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Making the move: Finding that first job in law

07 June 2019 - By Jamie Dobson

Finding that first legal job is a non-linear process: no two pathways appear to be the same. Each role within the profession is a destination with a unique story from the person who ended up filling it. What opportunities and facilities are currently available for first roles in law?

The Law Society’s 2019 Snapshot of the Profession found there are currently 9,260 domestic students studying towards a Bachelor of Laws. While retention data is indicative at best, about 40% of lawyers who are admitted don’t promptly enter the profession.

The University of Auckland’s 2017 law graduate survey showed an employment rate of 98.5% from a survey response rate of 19.7% of law students. AUT’s 2018 report on 2017 law graduates who responded to its post-completion annual survey showed 96% to be in full or part-time employment. And Victoria University’s survey of those who graduated in the year to June 2018 shows that 94% of law graduates are in full-time employment.

These statistics show that gaining employment with a law degree is highly promising, both within and outside of the profession. In 2018, the Ministry of Education’s statistics site reported the unemployment rate for all school leavers in 2017 hovered just above 6%. For those with no qualifications, unemployment was around 8.4%.

High post-graduation employment rates and the lower rate of admission shows that many graduates are taking up opportunities outside of the profession.

Employment pathways in law

Possibly the most established conventional pathways from a legal education to employment are clerkship programmes. Each year, the larger law firms look to expand their networks by taking on new graduates and summer clerks, in some cases offering scholarships.

Large firms look for those who are passionate about their field of work. It’s those ‘soft skills’ that are crucial to success and at the heart of what makes a great lawyer. As possibly the largest employers of lawyers, they have the benefit of scale, which means new recruits get exposure to a broad range of legal work, across different teams within a firm, and possibly pro-bono work.

Two young lawyers having a conversation

Size also means the chance for diversity. As well as gender and ethnicity, firms look for candidates to promote diversity of thought. This assists in creative thinking, helping the legal profession retain staff and reach effective client satisfaction. Many firms also offer greater workplace flexibility where staff are able to choose more freely how, when and where they work.

A summer clerkship is especially valuable experience between university semesters and provides a foot in the door to a well-resourced firm. It also addresses the key question of where to work after graduating, and what kind of legal work they want to find themselves working in.

Clerkships are not limited to the large firms. Smaller firms and barristers’ chambers offer roles which could offer closer ties with senior members. Barristers made up 11% of practising certificates in 2019, a population of 1,586 barristers out of roughly 14,300 lawyers. While that appears a small community, working collectively can present new lawyers with opportunities to engage in a broader network.

For a new lawyer, working as a junior in a barristers’ chambers can mean a close relationship with colleagues, as well as the various personalities and styles you are exposed to. This can go a long way to developing your own style.

“I have benefitted from talking to senior barristers and former judges, particularly in terms of understanding how they think,” says Sam Jeffs, a junior barrister at Bankside Chambers in Auckland.

Bankside is one of New Zealand’s largest chambers and has experienced barristers with a variety of backgrounds whom a junior lawyer can bounce ideas off. The arrangements of employment at a chambers are fairly ad hoc. Where many junior barristers are committed to the bar, options exist for postgraduate studies, other areas of practice or firms overseas.

For example, in-house lawyers make up almost a quarter of practising lawyers, with 78% located in Auckland and Wellington, and 50% employed by government agencies.

The Government Legal Network offers summer clerk and graduate intern programmes. The graduate programme offers a rotation through legal teams, which highlights mentoring and network opportunities.

Great expectations

It would be brash to assume that the first job defines a career. Anyone in the legal profession with more than a handful of years’ experience will know how dynamic and sometimes unpredictable a legal career can be. A more feasible assumption is that expectations of employees exist in an initial role, regardless of whether they are set by the employer or the employee.

Ultimately, this might be down to one’s perception of the profession itself: the grandeur, responsibility, and collegiality. Lawyers are, after all, guardians of the public in the eyes of justice, which bears both privilege and responsibility. From these characteristics, the expectation that experience is necessary is founded and daunting.

Josh Pemberton’s 2016 study, First Steps: The experiences and retention of New Zealand’s junior lawyers, portrays the grasp of this expectation of experience in practice. A number of the interviews in the study outline the need for “significant adjustment” because almost everything in a practising environment is new.

“We’re all accustomed to a level of achievement during law school that we might not be able to carry into our first years of practice, because we’re very new,” one new law clerk says.

Another new lawyer says pathways beyond the summer clerkship can address the concerns of a deficit in practice. “In smaller firms, junior lawyers are given so much more exposure than they expect.”

Addressing the deficit of expectation still needs some work. Smaller firms having a presence at university career days, having a catchy website or more information on what they could provide, were ideas brainstormed by new lawyers to show what’s on offer.

There are initiatives new lawyers can access to close the gap between the theoretical foundations a legal education offers, and the practical day-to-day environment.

The Bridging the Gap mentoring programme and the Workplace Tours initiative are coordinated by the Wellington Young Lawyers’ Committee and available to fourth and fifth year law students at Victoria University. Doing precisely what the names suggest, the programmes provide opportunities for students to get an idea of practising life, which can help inform a decision on potential pathways. Where a door might not be directly open, knowing someone in the legal community can be invaluable.

“If the mentors themselves aren’t in the mentee’s preferred area of interest, they will often know someone who is. Those are crucial connections for someone who may not have those immediate relationships in the profession,” says Emily Lay, former programme coordinator.

Connecting to the legal community

Whether in the profession or outside of it, building a flourishing career with a legal education relies on a foundation of support. What institutional support is available for anyone who is about to enter a career in law and will soon be in the legal employment market? Material solutions are now emerging.

The University of Auckland’s law faculty runs a wide variety of initiatives to ensure students are well connected with professional communities. The faculty has a Career Development and Employer Engagement Manager, who looks after programmes which include a series of returning alumni lectures, career showcases, recruitment skills development and women’s mentoring.

“There is a recognition that at least half of the people are going to go into a traditional legal career and we need to be liaising with the law firms, and the firms will expect to deal with us rather than a generic university support system,” the Dean of the University of Auckland’s School of Law, Penelope Mathew, says.

However, every programme involves elements beyond the conventional legal option. Alumni speaking in the series include those who did not complete a clerkship. Women mentors may not be working as lawyers, but have completed an LLB.

“People come into law school for lots of idealistic reasons, they want to change the world,” Professor Mathew says. “Then you work out that there’s a certain career path you can follow, and the firms are often very actively engaged with the law schools, so you go down this route of having a summer clerkship and from there go into one of those firms. You somehow forget about how there might have been all these other paths you could take.”

Paid internships

There are a diverse number of options for legal careers outside the legal profession: in government, the vast international scene of non-governmental organisations; in the human rights area, and all the way through to starting a business.

Auckland University is also involved with innovative technology law firm Simmonds Stewart in a techlaw intern programme. First run in 2018, the programme offers law students paid intern positions at companies in the high-growth tech sector. It gives law students interested in technology and entrepreneurship real-world experience in the tech sector. Each student is paid to provide up to 100 hours of basic legal work for a tech company and Simmonds Stewart offers training and support.

New Zealand’s newest law school, at the Auckland University of Technology (AUT), offers ‘shadow a leader’ and clinical legal programmes, the latter making use of the likes of Shieff Angland to offer popular elective papers such as commercial and civil litigations. Much like Bridging the Gap, this offers a snapshot into the profession, which is crucial in helping future lawyers make informed decisions.

Undoubtedly, the legal profession has acquired some operations for new lawyers moving into employment. Where there may have been some challenges for those going into the profession who don’t make the revered internships or know someone close like a relative ready to take them under their wing, a collegial profession can draw upon the resources of its network to make valuable connections.

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Last updated on the 7th June 2019