WHEN THEY enter a firm for the first time, new lawyers are almost always completely unprepared for much of the work they will have to do, according to Lawyers Weekly sources.
Lawyers with just one year’s experience inside firms revealed in interviews for Lawyers Weekly’s sister publication Lawyer2B, out next week, that while they were well-versed in the law after their university years, they knew virtually nothing about what it means to be a lawyer when they entered their firms for the first time.
Speaking about where their sharpest learning curves were when they first went into law, the young lawyers said university had not prepared them for client contact, client expectations, and business development.
One lawyer, Henry Davis York solicitor Stephen Iu, said the firm has taught him most of what he now knows about effectively serving clients. He said one of the most interesting parts about his job has been realising that while he expected to predominantly focus on the law itself while dealing with clients, the clients themselves are looking at the commercial side of any case or matter.
He said that university had not fully prepared him for this. “Some subjects are really good. I did PLT [practical legal training] at [the University of Technology, Sydney] and some of those subjects were quite handy. But there is nothing teaching you what a commercial decision is and nothing teaches you about being client focused,” said Iu.
He was surprised to learn upon entering a law firm that law is essentially a service industry, “you have to focus on the clients”.
While Iu himself had previously worked in IT, which had taught him to see things commercially, he believes that the average university course does not prepare lawyers for what they are going to do inside a law firm.
“Clients see the commercial side of the law, whereas you see the legal side of things. [You learn that] you might be seeing these legal decisions and they might not understand that, or they don’t think it is quite as important as the commercial decision,” he said.
According to Mahlab Recruitment (NSW) senior consultant Rosemary Galic, while university does not teach law students about the commercial side of working in a law firm, there are opportunities later on to learn this.
“They’re not properly prepared for the commercial side of what working in a firm entails. But I think that is what PLT is meant to be about. You learn this when you go to the College of Law, and a lot of firms are now doing the PLT course in-house. That is what that is meant to be. You complete those subjects and you do the practical component and that satisfies the requirements for admission. That is meant to prepare you for practice. That is just a snapshot into the legal profession, but it is something,” she said.
Larger firms are prepared to give new graduates this type of experience, said Galic. They often have their own in-house PLT courses, which they tinker with, so they are very specific to the big firm. There is less focus on subjects like family law, and even accounts, she said.
“In a big firm you just don’t have to deal with the accounts; the finance department does that. There is more focus on the commercial side of things: clients, relationships, business development, communicating, interviewing skills, that sort of thing. So there is more emphasis on corporate/commercial and business development matters than there is in on the other subjects that you would normally focus on at the College of Law.”
The first real training for new graduates comes before PLT, when they are just summer clerks and articled clerks, said Galic. At this stage the graduates have a couple of months to get a feel for how the firm operates, including how to deal with clients.
“Clerks would mainly be sitting there doing research … But they also just sit in with virtually everything that a partner does. They go to meetings and just sit there and be scribes for hours. This way they learn about the commercial environment.
“They may not necessarily learn how to apply any of the law, they may not understand what is going on, but they are sitting there and they are developing as juniors. So that starts at the clerkship level, and then by the time they get to graduate level that is when they do the PLT course. And again that is aimed at getting them a little bit more commercial,” said Galic.