New Zealand Law Society - Stepping into employment's great unknown

Stepping into employment's great unknown

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Becoming a lawyer is a process that truly starts to unfurl post-university, as graduates seek to reap what has been sown in academia.

University is a time when the seeds of one’s career are planted, a time when the new shoots that begin to grow need water, sunlight, a functioning compost system and most probably fertiliser to get them going properly.

What follows a law degree is arguably the most important part of a lawyer’s career; the establishing of deep roots and robust stems on which success can bloom. And this part, the finding-a-career-that-nurtures-and-fulfils you part, is achieved by making well-informed decisions about what to do after university.

Summer clerking

Many law students find that their what-to-do-after-university question is answered by the glossy posters advertising summer clerkships in the big firms, systematically dotted around university campuses during March and April each year.

Summer clerking is represented as the in that everyone wants, the promise of a graduate offer and a fruitful, enviable career should you dress to impress.

Not many other options are presented as viable for law graduates. To put it plainly, a colleague once said to me that if you don’t apply or don’t get a spot in a big firm, you feel like a bit of a loser.

I have often wondered why the ability to obtain summer employment from a few (admittedly influential and impressive) law firms can invoke such strong feelings of success or failure in law students. I think it comes down to the fact that the future can be a scary concept – it is the ultimate unknown.

Most people (or should I say, most law students) naturally pursue things that will give their lives the semblance of security, and knowing that you have a well-paid job awaiting you at the other side of the High Court bar is not something to be sniffed at. Compounding this, there is a void in place where there could (or, perhaps, should) be other, just as viable career paths being presented.

My story

My own story is quite a typical one. I found myself working for a big firm as a law clerk then solicitor after going through the summer clerking process and gratefully receiving a graduate offer at the end of it.

I was excited to start my career at the firm I had spent an incredibly fun summer at. Summer clerking was educational and valuable for other reasons too, but for me, mostly it was fun. Being in a new and intriguing environment and getting to know new people is something I am naturally partial to, so summer clerking suited me well.

I was not wrong to be excited – beginning my career as such proved to be a rewarding experience.

I received valuable training and guidance from colleagues and mentors. I began to get to grips with the “8.30-5.30” working day. Even more importantly, I learnt not to put a comma after ‘Dear [Name]’ and ‘Kind regards’ and that using the terms Sir and Madam is now considered passé.

Yes, I definitely felt that the green shoots in my university garden were being cultivated, and a few, deeper roots had started to grow. To add to this, I have no doubt that subsequently securing a position as a lawyer at the Environmental Protection Authority was in part due to the experience I gained while working for a large and respected law firm.

Other pathways

Despite the fact that a career beginning with a summer clerkship or law clerkship in a big firm undoubtedly provides some fantastic opportunities to those who decide to pursue it, it would nevertheless be heartening to see other pathways presented in a similarly favourable light, so that those who are not successful at the big firms, and those who decide not to apply, are not such open vessels for feelings of failure or anxiety over the uncertainty of their future job prospects.

This is why the Government Legal Network’s new graduate programme has caught my interest. I spoke to Erin Judge, a Senior Advisor in the Government Legal Network team (GLN) about this new initiative, as well as taking the opportunity to gain some insight into Erin’s own career choices.

Ms Judge went straight into the public sector when she finished law school, graduating from Victoria University of Wellington in 2004. Ms Judge felt the pressure to apply for graduate opportunities at the big firms, but didn’t because she knew it wasn’t the right fit.

“I didn’t know what else was out there, though,” she reminisces.

She initially got an internship at the Ministry for Social Development (MSD) through a university paper, which later became fully-fledged employment. She has since worked for the New Zealand Police as a Prosecutor and Legal Advisor as well as the Victorian Government Solicitor’s Office in Australia.

When asked if she thinks her choice to work in the public sector has been validated, she answers with a resounding yes, because she enjoys seeing the results of her labour in a transparent way and she believes that “99% of the people working in the government sector do want to make New Zealand a better place”.

GLN Graduate Programme

This sense of purpose is also one of the main attractions of the GLN Graduate Programme, which launches this year with the first intake of graduates commencing in November.

During the two-year programme, law graduates will go through four six-monthly rotations across participating government departments. It is a programme to provide law graduates with a solid set of skills that are required for a career as a lawyer in the public sector.

Ms Judge is particularly excited about the GLN Graduate Programme because before GLN, one of the challenges facing the public sector was raising the visibility of government legal careers in order to attract the next generation of lawyers.

“Government departments naturally focus on their own objectives,” Ms Judge explains. “Before GLN, there wasn’t someone considering the needs of the entire state sector – in terms of hiring lawyers anyway.”

There was not a “whole government view” in the legal context, and thus no real recruitment drive behind it. She hopes that with GLN, and especially the new Graduate Programme, this will change. All going to plan, being a government lawyer will start to be seen as a viable and attainable career path for new graduates – and to some degree, it may fill that void.

Ms Judge thinks that the best thing about working in the public sector is that it allows people to find a job where their role aligns with what they are passionate about (whether that is child poverty, the environment, art, or something different entirely).

“The degree of satisfaction is more delayed in the private sector,” she adds. “In the public sector, you do something and the next day it could be in the paper. That’s exciting.”

With some luck, the addition of an initiative such as the GLN Graduate Programme will mean that even more junior lawyers are provided with that sense of security we all crave. With programmes like this coming to light, more opportunities will be seen as available to new graduates, helping to ease the pressure and anxiety felt by many as they near graduation. The truth is, that with the academic groundwork done and the seeds sown, there are many ways, and not just one right way, of achieving lasting and fulfilling success in one’s legal career.

Sarah Bogle is a 26-year-old lawyer. She lives in Wellington and works at the Environmental Protection Authority. Before the EPA she worked in commercial property law in Auckland. She completed a BA in English alongside her law degree at Auckland University. Sarah likes to travel, write, cook and practise yoga in her spare time.

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