with the idea of ‘oh it will be so great, I’ll get one and they’ll train you really well, and I’ll get all this money’, that they don’t pause to evaluate if that’s really where they want to be.”
To compound the issue, president of the Australian Law Students Association (ALSA), Elizabeth Hundt, says many of the clerkship and paralegal positions are often not widely advertised. “In NSW and ACT, if you don’t get a clerkship, it does seem to be the trend that there’s less and less formal graduate opportunities available,” she says. “You see that with many firms that don’t even have formal graduate recruitment processes. They will look at applications, but they are not calling for them.”
One recent recruit at Raj Lawyers, Trevor Hyde, managed to get a position through the firm’s graduate program after introducing himself at last year’s Law Careers Fair. He says although he had applied for clerkships, he didn’t realise their real importance until he started looking for a position in his final year. “I probably feel as though I cut myself off at the knees by not applying for a lot of clerkships because it then stopped me applying for a lot of the larger firms.
“I think that it is good for the firms as they have a chance to see who they are recruiting … on a trial period before they make the actual graduate offers, but it is tough on the student who isn’t ... available for the clerkship period,” he says.
Partly in an effort to formalise the clerkship recruitment process, ALSA is planning to launch a new website in July where firms will be able to post for free a profile of their firm, including details of their recruitment process, as well as any clerkships, internships or paralegal positions they may have available. “There’s a lot of word of mouth, or ‘my friend works there, that’s how I got it’. We are just trying to streamline the process a little bit.”
Will you be “worked like a dog”?
The shift back to on the job training while still at university is a harbinger of the tough environment students are likely to find when they do start work. If they had any illusions, these were dispelled by the recent comments from Allens Arthur Robinson’s managing partner Tom Poulton. He was quoted by the Business Review Weekly in a recent review of his firm: “You don’t say ‘Sorry I can’t do it, I’m playing cricket on the weekend’ ... You don’t have a right to any free time.”
“I do not know if that is the best way to recruit a really good culture,” says Hegarty. “The top-tier firms, there is that fear that you are going to be worked like a dog and that will be all. It is that idea that it will be a great place to work, but not a fun place.”
She says a firm’s attitude to work hours is important, especially for those who would like to start a family. However, she says “it would really depend — if you had three offers on the table, that would definitely be one of the main [things you would make your decision on]”.
Yap says Poulton’s comments are “not a major concern”. “A lot of law students, they are quite ambitious. They are willing to work long hours.”
Nevertheless, being comfortable with what a firm stands for and the kind of people that work for the firm is a factor when deciding where to apply: “It’s not really their reputation. They are all at the top. It’s probably more to do with the people that you meet and the culture of the firm that you encounter. That’s something that’s really important.”
Nathan Laird, president of NSW Young Lawyers, says law students are now a lot more sophisticated about how they approach firms. He says they are asking for “flexible work practices, no glass ceiling in the firm, good training … [they are] really looking for a firm that values them and will train them as well as nurture them.” He says firms are “speaking that language”, and whether or not it is actually being put into practice, people are asking those questions and being much more direct about it.”