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A letter to my law student self

A letter to my law student self

To my law student self (some 15 years or so ago), this is just a little letter to you (from me now) about all the things no one will have the guts to tell you to your face, but you will eventually figure out (the long hard way), writes Mediation Answers principal Zoe Durand.

Culture change – Good vibes, bad vibes, your vibe

Okay, so this is the one you feel a pit in your stomach about. Will you need to give up who you are to be a lawyer? It is funny because many young lawyers entering the profession still ask me this now.

Starting out in a grown-up corporate law firm (coming from the endless library lawn fields) will involve a cultural shift. You know that student everyone calls “The Nomad” (no one actually knows his real name)? The guy who wanders the law school lawn, in an actual calico kaftan (where does one even source a calico kaftan from?) with long hair and no shoes even in winter. You probably won’t see his tribe at a law firm. Likewise I don’t think the partners at your first law firm would be impressed if you arrived on day one wearing your favourite good luck pink belly dancing tulle ankle length tutu skirt with leggings and beaded mirrored singlet.

Also, when you have that position as a junior lawyer on the firms networking group committee, don’t actually go ahead with that suggestion that they host their next networking event at Good Vibes. I am doing a facepalm right now. Okay, so the equity partner seems open to it. That is probably because he thinks Good Vibes is a not-for-profit legal charity that helps empower disenfranchised members of society with legal advice... It may take you a few years to realise you are not at university anymore.

You see, starting in a law firm is like arriving as a random guest at an overseas wedding, where you aren’t familiar with the customs. You can’t expect the entire culture to change for you. There is no need to be “fake” as such, but you start out small and slowly feel out as to where the boundaries are, rather than be the full blown Z-O-E version from day one. It is a dynamic relationship though and eventually as you establish yourself, your work will speak for itself and it will be increasingly acceptable to reveal more and more layers of who you are. Believe it or not some time in about your late 30’s you will feel very comfortable in law land. In fact, you won’t even care that you don’t wear your pink tulle skirt anymore.

Getting into and out of jobs

Finding that first job is a little tricky. In your final year of law school you will trudge to the university library every evening at about 7pm and stay there till midnight applying for literally hundreds of jobs. Most of the time you won’t even get a “no” just a void of silence. Similar to when cute guys that have lots of options just ghost you and stop responding on SMS. Silence is an answer. And the rejection is just as crushing. But don’t be crushed. Keep going.

You’ll cold call firms and one time the conversation will go like this: “Hello my name is Zoe and I am a law student looking –” and the response will be “Nope” followed by a disconnected line before you even finish the sentence. It will seem as though you will never get a graduate role. But you will and when you do, you will be one of only 8 out of 800 applicants. Of course this doesn’t mean you are necessarily objectively more special than the other 792. There is an element of luck in both not getting and getting jobs.

Also there are these people called “recruiters” who help with finding jobs. One day in your first year as a lawyer you will receive an invitation to an event for “young lawyers”. You don’t understand that it is hosted by a recruitment firm and happily tell your work colleagues and boss you have been invited to this free party with food and drink for young lawyers hosted by so and so. Well, why wouldn’t someone want to host a free party for young lawyers for no reason other than to hang out with them?

Eventually a colleague will take you aside and explain that this is a party hosted by a recruitment firm which is fine, but not to announce to the boss you are going to such events. Facepalm number two.

In addition to luck, there is also the question of your CV. I hate to tell you this but you have a terrible CV. Listen to your childhood friend also studying law (who will one day be an incredibly (in)famous tax barrister) when he tells you to take out all references to the Cataphibian (the imaginary animal you invented in year 4 for a science project, which admittedly did place Second in the state for Young Scientist of the Year Award) and gives you some reality testing: “I mean, if someone even let’s you through the door for an interview they will be wondering ‘is she going to bring the Cataphibian? Do you think she thinks it actually exists?’” The moment the Cataphibian is extinct (along with the Dodo) surprise, surprise you will get a job.

Here is the worst part – you actually will get the opportunity to work in a top-tier firm as a paralegal over the summer at one point in university. A word of warning. When they tell you “you can work whatever hours you need to complete this research project” that doesn’t actually mean “you can work whatever hours you need.” Put more bluntly, leaving at 3pm most days so you can go to Bondi beach for a swim with your boyfriend is NOT a good look. Facepalm again and again on loop. Yes, I understand there is not much work to do on the project. Find something else to do. Write some articles and propose the firm publish them, network, research, find something – anything – to do till at least 5pm. (And sorry to that firm!)

As with most law students, after finding it so hard to actually get into a law firm, it comes as a surprise when you actually want to get out of one. Years later, when you have actually evolved into a decent employee, indeed one who works quite hard, there will come a time when you tell your supervisor (at a place I will not name) that you are being bullied by the person above them (who is a notorious bully). When the response is “oh yes they just target and bully everyone for a few months, then eventually move onto the next person. It has been going on for years...” that is your cue to resign. I know what I am saying is controversial, but when it is you versus someone much more powerful and that person has been bullying for the last decade and is still there, you are not going to come out on top if you take this further. Unfortunately, sometimes the only real choice you have is the choice to stay or the choice to go.

Of course, you can’t just up and leave every time there is a minor upset at work. But if the situation is truly making you miserable and affecting your mental or physical health, if to stay a minute longer there would either break your spirit, crush your soul or destroy your humanity then just resign. Leave and go with your head held high. Well, resign “normally” and serve out your notice of course.

You cannot always rely upon supervisors, or other people to save you. Sometimes you need to helicopter yourself out and end a toxic situation (in work and life).

Believe it or not there will come a day when you will get job offers frequently out of the blue. No it is nothing special about you, that is just what happens. Eventually there are more jobs than there are candidates so it is simple economics of supply and demand.

Networking, strategy and working hard

As for the “Shinny squad” in law school. The students who hang out all day in the law school foyer between classes talking in passionate voices with concerned frowns about their thoughts on that week’s readings. The ones who do 15 extra-curricular law activities outside of their law degree so they can show how “well-balanced” they are to employers. They sit at the front of tutorials and even wear suits – to class! Stop scuttling past them, avoiding eye contact so you don’t have to interact with them. Don’t be so judgmental! Ironically you think they are snobs, but you are being a bourgeoisie bohemian snob yourself. Some of them might be quite nice if you actually gave them a chance. And... they are probably the ones most likely to be able to help you find a job in your early law years so try and be a little friendlier. I get it though – they aren’t your tribe. You will find your tribe in law in a few years – I promise.

You don’t realise this now but networking is vital in law. Also seek out mentors. There are many generous people in law who honestly just want to help others.

Work hard (I know you will, in fact at one time you will routinely leave at 3am not 3pm!) do the right thing by people, and seek out opportunities. Also help to make room at the table for the next wave of lawyers too. There is nothing wrong with taking credit when you have done a good job, but also share credit with others and be quick to point out when others have done a good job too.

Believe it or not, you will one day start a networking organisation. Ha! Yes, you the student who avoids all contact in the law foyer. And you actually will even genuinely enjoy it.

The other thing is – it is okay to have a career strategy and plan. Draw up your 1, 5 and 10 year goals with actions to undertake today, this week and this month. There is still an idea that women in particular can’t have a career strategy or take their careers seriously. You are either oblivious tripping through daisies or if you have a strategy that means you are immediately regarded as Lady MacBeth. I am telling you- it is possible as a woman, or for that matter as a person, to have a career strategy and still be ethical.

Colleagues – the good, the bad, the ugly

Again something no one will tell you. There will be times you will feel you are in a pit of snakes. The truth in reality is that the vast majority of your colleagues are decent people, and only say 10 per cent are personality disordered. But for some reason that small minority often manoeuvre themselves into a position where although they may only be one person in a team, they get their ink and tentacles everywhere. It’s like when you are doing an assignment there is always that person who tears out the actual crucial pages of the “essential reading” reference material in the library that everyone is depending on to complete the assignment. What do you think happens to those people? They don’t vanish, but later are resurrected in the office opposite you.

Another hard conversation I have to have with you, Zoe. I know someone once told you “never say no to a partner.” Well that is largely true. If you want to progress in your career it does not help to say no to their requests that you complete work. Even if that means you will be overworked for a time. But one day a partner will stand over you demanding something completely inappropriate involving your own personal time on a Friday evening. It is okay to just say “no, I am not doing that.” Likewise when that other partner tells you “so with this task I want you to be wetting yourself getting it done.” It is actually okay to say “Well I will work hard, but I don’t think I will be wetting myself.”

I know – I am breaking a taboo to talk about this. But I feel for you and all the other young lawyers, as I think younger lawyers in particular are vulnerable here. As they teach the older children in your toddler’s day care (amazing to think you will even have a baby, given at this stage it is a struggle to keep salamanders and house plants alive), sometimes, it is perfectly acceptable to say “stop it, I don’t like it.”

The other lesson to learn is that just because someone is a great lawyer, it doesn’t mean they are a great person that you should model yourself on more broadly. Separate the person from their work. Also beware of those whose words do not match their actions. 

All of this may sound a bit daunting. But, I promise you will also find your closest and lifelong friends in law. Barristers and lawyers who after your baby is born, drop off groceries and essentials, ferry unpacked Law In Order boxes filled with days worth of meals from Silks cafe to you, send their uni student research assistants to be your “mother’s helper” on difficult days all expenses paid. This is your tribe.

Finding what you want to do when you grow up

Here is the secret truth lawyers don’t tell you unless you know them well – many, many, many lawyers (even ones double your age) are still trying to work out what to do when they grow up.

You are very lucky because you find your way into an area that is your passion. It is a windy path, but worthwhile. There is a bit of luck, a bit of strategy, some networking, challenging situations and people and also a lot of love for the work you do and your colleagues along the way. I always remember what a great lawyer I know once said: “work hard and do the right thing by others and it will all work out in the long-term in your career.” Don’t completely forget about your inner Cataphibian either. Having just a little bit of Cataphibian about you is definitely what makes you who you are, and may even be what makes you stand out in law?

Wishing you all my love and luck, younger law student Zoe.

Zoe Durand is a principal and mediator at Mediation Answers. 

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