In my previous job as a legal recruiter, and now as a career adviser to the students and recent graduates of UNSW Law, the same set of questions repeatedly come up. Here is a sample of the questions and my responses… some of which may surprise you:
• Q. Should I include my non-legal work experience in my resume?
A. Definitely! As a junior lawyer, working and/or volunteering in a range of jobs over the summer break or part-time during university, demonstrates that you are not lazy. It also serves as an excellent example of your 'soft' skills such as being proactive, hard working, creative, having an eye for detail, etc.
• Q. How long is 'too long' for me to defer work after graduation?
A. You’re only young once, as they say. If you want to travel, learn a language or try out a passion (music, acting, etc) do it now. I know your parents and friends will tell you that it’s not a great job market out there and that you’d better knuckle down. But, if you’re lucky and have a job offer, you can usually defer the start date. For those of you who haven’t, who knows… the job market may actually have improved once you’re ready to start working. As long as we’re talking 12 to 18 months maximum, you should be fine. Most employers recognise this period as a 'rite of passage' and prefer that you get it out of your system before they invest in your career.
• Q. Do I need a commerce degree to get into a commercial law firm, investment bank or consultancy?
A. No, you do not. A law degree combined with Arts, Science, Engineering, Psychology, etc, is of equal merit to employers. Study the subjects you are interested in – you will do better marks-wise and enjoy yourself far more in the process.
• Q. Can I go straight to the Bar?
A. Technically, you can. However, a few years honing your litigation skills in a law firm will definitely stand you in good stead.
• Q. Do I need to work in a law firm before I apply to a trading or investment bank, consultancy or big four accounting firm?
A. No, you do not. All these organisations have graduate recruitment programs and actually prefer to get your 'raw' talent.
• Q. Is there an ideal time to leave private practice for an in-house role?
A. It’s wise to get a solid base of experience under your belt to enable you to add value in your new role. On average, the three-year mark is when most young lawyers come into their own and have the confidence to handle most work that comes their way. It is also the time when thoughts about 'that next career move' surface. Junior in-house roles are generally pitched at the two to four-year post qualification experience range, while slightly more senior roles are looking for graduates with four to six years' experience.
• Q. When is it too early to jump ship to another job?
A. In my opinion, it’s never too early if you feel ready. If the role appeals, go for it, even if you are more junior than the position description calls for – you will continue to grow and learn in your new role. When it comes to a junior lawyer, employers are only looking for some relevant skills plus the all-important 'fit'.
• Q. How do I move up the tree in an in-house role?
A. Depending on the size of the legal team, which can often be quite small (three to five lawyers and sometimes only one other lawyer) with no defined career path unless other lawyers leave or retire, the only way up might be out. In other words, your strategy is to 'jump ship' at an appropriate time in order to move up the ladder. Alternatively, there may be the opportunity with your employer to move sideways into the business, into strategic and/or management roles.
Facing the job market as a graduate can be a confusing time. The important thing to remember is not to make assumptions – if in doubt, ask someone you trust! If any readers have questions for me in the comments, I’m more than happy to help.
Joanne Glanz is the manager for career services at UNSW