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Probationary blues: What they never tell you at uni

Probationary blues: What they never tell you at uni

Heeding some simple advice could make your time as a summer clerk a lot more effective and enjoyable, writes Megan Edwards.

Heeding some simple advice could make your time as a summer clerk a lot more effective and enjoyable, writes Megan Edwards.

There are around 28,000 law students in Australia – and at the end of each year many of them find themselves in a law firm for the first time, some as summer clerks and some as graduate solicitors. It’s not always an easy transition. As the pressure grows to secure positions, making that transition successfully becomes all the more important. 

Take casual Fridays for example. How casual is casual? Will the jewelled thongs you are trying to hide under the desk get noticed when you attend an impromptu Friday afternoon conference with a senior counsel? I learned the answer to that the hard way. Yes they will get noticed, they will be commented on, and you will be embarrassed.

Besides keeping dress shoes and a jacket in the office for those unexpected last-minute meetings, being aware of the following tips and truths can help summer clerks avoid the Probationary Blues.

Social: Young lawyers have grown up on social media – but when you’ve joined a firm make sure your status updates don’t disparage your employer, colleagues or, most importantly, your clients. Comments like “I’m sitting here billing and I’ve no idea what I’m doing” or “My clients are so dumb, why do they even bother” may not immediately reach your partner or client, but your friends reading those posts may one day be your colleagues, your bosses or potential clients, and they will remember.

Confidential: You have professional and ethical obligations regarding confidential information. Comments in status updates such as “We just settled that matter for $2 million”, or “I can’t believe X is a client, he’s in some serious trouble” will likely breach that obligation and could potentially jeopardise your ability to be admitted to practice.   Current and potential clients can be scared away from you, and your firm, based on what they have seen on social media.  

Networking:  Use the opportunity in your firm to build your professional network. You are meeting new people who work in what is now your profession and impressions are important. The legal profession is very tight-knit, so don’t burn any bridges – be friendly, and demonstrate a quality of work people will respect.  You may move on, but you never know when you may meet these people again. 

Experience:  A lot of summer clerks and graduate solicitors have been sold on the “work-life balance” and “hands-on experience” promises of their new firm.  Still, be prepared to start at the bottom. While a firm may promise you all sorts of experiences, invariably you will spend some time photocopying, filing documents and delivering briefs. Expect to do it – it’s appreciated by your colleagues, it helps you learn basic skills (such as court processes) and in a few years when you are asking someone else to do it you will know what’s required.  Refusing to photocopy because it is “beneath you” is definitely a no-no.

Prepared:  Never walk into a colleague’s office without a pen and a notepad. Senior staff will often give you instructions on the run, and if you don’t write them down you may forget. Also never leave an office without being clear about exactly what is required; asking a few questions is preferable to spending hours researching all the cases and commentary in Australia to date regarding the qualified privilege defence – there are approximately 18,800 references on Austlii - when in fact all that’s needed is an update of the cases that refer to the qualified privilege defence in the NSW Supreme Court in 2013 and there’s only about 15 of those.

Notes: Always keep file notes of conversations, what research you’ve done, what resources you’ve used and note the date and time taken. It’s particularly important for summer clerks who will head back to uni, leaving someone else to pick up the file where they left off. There’s nothing worse for a client than duplicated work, and nothing worse for a colleague than picking up an incomplete file.

Mea culpa:  Always admit your mistakes.  Trying to hide your errors or embarrassment will come back to bite you – telling an appropriate person of an error means that steps can be put in place quickly to fix it, benefitting the client in the end.

Expectations:  You can say no to a task – but have a reason. It’s the most difficult part of being a summer clerk; everyone will want to give you work, but promising you can deliver on all tasks at all times will eventually lead to disappointment if you are drowning. If stretched with competing tasks then tell the partner that you also have to do X for Y partner by Z date. Try and manage expectations.

Deadlines: Always make sure you ask for a deadline whenever you get instructions. You may stay all night and work on an advice only to find it wasn’t due for a week, whereas the matter you put at the bottom of the pile could be very urgent. And remember that telling a partner that you can’t meet a deadline because you have a spin class at 5pm can prove career limiting.

Balance: Partners don’t (generally) expect you to give up your life entirely when you join a law firm, but they will expect you to be flexible. Lawyers do work until the early hours of the morning if it’s needed. You will have to muck in and help out if tasks need to be done. Given you bill out at a lower rate it’s often more efficient, and cost effective for the client, for you to stay to do tasks like photocopying rather than a senior associate or partner. If, for some (good) reason you can’t stay late then let the partner know immediately so that they can sort out an alternative arrangement.

Team: Be prepared to work as a member of a team – with all staff at all levels of the firm. Be courteous and ask for assistance rather than demanding it. The secretary probably does know more than you do when you are starting out.

Emails: If you are sending or drafting an email remember that you are still representing a client. “Hey mate” will attract a partner’s scorn and red pen in a nanosecond.

Dress:  It depends on the office, but as a general rule a suit and tie for men and a work suit with a collared shirt for women.  Make sure your shoes are comfortable – you will inevitably run errands and it’s a long, long walk from most law firm offices to the courts in pumps.

Casual Friday: It’s different at every firm. Dress “up” for your first Friday and gauge what’s appropriate. Casual clothes are unlikely to be appropriate if you have to attend a client meeting or go to court, where work attire is needed.  Torn jeans and cropped tops may look good at a bar on Friday night, but not when serving documents on another firm.  And ditch the jewelled thongs – trust me.

Megan Edwards graduated seven years ago and is now a senior lawyer with Truman Hoyle.

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Probationary blues: What they never tell you at uni
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