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What I Learned from Law School – A Graduate’s Perspective

By Giridhar Kowtal BCom/LLB (Hons) – Class of 2014

Having reached the end of law school, there are many things that one wishes someone had told them when we started out, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as a first year. Here is some advice, in no particular order, that might put you in good stead as you figure out how to get started, and where you are going.

You can probably get straight HDs if you put your head down and study all day. But that isn’t what law school is about. You will learn so much more from volunteering at a Community Legal Centre, getting involved in the Law Society, doing Law Revue, editing the Law Journal, or working as a paralegal.

Legal research is the most valuable ‘legal’ skill you will learn through your legal studies. Sorry, folks. I know it isn’t a crowd favourite, but if you are intent on a career in the law (and that is by no means a necessity), your ability to research the law and find answers will help you stand out exponentially, especially when you start out as a graduate. The laws you learn may not be the same when you begin legal practice, but your ability to find them and apply them will stay and grow with you. So, start developing this skill as soon as you can.

A close second in terms of usefulness is class participation. Again, not a crowd favourite, I know, and no one likes to do their readings for a Monday morning lecture, but I have consistently found that talking about what I read helped me to understand the concepts taught on a much deeper level. If you have a particularly good lecturer, they will then engage you in Socratic dialogue (if class sizes remain small), another much-maligned but vitally important skill. I have found that consistently engaging in class participation and being grilled by those benevolent lecturers prepared me very well for presenting to internal and external clients – the ability to present arguments in support of one’s position is a very important skill in most professions, and class participation will help achieve that.

If you see something you don’t like, or that you think needs to be there, change it. Get others’ help. And gather like-minded people to help make it happen. If there is one thing I want to impress upon you, it is this – our Law Society is one of the most active, most inclusive, most hard-working, and receptive student societies out there. If you have an idea, or want to help make something happen, take it right to the top. I can assure you, they will help you make it happen. Whether it’s organising a homelessness awareness event, giving women law students networking opportunities, funding a charity drive, or starting a government submissions scheme, I have never found a reasonable idea that has been turned down (pending budgetary considerations).

It probably makes me sound old to say this, but believe me when I say that your time in law school – whichever variant you undertake – will absolutely fly past. There is no other way to put this – work bloody hard. Put in your absolute best the whole way. Never, ever compromise on quality. Get involved in as much as you can. But think of law school as a marathon, not as a sprint. Pace yourself. Find time for the things that relax you. Keep connected to family and friends. But make no mistake, there is no substitute for hard work. Everybody’s circumstances are different, but the point is that you should work to the best of your ability, given your resources and commitments. Giving 100% is a habit that is developed over time. If you begin forming the 100% habit now, it will keep you in good stead throughout your personal and professional life.

If you are interested in a career in the law (and again, this is by no means a necessity), explore as many areas of law as you possibly can, and find something that genuinely interests you. By the end of my 4th year, I had professional experience in areas as broad as insolvency, franchising, native title, taxation, criminal, administrative, construction, evidence, and strata law. So when it came time to pick what I liked, I had a bank of personal experience to draw upon to see what I really enjoyed. This was very useful.

That being said, one of the most valuable pieces of career advice I have received is to FOLLOW THE MARKET. If you are intent on being a lawyer, and want to make a start somewhere, start reading the AFR; find out which industries are active at the moment. It may be something completely different by the time you graduate. But start researching. Start talking to people. Get an understanding of the market. You will be lightyears ahead.

If you are interested in a career in commercial law (and again, I want to stress that this is by no means a necessity), don’t be limited by the small selection of law firms that advertise on campus. As these firms very graciously sponsor many aspects of our law school life, we as students are given the impression that they’re all there is. A lot of valuable work has gone into highlighting ‘alternate’, non-commercial legal pathways open to law graduates, but I want to stress that even if you are after a commercial legal career, there is a lot of work outside the firms that advertise on campus.

The commercial legal market is profoundly changing. There are two trends that I think you should be aware of.

The first is the lesser amount companies are willing to spend on legal services. This means several things – first, a lot of ‘grunt’ work that graduates would have done previously is being outsourced to legal service companies at a lower costs. Second, clients are increasingly going to cheaper, smaller law firms for their legal work, leaving the traditional big Australian firms. Third, legal work is itself following the IT industry model and being contracted out increasingly, as clients prefer to engage lawyers and law firms on a one-off basis, rather than an ongoing relationship.

What does this mean for you as a graduate? It means that the firms that advertise on campus may not be where all the commercial legal jobs are. Start researching outside this pool and you will find an untapped wealth of possibilities as both a student and a graduate.

The second trend that is continuing to affect the Australian market is the continuing influx of foreign firms. It is important to know that not all these firms have a big campus presence, but these are often world leaders in their particular areas of practice. Without wanting to name any names, the world’s biggest commercial litigation firm and specialist employment law firm both opened offices in Sydney in the past couple of years. They may not sponsor the Beginners Negotiations Competition, and they might not even have a structured graduate program yet, but they will often be looking for paralegals to help set up and provide research and administrative assistance. These firms are being populated by lawyers from the traditional firms, which indicates that work is leaving these firms for the latter. And if it is a truly international experience you’re after, there is no better place to start. I got my first paralegal job by reading about one such firm that was opening a Sydney office, and cold-calling the HR team and asking if they have any vacancies for a paralegal role. And it worked.

These are things you will only learn by reading the AFR and legal periodicals, and staying abreast of news and recent developments. So, my point is this – do your homework. Be across the market you want to enter. Get as much experience in as many areas as you can. Your future self will thank you profusely for it.

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