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Key challenges for young lawyers entering the SME space

For new practitioners starting at SME firms, several key challenges exist – both from a business perspective and a skills perspective, the president of the QLS and boutique director has revealed.

user iconLauren Croft 30 November 2023 SME Law
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Chloe Kopilovic is the director of FC Lawyers and the president of the Queensland Law Society (QLS).

Speaking on a recent episode of The Boutique Lawyer Show, she discussed some of the challenges young and emerging practitioners might face entering the SME space, as well as some of the observations that she’s had during her time as president of the QLS.

Ms Kopilovic started with FC Lawyers as a paralegal and at the Queensland Law Society when she was two years out of law school. She has progressively made her way through the ranks since then, now working in succession law and having bought into the firm.


“I think it takes a long time for some lawyers to find their area and find their space, and I found mine pretty early on. I always say to some of the younger lawyers [that] finding your area of law is like buying a house. You know the saying where they say the house picks you, you don’t pick the house. I think law is more or less the same. I think the area of law finds you and picks you, as opposed to the other way around,” she said.

“With succession law, I think it’s just an area that is never going to go out of style and out of fashion, and it’s so dynamic. You get the real business end of town in it, and they’re not coming to you because something’s gone wrong; they’re actually coming to you because they want to get it right. Sometimes, law can be used for good and can be used for bad. I think that the succession end and the estate planning end is law being used for good. So that part I love. And then just the nature and extent of the litigation never ends, and it can touch on any area of law, I think.”

“[And] in terms of getting involved with the QLS, it started as a way to give back and to be part of making something better or contributing, and one thing has led to another. So, I think to be fair, it’s been nothing more than my desire to serve or be part of making the profession a better place or improving elements that need to be improved. That’s probably what’s driven me to where I am now.”

While Ms Kopilovic worked her way up through the ranks in an SME firm, she said there are now a number of key challenges for grads looking to jump straight into a smaller firm.

“I think, once upon a time, graduates had to undergo article clerkship or their articles, and that was a fairly lengthy period of time. And in that period of time, people were really thrown into the deep end of practice and being able to have all that hands-on work well before they were moving on their own. So the dynamics of how that’s changed with practical legal training has meant that our graduates are perhaps not getting the exposure and not being able to really harness those skills in terms of client-facing practice legal work,” she said.

“The other challenge that business is facing, and this is going to become more profound as interest rates start to rise and things start to become harder, is employing young graduates. So obviously, smaller medium enterprises, when they take on a graduate lawyer, they’re looking immediately at a pay salary at $65 to $70,000. That is a significant financial outlay for a business to take on a graduate where there is so little experience in practising law. The graduates are really hungry to get into jobs, but for the businesses, it’s almost financially not viable for them to take on these graduates because they might not be able to afford it.

“It’s something you hear whispers about, is that the graduates are just not quite ready for legal practice when you put them in a firm, and it takes a long time to get them up and running. And I certainly think that there is a time coming where there is going to have to be a united approach between all jurisdictions to start to nut out a plan as to how this might look going forward because it’s not sustainable. They just don’t have enough experience once they hit the ground in a firm.”

This challenge hasn’t come up overnight – it has existed for at least the last decade and been exacerbated in that time and become a topic of key conversation in both firms and law societies, according to Ms Kopilovic.

“How do we get the graduates ready? How do we actually get them into firms and help them stay in those firms? And then how do we prepare them in terms of business ownership? So, if they do choose to go into business? Because I think there was, and I mean, these are very just general comments, but QLS did see or has seen a little bit of a spike in just new practitioners opening their own businesses,” she added.

“But then, in no uncertain terms, many of them find themselves enduring the challenges that come with having a business, obviously operating and working with staff, and then furthermore from that is also meeting all the requirements in terms of trust accounting and all of the requirements that come under the legislation for operating a trust account.”

In terms of the flow-on effects from these challenges, Ms Kopilovic said that “the disconnect between graduates and business” is growing larger each day – but that there are a number of things that the profession can be doing moving forward.

“I think we need to try and build a bridge to make those two elements connect more so that there’s a smoother transition between the two. I’ve been a big advocate from the get-go, given my own career. I started working very early on. I worked full-time and studied full-time. And yes, it was a slog, but it paid off in the end. I think it’s fair to say that the practice of law is very different from the study of law. So I think it’s important for a conversation to be had about trying to get those students in at a very early stage so that their law career and their experience in practising law in real time are almost operating side by side,” she explained.

“I think if something to that effect is able to take place, graduates are going to be much more well placed by the time they reach their admission to hit the ground running. They’re not starting from ground zero post-admission. I think you can’t replace real-time practice in a firm with any short course. It simply comes from experience, and then ultimately where you’ve got someone with that on the ground, real-time experience, that is the benefit that’s going to pass on to the clients ultimately.”

The transcript of this podcast episode was slightly edited for publishing purposes. To listen to the full conversation with Chloe Kopilovic, click below:

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