How To Get Your First Legal Job – A Practical Guide

I have delivered this advice a number of times to students and at Universities and each time I have had feedback that it was very helpful.  It not intended to be cynical (or not wholly cynical) but helpful and so please interpret it as my earnest attempts to provide the most useful advice to finding your first job as a lawyer.

1.  Join the law firm at which one or more of your parents are a partner.

This is the simplest and easiest way of getting your first law job: joining your parents’ firm.  Is this cronyism?  Yes.  Is this fair?  No.  Is this the way the world is?  Yes.  And therefore, it is something that you need to accept.  This is also not a disparagement of people who use connections to obtain a job.  This is just the way life is. Indeed, rather than necessarily make life easy, I have friends who have had to forge a career under the long shadow of a parent – a different challenge.

2.  Use your family’s connections to a law firm.

Do you have a parent who is a client of a law firm?  Do they have a golfing buddy, or a friend at their member’s only club?  A sure-fire route to a first law job to use leverage of your family to get a place for you at a firm that you would like to work at.  The legal profession is a cosy club built on personal goodwill governing both relationships between lawyers and the goodwill that they have with their clients.  Even if you do not have a strong personal connection to draw upon, you should use any opening that you can find.  Did your Uncle get his Will done five years ago?  Ask him to introduce you to the lawyer he used to see if they can recommend any of their friends who might be looking for a junior lawyer.  Even the smallest introduction or information can put you ahead of competitors or help you find a position. 

3.  Bring some (Different) Experience to the Table.

Getting a job when you have experience is easy.  But, of course, how do you get experience until you have a job?  There is lots of experience that is highly useful and relevant to your legal career.  Having experience working in an office – any office – is useful.  An office environment has a very different time flow, organisation, productivity and unspoken cultural expectations, as compared to you would have experienced at University or school.  Understanding how to deal with people who are busy and have competing interests is an essential and new skill to learn. From understanding how to approach, work with and upwardly manage busy bosses and co-workers down to sitting and paying attention to tasks requiring mental stamina for 8 to 10 hours a day (hint: this is very different to sporadically attending lectures and pre-exam caffeine fuelled late night cramming). 

Time in an office will help you to understand that someone who is stressed from clients calling and demanding urgent tasks of them probably isn’t that interested in your high school Bronze Swimming Certificate or your motherhood statement career goals.  What they are instead interested in is how you can help them – (Hint: it probably involves something that reduces the stress caused by their clients calling).  Understanding your target customer. As any introductory sales course teaches, a potential customer does not care about the features of the product.  Instead the potential customer has a need, you need to highlight that need and show how your product solves that need for them.

4.  Make Yourself Useful.

Even if you haven’t worked in an office there are still many skills that you can bring to the table.  These skills will require some customisation depending on the role that you’re looking to get to.  If you’re looking to work in a commercial area or with a smaller practice that must deal with their own business matters then any experience you have in business will be highly useful.  Did you do the books and accounts for your parents’ small business?  Have you started your own business?  It’s actually not that hard, particularly in the present age of independent contractors.  You could work freelance on Upwork or Fiverr doing blog editing, legal research (note: not for the general public – be careful not to practice law without a practicing certificate), social media marketing or even teaching piano lessons.  These all teach relevant skills such as acquiring and maintaining a customer, understanding deadlines, understanding cashflow and expenses, lodging BAS returns, and dealing with bureaucratic agencies that get in your way.  This will help you understand the pressures and demands put on both the practitioners who are running their own business, and also a proportion of their clients. 

Indeed if you are running such a small business at present you have a very good reason to reach out to practitioners and offer them your services.  It is much more appealing to a potential customer (the potential supervising lawyer) if you say that you “have a skill in ghost writing blog articles on legal topics which can help them reach out to their clients and bring in new business and they would pay you on a per article basis”, than to say “Please give me a job because I’m interested in advancing my legal career”.  Interestingly, if you follow this approach, you will actually be approaching the practitioner with a different balance of power, in that you are more than just another law graduate looking for a job, but instead someone who has a business and might not be so needy (signalling that you are desired increases your worth and attractiveness). 

If you’re not interested in the area of business law or working for a smaller practice where running a business is at the forefront of each lawyer’s mind you might still want to remember that each lawyer is essentially a business unto themselves that generates goodwill over time and hence develops a client base.  You might also look for other skills that make you useful that might relate to different types of practice.  If you wish to work in employment law having experience working for a Union would be helpful.  If your interest is governmental law, be involved in your local Council.  If your interest is criminal law … well, don’t go and commit crimes … go help out with your local rehabilitation clinic and understand the nature of potential clients that you’re looking for.  Whatever your interest is there are a number of things that you can do that in your skills and usefulness in that area, which do not necessarily involve already having a job.

5.  There are a LOT More Jobs than there Appear.

It can be very disheartening to search for job advertisements as a junior lawyer.  There are very, very few positions that are expressly advertised for new graduates.  The competition for those few positions is intense.  Up until now your career path is full of explicit choices i.e. what University to go to, what subjects to choose, what grade levels do you need to achieve that.  But beyond University life is mostly full of implicit or hidden choices. 

The majority of law graduate jobs that are potentially available are not advertised.  At its simplest this may be firms choosing to hire from graduates who go through a clerkship or internship program.  There are many firms out there who have need for junior assistants but don’t have the resources (or inclination) at any kind of formal opportunity.  Once you understand that then there is the possibility for you to essentially create a job for you where none existed before.

6.  Pick an Area that you are Interested in.

I always wanted to do tax law and tax law only.  This greatly assisted me because there is a shortage of people who are interested in the (considered boring) area of tax law.  But also because it shows commitment and interest.  If your interest is criminal law find criminal law firms and tell them that you want to do what they do and that you want to help them to achieve that.  Likewise for family or wills or corporate.  If your interest really isn’t anything, maybe your interest is as a generalist.  There are plenty of generalists out there.  It flatters people when you like what they like.

7.  Reach out with a Proposition that is Difficult to Refuse.

Don’t just ask for a job – that is a large commitment.  But if you went into a family lawyer’s office and said “I desperately want to be a family lawyer and I want to watch you appear in court and I will carry your documents and I will quietly attend things and take notes and I will clean up your desk and I’m not going to get in the way I’m going to do this for two weeks for no charge at the end of those two weeks you’re going to either see how indispensable I am or I will go” it’s a very difficult offer for someone to reject.  The cost to them is low (note that typically training a junior is an expense and they will lose money for some time until you become useful), they get the opportunity of getting to know you and know that you’re not going to cause problems. Importantly, you have identified at least a couple of useful things that you can do.

8.  Find an Angle for Conversation.

Is their web site terrible?  You can fix it.  Have you ready every article they’ve published and offered to write something on a topic of interest or proof read something they’ve done?  One of the best approaches that I received was from a student who had clearly read every article I have ever written and sent a highly targeted letter stating how interesting what I did was.

9.  Meet face to face if you can.

Try and get time for 5 minutes for a coffee and ask them for help understanding their area of law and how you might work there. Be clear that it is only 5 minutes of time and you will wait around to fit in their schedule.  (Tip: offer to pay for coffee, but accept if they pay for it instead. The etiquette is usually that the more senior person pays). I saw an enterprising young lawyer who door knocked every firm in my street with paper copies of her CV.  Having someone physically sitting in your office is difficult to ignore. Firms get abundant unsolicited CVs with job requests attached.  Getting face to face prevents you from being another spam message.

10.  Don’t be disheartened.

I had over 50 rejections for job applications when I was a law graduate.  It’s not fun being rejected but there is opportunity out there if you’re able to find it.  If you can, try and get some verbal feedback form someone on what you could do better/differently/look elsewhere – that is way more valuable than “we have considered your application but you have not been successful at this time”. Law is a profession and lawyers will help each other if they can – especially with advice.

I assure you that right now there are a number of solicitors out there who are very stressed and wish that somebody could take away some of their workload for them, if only they had the right useful person there.  They probably had a number of juniors in the past and are themselves disheartened with their juniors either not performing to expectations or leaving after a few years of training investment.  You could be that person that turns their opinion around by showing how wonderful you are and how much they need you.

I sincerely wish you the best in your career.

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