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Experience in the law

Experience in the law

New educational opportunities and more enlightened attitudes towards those who come late to the legal profession, according to the Later Lawyers Network, mean law firms are starting to…

New educational opportunities and more enlightened attitudes towards those who come late to the legal profession, according to the Later Lawyers Network, mean law firms are starting to recognise the benefits of employing professionals for whom law is a second career

What would induce a successful physiotherapist with a thriving practice, like Carol Geyer, to sell up her business and embark on becoming a lawyer? Why would a successful engineer, like Donald Charrett, give up his role as a senior principal of a large consulting engineering company to undertake a law degree and ultimately practise in the frenetic environment of a city law firm like Mallesons Stephen Jaques?

Such questions are being asked of those that have abandoned successful, not to mention lucrative careers as merchant bankers, engineers, doctors, dentists, nurses, police officers, teachers, etc. to enter the law as ‘later lawyers’.

This is no mean feat, because the current state of the market for law graduates would appear to be against them. After first securing a place at university to undertake the highly sought after and arduous law degree, these ‘wannabe lawyers’ must then either secure the coveted prize of articles, an initial 12 months of employment under a principal of a legal firm or a corporation, or undertake a practical legal training course before being admitted to practise.

Over the past two years, many law firms have decided not to significantly increase their intake of articled clerks, in line with commercial pressures. Similarly, educational institutions offering practical legal training courses are bowing under the pressure of increasing numbers of law graduates who have been unable to obtain articles.

In such a competitive market, how do applicants for whom law is their second career fare? Most recruitment personnel are pessimistic about the prospects of later lawyers securing an entry level position. The legal profession is conservative and slow to change in relation to attitudes about youth, articled clerks and junior solicitors. The profession wants young people — as their glossy brochures and slick websites, festooned with fresh young faces, clearly show. However, this pessimism regarding later lawyers is not a fair reflection of what is actually happening in the market.

What the legal profession wants is well qualified, well trained practitioners, whatever their background or age. Law firms, both large and small, compete with each other for the best graduates, generally those with the best marks. Mature aged law graduates with good marks, who have also been at the top of their first professional life, are an added bonus.

Given that the legal profession has a shortage of second- to third-year lawyers, due in part to a large drop-out rate, mature-aged entrants with considerable experience in their previous life have an edge. Ellie Delafield, of the Law Institute of Victoria’s Later Lawyers group, is pursuing her passion for family law. Now an articled clerk with Moores Legal, and last year’s winner of the prestigious Best Overall Business in the City of Whitehorse award, she has brought to the firm an extensive knowledge of family services and experience in dealing with family disputes.

Similarly, Carol Geyer, also an articled clerk with Moores Legal, brought with her exceptional skills in business management, in addition to an extensive medical knowledge relevant to personal injury and employment. From the business perspective, both Carol and Ellie are able to contribute to the firm’s practice in a way that a younger graduate could not, thus enabling them to bridge that first year void.

Lawyers who come to the profession at a more mature age generally have mortgages, they can balance their accounts, and they have been employees or business owners. They have probably haggled with sales people to buy a car. They have had to negotiate the lease, sale or purchase of a home, probably more than once. They know about stamp duty.

These experiences not only give them valuable interpersonal skills but an appreciation of how the commercial world operates, its economic challenges and frustrations. They are experienced in time management, having successfully juggled the demands of personal and family affairs with the substantial time commitments required to acquire a law degree.

More specifically, lawyers with experience of other spheres understand the context in which particular transactions occur as part of the commercial world and may have had first-hand experience as a lawyer’s client on the “other side of the fence”. Thus, they can more readily apply the theory of law to its practice than can many of the younger graduates. This enables them to come up with practical, workable solutions for the multitude of problems business clients face.

Further, an ability to get across to a client that they understand clients’ commercial issues, along with age parity, allows later lawyers to command respect. Hence they can be productive practitioners and contribute to generating income for the firm at a much earlier stage in their careers. A prime example of this is Dr Donald Charrett, who holds a PhD in engineering, and who is a later lawyer with Mallesons Stephen Jaques. Charrett’s commercial experience included extensive corporate work with joint ventures in Asia, the USA, the UK and Australia, including corporate restructures, contract assessment and even being an expert witness.

Marketing the benefits to law firms in hiring mature-aged lawyers, and assisting them to create support networks is the focus of the Later Lawyers Network, a new group which the Law Institute of Victoria has initiated. The group aims to help these lawyers make the most of their abilities and experiences by enhancing their networking opportunities. Later lawyers prefer to use networks to promote themselves to potential employers rather than the traditional routes to gaining articled clerkships, which are aimed at younger graduates.

In the past, many articled clerks were selected directly from the pool of students who participated in a firm’s summer and winter clerkship programmes. Summer and winter clerkships are short-term, paid employment opportunities for law students, and are offered by law firms during university vacation periods. These clerkships give participating firms a chance to see potential articled clerks first hand. The summer and winter clerkships programs are mainly marketed towards young students and the three to four week structured programs reflect this. Strong networks assist later lawyers to circumvent this process.

One of the advantages of having had a previous life is that networking opportunities are likely to be stronger. Coupled with advanced interpersonal skills, confidence, age parity and business savvy, later lawyers tend to approach senior associates and partners directly and circumvent the mass recruitment process aimed at younger graduates. However, there is also evidence that law firms are now selecting later lawyers as articled clerks as part of their normal recruitment process. This is an encouraging indication that firms recognise the contribution that later lawyers can make to legal a practice.

The need to encourage this type of lawyer with good commercial experience has been recognised to some degree by educational institutions which are offering courses and pathways suited to mature-aged entrants. For example, in Victoria, the University of Melbourne’s JD, a two-year intensive law degree, is a fast-track qualification for those who already hold a degree in another discipline. Monash University’s Postgraduate Diploma in Legal Practice (PDLP) allows graduates to do a 22-week practical training course in lieu of articles to gain admission to practise law.

Since it started in 2000, there have been 14 to 15 mature-aged graduates per year from the Monash PDLP, and approximately 50 graduates annually from the University of Melbourne’s JD. There is also the long standing Leo Cussen Institute, which offers a seven-month practical legal training course. In 2004, the Leo Cussen Institute will be offering law graduates the opportunity to do their training online. Courses such as these offer an attractive route for aspiring later lawyers.

No doubt, there are still difficulties in relation to securing that first position. However, the Later Lawyers Network illustrates that competent and well-qualified lawyers, despite starting later than most in their profession, do have something to offer a legal practice which adds value.

One major advantage later lawyers have, which is not to be underrated, is that they have a real passion for the law. This is particularly the case with those who have given up lucrative careers to pursue legal practice. Coupled with obvious tenacity, later lawyers provide any firm who hires them with confirmation of their energy and a huge commitment to the law.

Those who have always wanted to be a lawyer, but have been thwarted by economic circumstances, bureaucracy, and/or unfortunate scholastic results in their youth, there’s no doubt about it: they will always want to be a lawyer. The good news is that thanks to new and more accessible educational opportunities, changing attitudes, and a more open approach by the legal profession in general towards later lawyers and what they have to offer, significant opportunities can be found.

The authors of this article are Deborah Bucher, Ellie Delafield, Carol Geyer and Lariss Oana who are all members of the Law Institute of Victorias Later Lawyers Network

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