The legal system touches almost every part of our lives. Law graduates practise in private legal practices, community settings and sectors as diverse as banking and finance, cyberlaw, politics and environmental protection.
If you’re deciding how to approach your legal career, you can benefit from hearing lessons learned by those who’ve forged ahead. Here, La Trobe Law School alumni share their essential legal career advice, from what to focus on while you’re studying to the value of networking.
1. Build your professional network while you study
It’s helpful to realise that the other students attending your law lectures online are more than just classmates – they’re your new professional network.
Casual chats can lead to genuine career insights, as La Trobe alumna Kathy Ettershank, Manager of Commonwealth Royal Commissions at Victoria’s Department of Health and Human Services, discovered. She credits her postgraduate law degree with introducing her to an extended professional network.
“Like me, my fellow students had positions as law reformers or policy officers in government, NGOs and business. This gave me a wonderful insight into the views of stakeholders that were very relevant to my work,” she says.
Lecturers are another fantastic source of professional support. Barrister and La Trobe alumnus Roshan Chaile – who’s worked as an Associate to a Justice of the High Court – says his teachers have become his mentors.
“I was fortunate to have some outstanding and dedicated teachers during my time at La Trobe Law School. They encouraged my interests in particular areas of law and continue to mentor and advise me in my career.”
2. Put in the hard work at uni to help you long-term
When you’re a student, life is busy. Between planning your study timetable, learning the library system and absorbing legal texts, you also have to juggle work and family.
But according to La Trobe alumnus Arthur Athanasiou, former head of the Tax Institute and a partner at Australian corporate law firm Thompson Geer, putting in the study hours throughout your law degree pays off.
“I look back over more than 20 years as a legal practitioner and there’s a lot of satisfaction. It’s been hard work and La Trobe made me understand that nothing is achieved without hard work,” he says.
Working in a profession with long hours means you’ve got to work consistently. So be consistent in your application through your degree – and that will reflect in your marks. If you put in, you’ll always get out far more.
3. Demonstrate your ability to face clients
What does it take to make a good first impression on a law firm? As a mentor to young legal practitioners, Mr Athanasiou believes it all comes down to confidence in your maturity. Your future employer must believe you’re capable of facing clients and that you can convincingly give them legal advice.
Law is about getting in front of people with problems. If I can’t stick a young solicitor in front of a client, I may as well not employ them.Arthur Athanasiou, La Trobe alumnus and partner at Thompson Geer
Reaching out to law firms and sending them your resume can show potential employers this quality in yourself. This approach can be particularly helpful if you don’t have any personal connections through family or friends.
4. Clean up your social media for clerkships
A summer clerkship is a valuable way to get the attention of a law firm while gaining experience doing legal research, drafting legal documents, liaising with clients and managing legal files. Just make sure you tidy your online profile before you apply.
Arthur Athanasiou offers a frank assessment of how corporate law firms take social media into account in every application they receive: “When we get our 2,000–3,000 applications every year, we employ people to comb through all forms of social media. If we find anything negative on anyone, no matter how good their marks are, they’re chopped,” he says.
“The most important thing that any person has, but in particular a legal practitioner has, is integrity. Once you lose it, it’s gone forever, so guard it jealously.”
5. Take a big picture view of your law career
Ultimately, studying law gives you more than the necessary expertise to practise law. It also provides you with a suite of valuable, transferable skills.
“Having a law degree and not practising law is not a sign of failure. There are so many ways you can use a law degree and be successful. Getting a law degree means that you can research, you can observe, you can write and you can convey. It helps you understand how rules make society work,” says alumnus Arthur Athanasiou.
Alumna Kathy Ettershank supports that advice:
Think big picture! There are so many things you can do with a law degree. Yes, if you want to be a solicitor or barrister, that’s great, but it’s also an excellent launching pad into careers like government, policy or community sector work.
Part of this big picture approach is to not specialise too early. By gaining early career experience across different areas of law, you can learn how different branches of law relate to each other.
“There’s an increasing tendency to specialise early in your career and I’d recommend holding off until you’re sure you want to practise in a particular area. Instead, keep your interests broad. Take every opportunity and do your best with each one,” says alumnus Roshan Chaile.
But what if you hit on a legal passion so strong you can’t ignore it? If inspiration strikes early in your law career, follow it, says La Trobe alumnus Alex Dunlop, Special Counsel at Corrs Chambers Westgarth:
“Find an area of law you love and throw yourself into it! And find people you enjoy working with. If you can get these two things right, pretty much everything else will follow.”