It is once more that time of year when many law students who want to try their hand at practising law start to feel the pressure. On 19 July this year, New South Wales clerkship applications close. Following this deadline come the sighs of relief, the seemingly endless waiting and the joys and sorrows that follow each phone call and each email. It is a roller-coaster.
This was the path I followed last year when I underwent the daunting clerkship process. Now, I am – quite thankfully – reduced to a mere observer. Yet, like many an older student before, I have been called upon as a mentor in formal and informal capacities to assist those undergoing applications.
As a mentor, I have sought to impress upon my mentees the approach that I used (or attempted to use) during my own clerkship application period: think carefully about why you want to apply, be organised, and always maintain a self-reflective and positive attitude. Yet, the more I have observed, the clearer it has become that there is a limit to what the applicant as an individual can do.
The dark side of clerkship year
The insight that I have gained is not new. It is an issue that is flagged about law students in general, whether during the clerkship process or otherwise. It comes down to one word.
No matter how positive or accomplished the student is, many who have asked me questions about the clerkship process have noted the fierce competition within their cohort and how that has impacted their relationships with fellow students. A level of competition is understandable.
Yet I am concerned when I hear students say the competition spills over to infect friendships and the vibe of law school. Particularly, I worry when I hear statements like ‘all my friends have really changed’ and ‘my friends and I only talk about clerkships these days’.
This kind of competition is unhealthy. It can add significantly to the stress experienced by a penultimate-year law student. This is doubly or triply negative due to the pressures that are imposed on students by the penultimate year in general. Law school is already a challenging and competitive environment.
Undergoing applications is also no walk in the park. Add to this the fact that life must go on – whether in the form of part-time work, extracurriculars and other commitments – and it becomes ever more important that there be positive, rather than negative, competition.
Play the game together
To all prospective clerkship applicants, I hope this message reaches you. The clerkship process is challenging and there are limited spots available. But to view the fight as one against your direct peers is damaging. Rather, we should see the fight as between the students as a collective against the employment market.
In the positive spirit that I have seen students utilise in preparing for other aspects of law school, put a bigger emphasis on helping each other throughout the clerkship process. Gather and share advice on applications and interviews together. Continue to hold study groups for your courses. Be able to celebrate everyone’s successes, while also being sensitive and supportive to those who receive disappointing news.
Perhaps most importantly, take breaks from talking and thinking about clerkships. Your opportunities are much wider than this narrow subset of the legal industry. Therefore, it is important to take a step back to gain perspective. So if you find yourself putting off that jog or brunch with a friend in order to do more practice interview questions, stop. And if you see another friend doing the same, call them up and go on that jog together.
Sure, this could all be idealistic. But clerkships could be a team sport, rather than an individual vendetta. Perhaps it is not possible for everyone to emerge as a winner. However, the clerkship process can at least be made a more positive experience by working collectively, rather than ending up as a gruelling law school version of the Hunger Games that leaves few happy at the end.
Reyna Ge is a final year commerce/ law student at UNSW, who completed clerkships at Allens in Sydney and Linklaters in London.