A look at Law Clerkships in Australia from my perspective which is a frank analysis of the industry and how law is evolving.

I thought I would put together a little section on Clerkships — my experiences and my general thoughts. I also have put together an Example Cover Letter which might assist you if you have never done a cover letter before. I am, by no means, suggesting that this is perfect — but it might help you out in your applications for Clerkships. I also intend on doing a similar type of scenario for CV’s and I hope to get that up here at some point as well.

The following is simply my thoughts on Clerkships and Law generally. This is all my personal opinion and you should take it as such.

Clerkships — The Naked Truth

Law Firm clerkships are an inherent part of becoming a lawyer and they are also perhaps the most stressful.

Clerkships are typically viewed as a nightmare — they are ultra competitive, there are only so many firms, and there are only so many positions on offer. Most of the larger firms typically receive more than 1,000 applications for seasonal clerkships and usually have only 60–75 seasonal positions on the table. This means to even start, your chances are narrowed to around a 6% or 7.5% of even getting a seasonal place. This is then reduced even further for the now so called ‘Professional Legal Trainee’ program where the pool of 60–75 seasonal graduates is reduced to 30 who actually receive graduate offers.

The outcome? A 3% chance of getting a graduate place from the moment you click that ‘Submit’ button when you are applying at firms in comparison to your peers. Picture this as you stare around the lecture theater, only 3 out of every 100 people around you will end up working at a big firm. This is, of course, based on the assumption that you want to go to a big firm. There are positives and negatives to the entire process and in my experience it’s critical that you allow yourself the best opportunity to work in a big firm and in a smaller or mid-tiered firm.

Back when I first started the JD, I sat down with a very senior legal friend who was General Counsel at one of the largest financial organizations in Australia. His key advice in a nutshell was essentially that:

  1. Decide whether law is really for you — 100 hour weeks, 2,000 hours of billing a year — it takes commitment.
  2. Try large and small firms — there are huge differences in the scale of work, career advancement opportunities and networks.
  3. Choose something that you love — don’t get stuck in one practice group area and never leave. Rotate, rotate, rotate.
  4. Be comfortable to leave to progress your career — don’t feel “trapped” in any one firm — or even staying in law.

This advice — couldn’t be closer to the truth.

I clerked at both large and mid tiered firms — on the basis of my friends advice — and the differences were profound. Primarily, the scope work was different — more individualized in the later as opposed to larger teams in the former. The level of resources available is almost incomparable particularly in relation to electronic resources and databases that are taken for granted while at university — at mid-tiered firms, the number of licenses are restricted due to the inherent cost base of having so many while at larger firms — everyone gets a license. I also found that at mid-tiered firms — Friday night drinks on the firm are sacrosanct and an integral part of the culture. In juxtapositioning this against larger firms who rejected the notion of Friday night drinks every week as “wasteful”. Of course, this didn’t mean that you still didn’t go out for Friday night drinks — you just don’t do it on the firm — rather, you went out in smaller groups on your own.

This infers that there are conflicting issues at play — the larger the firm, the greater the value of work, the greater the work resources, the larger the team sizes and the longer the career progression. Conversely, the smaller the firm, the greater the mid-range-to-small level of work, the less amount of work resources, the smaller the teams and the faster the career progression. In the later, it is not unheard of to make partner in 3 to 5 years while in the former — you will only be sitting on Senior Associate level — if even that.

All this is relative to who you are and what you want to do — whether you get an offer to a larger firm, whether you want to work at a large firm and whether you want to even be a lawyer. I am merely attempting to rationalize both sides of the argument so that you enter the legal world with a balanced view. Don’t go to a big firm with the attitude of — “I want to earn a shit load of money” — sure, you can and very much will — but don’t be so ignorant to believe that money in law can appreciate on its own. It’s quite the opposite — money in law is correlated to human capital and law is not a scalable industry in any sense. This infers that you will work — and you will work very long hours — to achieve the acceptable billing level to move up the law firm hierarchal structure.

The Cynics View

The Naked Truth sounds all very depressing doesn’t it? I would answer this as both Yes and No.

The people who end up at the big firms are the so-called “well-rounded” students. They have travelled to Africa and saved endangered animals from extinction by wrestling native Africans and beating them in spear throwing competitions in order to gain access to their land. They have taken a year off to contemplate life in a remote Chinese village at the top of some mountain in some place that you can’t pronounce. They have worked at community legal centers, they have joined every committee under the sun — on both earth and extraterrestrial planets — and have a raft of HD’s to complement all this. Typically, in order to sort out such student — I have formed the aptly named ‘Awesomeness Equation’.

The ‘Awesomeness Equation’ is composed of ‘Humbleness + Social Character — Wankertude + Counter-Wank’. Many people who draw with a low score in this equation love to tell you about themselves — primarily because they have a high ‘wankertude’ — the part of the equation you want to sidestep. A high ‘wankertude’ is attained through key examples such as telling you they are doing judicial clerkships under justice so-and-so, or by simply stating mid-conversation “Did you hear? I just got 102% for property law — first person to exceed 100%” or letting you know that they have clerkship offers at every firm including firms that aren’t law firms yet or who aren’t in existence but will be some day.

Some firms love a low — or even negative — score in my ‘Awesomeness Equation’ and these are the firms you do not want to work for in my opinion. The reality is that it primarily depends on the firm and what they are looking for. If you ascertain that most of the clerks, partners or employees are scoring low in the ‘Awesomeness Equation’ then you have already made up your mind that you don’t want to work there.

Evidently, while I say this with some jest & humor, I am attempting to be be frank by suggesting that you don’t need to be a wanker or mix with wankers. Nobody likes a wanker — being humble suits everyone and makes those that didn’t get a whole raft of offers feel more at place in the conversation with other clerks. In comparison, those that let everyone know just how good they are often brings an awkwardness to the conversion which leads to the dreaded conversation silence, window watching, star gazing and ultimately “how’s the weather?” type conversations. You’ll be able to easily identify such people because as soon as senior members of the firm come over for a chat, they are the ones to introduce such topics off the bat — this ultimately leads to the circular responses from around the group in answering the “how many offers did you get?” question in front of partners and they get to bask in responding to them like eager narcissistic children. Sure, if you meet a wanker — you can attempt to “counter-wank” the wanker — thereby offsetting any attempt you are making to exert ‘wankertude’ yourself — but this should idealistically be done to make others feel better rather than sooth your own egotistical nuances.

I’ll say it again — be humble. My grandfather has always said to me ‘God, gave you two ears and one mouth. Use them in proportion’. How is this relevant? It means— listen more, talk less. Of course, you are going to have to talk about yourself — I am not saying that you shouldn’t. Rather, just don’t be the first person to bring up just how good you are orwhy you are so good. Such topics should be part of the conversion not the conversion. If they are the conversion — congratulations, you’re a wanker.

Unfortunately, law is often branded as an industry full of “wankers” and while many of us would kindly refute that association — it is the stigma attached. Relevantly, it falls upon the current group of “Generation Y’ers” to change this general perceived sentiment for the betterment of the industry. Indeed, I have met many of the “wanker” variety who are Generation Y’ers — but then I have met a whole range of really great people and this is what has primarily influenced my decision-making process in relation to what firms would be great places to work and what firms would be simply unbearable.

Unlike our elder generations — most of us now travel the world, have a greater sense of freedom and comprehend a broader range of issues at a younger age. This is simply a by-product of opportunities past from elder generations and which is in part why many Generation Y’ers yearn to have greater workplace flexibility. In my mind, technology has — and indeed should do so on a greater scale — allowed communication to reach an unparalleled advance. Yet, everyone must still work from offices when they could easily work from home. It would seem that such encouragement needs to be pushed into modern law firms to facilitate a growing younger generation who desires flexibility as an inherent facet of their new found sense of liberation.

But I digress — the point is that you need to determine what’s right for you. In order to me to ascertain what was right — I utilized the age old “beer test”.

The Beer Test

I have completed a few clerkships in my time and my thinking is this — everyone is at the firm because they got through the interview process and deserve to be there. This means you don’t need to psychologically profile every person you meet in order to ascertain some arbitrary ranking system in your head to stroke your own ego. The truth is — while marks matter, people matter more. If you can sit, slosh down a beer and have a decent conversation with your fellow clerks, partners and other staff — then you are heading the right direction. These are the people that you will be working with and these are the people that you really need to get on well with. If, in the alternative, you sit down and discover that everyone is drinking water and using words such as “jolly” or “merry” or “grand” — then I would think, you have hit another road block and you really need to think about whether you are in the right place.

I cannot stress enough — you have to love the people you work with and you have to love the practice area you work in. If you are lucky enough to get a seasonal clerkship offer — or even multiple ones — then be yourself. If you feel like you are walking on egg shells during your time at a particular firm — I can guarantee you that this firm is not for you. Forget whether it’s the perceived best, the highest paying, the most perks, the grandest library or the free city hotels — working there everyday will become a nightmare. Perks wear off, people do not. The point of the employment discovery process, in my mind, is to employ people who are enjoyable, courteous, passionate and who are generally great people to be around — this later point being the most critical. Now, I would hope that most people you will meet will possess such attributes, but the reality is — many will slot smoothly into the “wanker” category.

The lesson to learn in the entire clerkship process is “who not to be” rather than to model yourself off “who to be”. If you see a partner yelling at someone — or in fact any person yelling at someone — you have immediately learnt the valuable lesson of “who not to be”. This should also really extrapolated into everyday life and perhaps already is through the age old axiom of “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes before you pass judgment in your own”.

Law clerkships are no different — in learning “who not to be” — you are equally learning “where not to be” and “who not to be with”. Life is full of choices and you have the choice to not associate with such people. Many “old school partners” mostly take the attitude of “well, I did it this way so this means that you have too” — I would actually argue that we are now in the year 2010 and this no longer applies. You spend your life writing about changes to the law yet law firms seemingly don’t embrace such change — it’s hypocrisy at it’s best.

Cultural differences between generations are becoming undoubtedly wider. If you would like to sit and listen to your iPod while pumping out legal work — which I certainly do — should you be allowed? Should you be allowed to check Facebook or Twitter or CNN or TheAge or SMH or any of the multitude of websites you would otherwise check daily? Of course you should if it helps and ultimately assists your concentration and workflow process. Yet, some firms don’t like this either — or rather “frown upon it”. Again, at least in my mind, this is another sign that this firm may not be for you. If this is frowned upon — imagine what else will be in the future.

The Sobering Reality

Unfortunately, the sobering reality of law firms is that you need to secure a seasonal clerkship to really have any hope of ascertaining a position as a ‘Graduate Legal Trainee’. I say this simply because the law firms take the attitude that “Why would we employ someone we don’t know, who hasn’t worked for us against someone we do know, who has and who ‘just’ missed out on a priority offer?”. Evidently, whether such logic is right or wrong, the truth is that law firms will always offer priority positions to a select group of graduates and then make up the remainder from a pool of ‘overflow’ seasonal graduates. This may be a bit confusing — so let me explain.

Let’s assume ABC firm offers 70 seasonal graduate places across June-July 2010, December 2010 and January 2011 with the intention to employ 30 as ‘Legal Trainee’s’ in 2012. The priority offer system requires that ABC firm must put their offer on the table around Mid-February 2011 to these 30 students. Of course, many of these students have already mostly determined which firm they like best and out of the 30 priority offers that are made — only 22 students accept within the stipulated 24-hour time period and the other remaining 8 students head off to different firms. This means that there is now a pool of 8 students remaining who can receive offers. The remainder can then be sourced in mid-march from anywhere.

The “from anywhere” can mean ABC firm can assess all the applications it received for graduate recruitment and determine who they want to give these remaining 8 offers too. Relevantly, the premise is ostensibly that the firm is not going to hire people who haven’t already worked at the firm and rather direct their attention to those seasonal recruits who “just missed the priority offer cut”. Logically, ABC firm has ranked the 70 seasonal graduates from 1 to 70 in order of their preference, so the offers are most likely to sent to the remaining students who haven’t received a priority offer from ABC firm. Many of students 30–70 in turn may have already accepted offers at other firms — and it’s my understanding that firms know of this before the mid-march date so they are able to basically “cross-off” from the list those who are already employed under the priority offer system at different firms — providing them, and all other firms, with a ‘remainder list’. This basically means that unless all 70 seasonal graduates received and accepted offers under the priority system — they are going to preference the 8 remaining places to those seasonal clerks who ‘just’ missed out ahead of any “outside” person who the firm has never met.

Does this mean I am screwed if I don’t get a clerkship?

Of course not — but is does mean that you are going to have to reassess your plans. You can do the Leo Cussen program and get admitted within 6 months or so — the only catch being that you have to hand over the cash to do it yourself. On the flip side, if you don’t get any clerkship offer or want to do the Leo Cussen program — you can quite easily find a small firm and work under a smaller firm until you are admitted and then look upwards from there. Another route to explore is that of becoming a barrister but you basically have to be admitted first — which means if you don’t get into any firm — you must work in a small firm or do the Leo Cussen and then go down the barristerial road from there.

In my mind, the best alternative is simply to go and work in-house at any business — large or small — that is willing to absorb you into their legal department and pay your training fee’s. This is really great option for you if you don’t get an offer to join a legal firm or simply would rather work in-house instead. Relevantly, it’s even more useful in some regards if you like a particular area of law and the whole ‘client-servicing’ aspect of law isn’t for you. Find a business in an industry you really love — finance, technology, fashion, engineering, mining … the list goes on — and send them a letter asking for clerkship opportunities. The results are often surprising fantastic and very rarely explored by legal students.

The ‘reality’ aspect of clerkships — putting aside pure academic merit and a side dish of ‘wanker’ — is that if you know people who do law, or know people who know people who do law — either through family connections or through networking — you need to start having lunches with these people. In some regard, law has an inherent degree of nepotism in its veins which always rears its head [ugly or not] through clerkships and graduate applications. Why is this so? Simple. It’s directly correlated to the fact that law firms are businesses, who are very much in the business of making money. They can only do this by employing graduates who have large networks that ultimately bring new business to the firm and generate new income. Income generation is the lifeblood of any business and the larger your network, the more clients you bring, the more favorable you appear in the firms eyes. Basically, your marks can be average — but if you are best friends with the top 200 rich list — ‘welcome to the firm’.

Surely, new business is not expected from a graduate? No, it’s not. But if you hope to stay in law your entire life, then you better start making more friends — because networking and new business generation is going to quickly shoot you up the law firm structure tree.

Ultimately, the question to ask is “Who Are You?”

Yeah, queue the Lion King. The reality is — what matters to you ? If you are happy to take what is served and enjoy the law so much that social life means nothing — then you will quickly discover that some firms will absolutely love you. If on the other hand, you love life so much that you really don’t like working — then perhaps law isn’t for you at all and I would think this would be reflective of your genuine nature. Do what you want to do — not what you think you should be doing. I have spoken to enough people who discover this far too late in life.

Follow what makes sense to you really — the law provides a great base to go and do anything — whether a law firm fits into this equation is up to you. In the alternative, go and work at a firm for a period of time and then leave for greener pastures if this is really what you want. Start a business, go travelling, work overseas — but don’t start a legal career for the sake of it.

Clerkships matter — but people and life in general matter more. If law is for you — then if this article has attempted to guide you in any regard realize early in life that people matter most — not the firm, or the bragging rights, or associating with “wankers” or the other multitude of aspects which come with being a lawyer. Pick people over any aspect of working at a firm — people drive your working environment, the culture and ultimately satisfaction in employment. After all, how many people with terrible bosses or co-workers do you hear say “I love my job so much!”. I think you’ll find the answer is none.

Saying you work at “ABC” — the best firm in the world — is great if it makes you happy and you accept you have a large amount of ‘wankertude’. Conversely, saying that you work at a firm with great people, do great work and have a great work-life balance is going to attract smart, passionate and like-minded people to you. Armed with such people, you can only go but one direction — up.

Best of luck :)

Feel free to contact me if you have questions — I’m a pretty nice bloke :P

Example Cover Letter — Here