The winner of the Freehills Prize for the Top Student in Employment Law at Melbourne University for 2009 has attributed her success to having worked part-time in a small firm.
Kate Oaten, a graduate lawyer at Melbourne's Aitken Partners, worked one day a week at the firm for her final two years of study, and believes this gave her a definite academic advantage.
"Working as a paralegal at a firm like Aitken Partners while completing my studies was the best thing I could have done," said Oaten.
"When I began my traineeship program a few months ago, I already knew what to expect in terms of the corporate law world. I had been exposed to real work ... and I was able to deal with real issues and real clients."
Oaten also believes that the size of the firm allowed her to experience much more than she would have in a larger firm.
"I think smaller law firms are great for graduates. There are some fantastic people to learn from ... and I had a broad range of work and experience and quite a bit of client contact and responsibility," she said.
President of the Australian Law Students Association (ALSA), Jonathan Augustus, also believes that long-term, practical experience in a law firm is far more valuable to students than a clerkship spanning several weeks.
"For some students, the clerkship ... [is more about] going to meet and greets, trying to fit into the firm culture and showing that you belong there and that you would be a good person to choose to work there permanently," said Augustus.
"You don't go in [to the clerkship] with the mindset of, 'I'm going to learn as much as I can in this practice group.' It is a completely different mindset."
And when it comes to breaking into the highly competitive legal market, Augustus believes that having worked at a small firm over a few years is likely to give you a head start.
"From a legal skills point of view, there is no doubt that working in a firm [casually] is more valuable than doing a clerkship. If you are only [at the firm] for a few weeks, you will do small menial tasks, so [a clerkship] is more about experiencing the culture of that firm as opposed to learning," he said.
"If you have had previous practical experience, you are going to be one step ahead of everyone else."
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