Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Getting your first legal job

Congratulations, you have just graduated from law school.  You did alright, couple of distinctions, couple of credits, a pass or two.  You messed around a bit, but really loved it.  Now you are ready for the big bad world and roaring to get your teeth stuck in to a major murder case, or the largest commercial transaction in history.

Only no one will hire you.

Why not?  You are no dumber than most of the plebs the law school pumps out! You have a good work ethic, and, let's face it, your personal skills are to DIE for!  Why will no one hire you?

Think about this from the perspective of the existing law firms.  Assuming they have a vacancy, their first priority is always, unshakeably, making money.  So, for them to hire you, you have to convince them that you are going to make them money.  But what they see when you interview is a graduate from law school who will need EVERYTHING taught to him/her.

I have heard it said that employers don't care what you know.  They believe that everything you NEED to know, you will learn on the job.  So they are looking for someone who will learn quickly, and move straight on to making money.  But who would you hire?  The graduate who scrubs up nicely, chats up the secretary, and can quote the Honourable Justice Michael Kirby verbatim, or the slightly dowdy solicitor with 12 years experience who will start making the firm money from day one?

The ONLY advantage you have over the experienced solicitor is that you are cheaper.  There is no solicitor's award in South Australia (there is a legal support staff award, but that doesn't cover solicitors) so they can pay you as little as they like.  You need to accept that your first job probably won't be earning 50k, and work out how you can show the firm that you WILL make them money.

Any experience you can quote is great.  Let's say you worked in your dad's law firm as a casual law clerk.  You are IN!  Congratulations, you just got your first job; your foot is in the door.  Seriously, any familiarity with an actual legal practice will put you light-years ahead of the competition.  Even mentioning that your father is a solicitor will help you.  (Be a bit careful not to 'name-drop' too obviously.)

But what if you don't have any connections to legal firms?  What if your mother was an accountant and your father teaches 6-year-olds?

Do not despair!  You are only one of the 90% of graduates who are in that position.  So, you just lost the first 10% of jobs, and you probably won't be working for the big 10 right now.

Ralph Bonig, the president of the Law Society of South Australia talked about this problem last year.  He discussed the way students' expectations are to go straight from uni to a summer clerkship in one of the big 10, and then get a job immediately.  Many students feel that if they don't get into these coveted positions (often as few as 6/semester per firm... out of nearly 1000 graduates???) their career is already over.  And let's face it, everyone knows that nerd from your Evidence class who is already guaranteed employment at either Minters or TGB!  (Bastard...)

The fact is that these big firms choose the best students, and unless you are truly exceptional, you are not one of these.  Don't take that as an insult, you are mediocre among the top tier.  That's like being in the bottom half of the top 10%.

So look elsewhere for your first job.  Remember that your GDLP means you have to do a six-week placement with a law firm, barrister or other legal office.  Take that opportunity to impress the partners, and hope like hell they can offer you a position when you finish.

Ask around smaller law firms with less than 10 solicitors.  Anything over two or three means you will get a good, rounded experience, and unless you are passionate about one area of law only, go for a general practice.  Don't discount country law firms.  Even if you have to travel, they will often have good advice for accomodation.  I was lucky enough that my Principle had a spare room, which I hired for a (very) low cost.

Remember that your GDLP Placement is like a 6-week job interview.  Work your ARSE off, and learn as much as you possibly can.  Attend EVERY webinar that even remotely interests you, and make sure that the partners know you just listened to 1.5 hours of discussion about Probate.

While I was doing my placement, I did plenty of work that either made money, or saved the partners time (and therefore made money.)  Although the firm I was with didn't have an opening when I started my GDLP, by the time I finished, they decided to open up another position for me as a law graduate.  I have since moved to another office with the same firm, and they helped me find rental accomodation with an acquaintance. 

You still probably won't get a job, but at least you tried, right?

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