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‘Tis the season of summer clerks

01 December 2017 - By Katie Cowan

Hello, lovely summer clerks. As you undertake your first work in the legal industry proper, allow me to extend a warm welcome to you, in the form of a non-exhaustive list of things to keep in mind as you go about your clerkship.

This column was inspired by researching what advice summer clerks generally get, and coming upon well-meaning but terrifying advice from American mega-firms like, “remember you are being constantly watched!!!”.

I think we can do better:

Expect to know very little, and know that anyone giving you work expects you to know very little. Summer clerks are hired more for their promise and attitude than their existing knowledge, so do not worry if you have to research what everything is all the time. The summer clerk who asks questions, is eager to learn, and carefully records/researches their instructions is the summer clerk who is beloved and asked back.

Hopefully, you will not start your summer clerkship, as I did, right as a global financial crisis hits. Seeing enthusiastic young people who are about to graduate into a job market that is suffering mass redundancies makes everyone uncomfortable.

Do not worry too much if you are not having the best possible experience at all times. Adjusting from the autonomy of a law school day to being present, alert, and nicely-dressed for an eight hour+ day, all while trying to smile and impress everyone at all times is exhausting and bewildering. There is a lot to love about summer clerkships, but do not feel there is something wrong with you if it is also hard-going.

Try not to wear any clothing with writing on.

Do try and keep up with as many of the email alerts and legal updates the industry sends out as you can. They help you feel like you know what is going on and that you are a part of the wider lawyerly family.

Most firms have systems of precedent documents that you can access to see how things are usually done. Important: You do not have to draft mortgages from scratch.

Try not to be gross. By that I mean try not to do anything that would force someone to have a meeting with you about what “being professional” means.

Know that if you had pre-existing mental health issues it is okay that these did not get resolved by starting a prestigious summer clerkship. It turns out that mental health issues rise and fall away independent of nice things that happen to you.

If mental health issues arise during your clerkship, know that that is not uncommon, but it will feel terrible and terrifying, and that is okay because it is a terrible and terrifying thing. If your firm has the EAP (Employees Assistance Programme) system, use it as soon as the thought, “Should I get some help for this?” occurs. If your firm does not use the EAP system, use the Law Society’s Friends’ Panel. They are discrete, compassionate, wonderful people; I have relied on them many times. This industry knows all about managing mental health while working, and there are confidential means to get help and perspective.

If/when you make a mistake, tell someone right away. Mistakes are a painful but ordinary part of difficult work. Most of them are fixable, and it says more about you that you took responsibility than that you made the mistake in the first place.

Give your secretary a Christmas present. More generally, treat secretaries and support staff with the respect and humble gratitude you would a wise and benevolent fairy godparent. They invariably hold more institutional knowledge and practical wisdom than you can fathom.

If you can, soak up as many different areas as you can. As a law student you get an impression of particular practice areas as fun or boring but you cannot know from pure academics what they are like to, y’know, practise. If you’re in a commercial team, you might ask to tag along to a list appearance. If you’re in employment, you might ask if you can shadow someone as they complete a conveyancing settlement on a Friday. In doing this you might shock yourself by realising you hate public law and love tax.

Incidentally, see if you can get into the tax team. Tax teams are usually fun and weird and comprised of nerds, and their work is basically elaborate puzzles.

Finally, know that there is no “right” way to do a clerkship. I assume that you are hardworking and intelligent, eager to learn, respectful and professional. You would not have got the position if you were not. So, if I were to replace all of the above with a single notion, it would be simply to keep being those things, and to pay attention and reflect a lot on the experience as it is happening. That will take you far.

So good luck! We are all rooting for you.

An end of year wish

‘Tis the season of summer clerks and sunshine. What a wonderful combo. I wish all of you, summer clerks and everyone else, a season of rest and laughter and good food. I look forward to joining you next year for an exciting 2018.

With love and warm regards,

Katie


Katie Cowan is a former lawyer, now director of Symphony Law, a consulting practice for lawyers. She hosts The New Lawyer podcast, which can be found at thenewlawyer.co.nz.

Last updated on the 1st December 2018