I think it’s safe to say that at some point in your law degree, you will experience “Job Anxiety” or what I call “holy shit nobody is ever going to employ me I just wasted five years of my life!” It can often seem like there are only one or two paths through law school that result in a job.
Now, I want to make sure that the people who ace second year, get into Honours, bang out a dissertation and stroll into a grad job with one of the big 3 get their due; IT IS NOT EASY! I have seen first-hand how hard these students work, and they deserve the reward for their efforts.
But let’s face it, they represent the top 10%, and the other 90% of us “mortal” law students follow a less certain path – one filled with last-minute research and writings, recycled notes that don’t really make sense and the realisation that you opted for pint night over study a few too many times during semester. When it comes to finding a job, your Bell Gully’s and Chapman Tripp’s of the world are built around the image and aura of being “top-shelf”, so naturally they target the “legal superstars” every year.
Herein lies the root cause of “Job Anxiety”. Large corporate firms and Government Ministries have the money and resources to market themselves heavily, fund recruitment drives, sponsor law events and buy your love with cookie drops. There are only a few positions available, and the bar to even be considered is high. This competition means that, for most law students, these jobs seem out of reach. Big firm marketing also creates the ILLUSION that those are the only “legitimate” legal jobs out there in the marketplace. It becomes easy to convince yourself that not landing a job at one of these places is tantamount to career suicide or an indication that you are “sub-par”. I know I indeed fell prey to that feeling of “not being good enough”. There is nothing inherently wrong with working or wanting to work at a big firm. There isn’t anything wrong with the fact that they spend a lot of money on marketing; in fact, we as students benefit all the time from the sponsorship money that SOULS receives. What does pose a problem, however, is that students sometimes struggle to form an accurate picture of what they can do and where they can go with their law degree if they are not the second coming of Amal Clooney.
The reality is that finding a job or scoring an internship is not as impossible as it can sometimes seem. I took the “road less travelled”, but ultimately, I feel that I benefited in ways that are just as valuable as those gained through a more orthodox approach.
Heading into my fourth year, I looked at my GPA and said “YIKES”. Frankly, I thought I had a better chance of finding that dignity I lost at law camp than landing a clerkship with a big-name firm. I knew that these strange things called “medium” and “small” firms existed out there in the wilderness, but that was about it. “Job Anxiety” set in big time, and there were dark days when I even contemplated that I might actually have to USE MY ECONOMICS DEGREE! I know… terrifying stuff, but in all seriousness, I was pretty worried about my future and the pressure I was feeling began to affect other aspects of my life. Let’s get one thing straight though; I do have SOME analytical skills. I’ll have you know that I calculated the minimum amount of work required to pass a paper many times! Nevertheless, I decided to set about in a similar manner deciphering what I needed to do to either a) get a job, or b) at least make myself more attractive as a candidate.
After a brief interlude of 3 weeks I stopped crying myself to sleep watching “The Notebook” on repeat and came to the conclusion that gaining some/any experience in the legal sector would go a long way to helping me impress potential employers and prove to myself and others that grades were not going to define my success as a lawyer. The first thing I had to do was bite the bullet and accept that my grades were like Justin Timberlake’s acting career (a disappointment), and there was nothing I could do about it. Secondly, I had to stop waiting for the University or the Law Faculty to plop a nice opportunity in my lap; I had to go looking for it. My parents live in Hawke’s Bay, so I went online and made a list of all the law practices within an hour of my house. Then, I called up a family friend who happened to be an accountant and asked which law firms he had dealt with and had good reputations in the area. He kindly gave me some names to follow up on and I went about emailing every firm, big or small. I asked if I could meet with someone and to discuss how their firm worked, what they could tell me about the practice of law in a smaller market and what kind of opportunities they foresaw for young lawyers in the region. I DID NOT ask for a job, nor did I ask for an interview. Instead, I framed it as a fact-finding exercise. My thinking was that it would be much better to get in front of a real person if possible because those type of interactions are often more impactful in the long run.
Some firms never got back to me, and others politely replied that they were unable to accommodate me, but a decent number of firms did agree to meet! It was still the middle of first semester, and I wasn’t heading back home anytime soon, so I set up appointments for the first week of mid-semester break. In the interim, I did some research on the firms, touched up my CV and kept up to date with movements in the miniature horse market. When the break rolled around, I was ready. My strategy was to go into a firm armed with a list of questions and, somewhat ironically, conduct a sort of an interview of my own. At the end of each meeting, I let whoever I had met know that I was interested in getting some legal experience and volunteered my services (FOR FREE) as an intern, office help, anything. I was living at home, and while I did not relish the thought of being more broke than usual, I took the long view that doors would open for me if I could just get my foot in the door.
Some meetings definitely went better than others, but all were valuable learning points. It definitely brought home to me that there is a large degree of variation when it comes to law firms. Think more along the lines of that Foo Fighters song (“one of these firms is not like the other!”) …yeah you know it! One firm I visited was headed by two old codgers who still ran things like it was the 1970’s and unexpectedly tried to get me to take over the practice straight out of law school (and also somehow pay for it???). There were a few “too cool for school” types and a good number of “ma & pa” set-ups to go alongside the more standard 5-9 partner medium firm. Each meeting gave me a chance to get a feel for the person, learn about their firm and also judge their interest or availability as an employer. Many of the firms let me know that they had never taken clerks or interns on in the past because they didn’t know how they would manage a student, or if they would even know what work to give them. Despite this, most firms were genuinely intrigued by my proactive (I suspect the non-pecuniary element helped) interest. My CV was taken away to be presented and reported on at partner meetings, and I was told to keep in touch and make contact again towards the end of the second semester.
After following up on my leads, I was fortunate enough to be offered a clerkship at a medium-sized firm in Napier. They had never taken on an intern before, but decided I was worth a shot because they were impressed that I had put in the effort to make my own way and explore potential opportunities (the mad hatters even decided to pay me). The experience I gained while working there turned out to be invaluable, and the smaller nature of the firm meant I got a lot of time working with the partners themselves. I also got a bit of flexibility to create my own job as the partners felt I should try to insert myself anywhere I thought I might be able to help (they also didn’t know what to do with an intern, so I had to improvise). I ended up sitting in with partners during meetings and was, surprisingly, often asked to present and comment on ongoing cases. I helped conduct interviews, was sent to the District Court and the local Council to sift through old archives and title deeds to historical sites. I even wrote new standards for dealing with elderly clients (that were actually adopted by the firm, are they mad?!). All up, my clerking experience was much more broad and diverse than what some of my friends got to have in larger, corporate firms. Coming back to law school in 2019, I felt confident for the first time that working wasn’t going to be as scary as I thought it would. “Job Anxiety” wasn’t going to plague me the way it once had before, because now I knew that there are opportunities out there; they just aren’t always easy to see.
I guess the point that I am trying to make is that we shouldn’t have to live in fear of not being good enough. Not having a clerkship doesn’t make you a terrible person, or a failure or even a bad student. Don’t spend your time here fretting about your future; it will hold you back from embracing what can be a really awesome time at law school. It’s ok to volunteer, join a club or a team of some sort, or just interact on a level outside of academics with your peers. It won’t shut doors, and it will enrich your experience.
On the other hand, I think we need to be mindful that we play a meaningful role in our own lives. The Faculty and the University are always working to keep us informed about opportunities after university, but we cannot rely on them to do all the work for us. Taking a pro-active approach to job hunting, and thinking outside the box will inevitably help you grow as an individual, and you might just discover something special or unique along the way. I started 2018 with a shoddy academic record and a sense of hopelessness about my future prospects. Through a bit of creative thinking, a sprinkling of luck and the help of some kind-hearted people, I will close out 2019 with a job (I know… somebody was foolish enough to employ me) and the belief that you CAN flip the script if you want to.