In 2017, a member suggested that WLAQ develop a range of in-practice queries, being a central resource of questions that members may have across the course of their careers.  Thank you to Melanie Hindman QC for her assistance with getting the project started, and to the FY2018/2019 Committee for compiling this information.

This information is general in nature and is not representative of any one person, or organisation, including WLAQ.  Please ensure that you review all career information available to you and form an independent opinion before deciding what you want to do.

Clerkships and Graduate positions

So, what are you doing next year?

This question is often the bane of a final year law student’s existence and may be yours (especially after being asked by family members, friends, colleagues and potentially the barista at your local coffee joint).  It’s an exciting and daunting time in your life so, of course, everyone wants to know how you are tracking to take that big leap into lawyer-dom. It is at this point that your future starts to come into sharper focus and the pressure to make the ‘right’ decision about your post-graduation career starts to intensify.  While there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to securing a graduate lawyer position, there is a path well followed by many firms and is applied in line with Queensland Law Society requirements.

What is a ‘clerkship’?

A clerkship is, generally, paid work experience that you may choose to complete in your penultimate year of study (you can apply in other years, however your penultimate year is the preferred year for law firms).  Offered in both Winter and Summer university holidays (which is why they are called vacation clerkships), a clerkship is usually a four week program that would see you work with various practice groups in a firm.  There are usually two rounds for Summer clerkships; December and January. Undertaking a clerkship has two major benefits – first, you will be able to experience a firm’s culture firsthand before making a decision regarding your graduate employment and the areas of law you may be interested in.  Secondly, while it is a myth that all students who undertake a clerkship are offered a graduate position, it is not a myth that you are ‘higher up the list’ than those who never competed a clerkship at any firms. The Queensland Law Society publishes a set list of dates that all law firms follow for the receiving clerkship applications, interviews and offers.  The QLS Careers Expo (generally held in March of each year) is the perfect opportunity to scout firms, find out what type of law they practice in and participate in helpful workshops, including resume and cover letter writing. There are no restrictions on the number of law firms that you apply to, however if you intend to undertake more than one clerkship in Summer, make sure you clarify which group you will be part of. You may receive more than one offer for a clerkship.  Make sure you decide this yourself – do not be swayed by friends are going.  And, the Golden Rule – communicate your acceptance or rejection before the due date and in writing.

What is a ‘graduate position’?

A graduate position is your first post-graduation role.  It used be called (in a different iteration) an Articled Clerkship.  Most graduate positions are two years, where you complete six month to one year rotations in various practice groups while completing your Practical Legal Training (PLT). What is it like to work and study as a grad?  Well, yes, you can take leave while you are a graduate, just make sure you plan and ask for it in advance.  Remember: most graduate salaries are fixed while you are a grad.  You are able to access study leave for PLT and to take your exams – make sure you read your firm’s policy on this.  Top tier firms generally have the College of Law attend to give the courses and run the exams. Rotation discussions can take some time – there are coffees with the Senior Associates to find out if you want to rotate in, chats with other grads to find out where they are looking to go, meeting with the Partner and then the final decision you make and give to Talent.  You will hear stories about grads missing out on their top preference, and others who have received their top preferences each time, and there is always the story of a grad who received their 15th preference and next time received their top one.  If you talk to Talent about the process, they can tell you about the discussions they have with Partners, working out which practice groups require more grads (think: royal commissions, litigation and discovery needs), and will very much assure you that they do not place based on their personal preferences (read: their friends or favourites).  It is always about meeting the needs of their clients and making sure business needs are also met. The social aspects of being a grad are fantastic.  Your ‘grad group’ will be with you throughout your whole career, even if you change firms.  There are still Partners now who talk about who they did Articles with.  Make sure you use this time to build friendships and relationships within the firm.  Don’t be that grad who becomes known as the excessive drinker at the first few functions – the two drink rule is always a good start! What happens after you finish your grad program?  Well, all going well, you will be offered a permanent position in the group of your choice.  If your group of choice has capacity and does not have room for you, it is quite common for a grad to do an extra rotation – don’t see this as a negative and to those not in that position – do not look down on your fellow grad if they are doing an extra rotation.

What is involved in the recruitment process?

The clerkship and graduate recruitment process varies from firm to firm. However, the following is a common structure:
  1. Application – Most firms have an online application process for their graduate and clerkship programs. This may include, but is not limited to, inputting your personal details, completing a short question and answer section and then uploading your cover letter, resume and academic transcript. Your cover letter should not be a repeat of your resume – they can turn the page to see that information.  Your cover letter is what will make you stand out from the others so make it good!
  2. Aptitude Assessment – Primarily conducted online, aptitude assessments involve standardised cognitive, cultural and situational testing to determine if a candidate is the right ‘fit’ for a particular firm.
  3. Interview – If you make it through the preliminary stages of recruitment, you will be asked to have a face-to-face interview. The interviewing panel may consist of HR representatives and a Partner.  While many interview questions will directly relate to your study and work experience in the law, many interviewers also want to gauge who you are as a person not just as a lawyer.  A second interview is common and is usually held with you and senior lawyers.  This interview is generally more focused on the firm and what you want to know about tit.
  4. Offer – Should you be successful in your application, the firm may call you with a verbal offer followed by a written offer of employment.  It is common practice that you will then have 24 hours to either accept or decline this offer.  Again – make it based on your preference – not your parents, friends or because you ‘feel bad’ saying no to a particular Talent representative; this is your career!
You are able to check the critical dates for clerkship and graduate recruitment on the Careers page of each firm’s website. Many mid- and top tier firms also subscribe to the QLS Legal Graduate Employment and Vacation Clerkship Guidelines which contains further information about this process.

I never completed a clerkship, does this mean I will not obtain a graduate position?

It is not a definite no, but you may be on the back foot compared to those who have completed a clerkship.  Some firms may not offer a clerkship program and others may have an excess of graduate positions in comparison to their number of clerks and will be looking to hire a grad from outside of the clerkship pool.  It is imperative that you keep abreast of what different firms are offering in terms of graduate programs. Also, you are not prevented from applying for a grad position if you have not completed a clerkship you should be prepared to address this in your cover letter – close it off honestly and succinctly.

I did not obtain a graduate position, does this mean I will not be admitted as a lawyer?

In simple terms – of course not!  If you miss out on a graduate position, you are still able to undertake your PLT and apply for admission on completion of your training. As a part of your PLT, you will be required to undertake work experience in the legal field.  Common work experience placements include work with community legal centres, Legal Aid and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions.  Many private firms also take on PLT students which has the potential to lead to future employment. If you are taking this option, and the organisation you are undertaking experience with does not offer paid positions, that is ok – it is work experience.  However, you need to be mindful if they want to keep you on in an unpaid position after your experience hours are up.

How do I prepare all of my admission documents?

For those in firms, you will likely have someone assist you with all of the timing, the dates, the advertising and the collation of material.  The QLS also publishes dates and the LSC is the first place you should go to for any clarification needed. Make sure you are prepared well in advance and think about what information your mover needs, for example, the language they are to read out when moving your admission.

Who do I ask to move my admission?

Back ‘in the day’, it used to be that a graduate would ask their supervising Partner, or one of the Partners in the groups that they had rotated through or a family member if they were part of the profession.  This was seen as a mark of respect and for years grads would talk about who moved their admission (also, the seniority of the person moving your admission determines the order of you being admitted, ie higher up the solicitor’s roll, whereas your marks determine the order in which you sit with your admission group).  These days, more grads are having their friends move their admission.  Either option is fine, however it would be good to have a converstion with your supervisor to let them know if you do choose to have a friend instead of them move your admission.

Do I need to buy my mover a gift?

This is not an absolute requirement, but it is always a nice gesture along with inviting them out to any lunch or dinner that you are hosting that day.

Do I go back to work on my admission day?

This is up to your place of employment, a lot of firms give you the day off to celebrate and enjoy it with family and friends.  Firms may also hold a graduate admission event to welcome you to the firm a few days later.

Helpful hints

  1. Do your research
Law firms will receive hundreds of applications for their clerkship and graduate programs.  One way to help your application stand out from the crowd is to demonstrate that you have done your research and know what their firm is all about. You may choose to reference a recent case that they have been working on or maybe they have a unique pro-bono program that really interests you – whatever it is, make sure you make it abundantly clear in your application that this is a firm that you want to work for.  Also – do not address the letter to Dear Sirs.  Research who you are actually writing to and address the letter accordingly.
  1. Diversify your interests 
This is no longer just a catch-cry of investment bankers.  Law firms want to employ well-rounded candidates that are able to demonstrate their skills and abilities in various fields.  From volunteering for the Red Cross to competing in a team sport on the weekend, these experiences help shape who you are as a person and, in turn, are a great way to demonstrate your values, strengths and work ethic to a future employer.  So, get involved and build an exceptional resume – it is not just about having a 7.0!
  1. Get networking
Law is a notoriously small world. An acquaintance at a networking event may become an indispensable contact once you start applying for clerkships and graduate positions.  It is important to seek out and then foster these relationships to grow your professional network.  If you have a contact at a particular firm, you could mention them by name in your cover letter and why they have inspired you to work at that firm.  If you are looking for an opportunity to meet engaged female members of the legal profession, WLAQ hosts multiple networking events across the year and student members have access to discounted event tickets.

Judges Associate

When should I be applying for a Judges Associateship?

In terms of your career there is no exact ‘right time’ to apply for an Associateship, although it is most common for candidates to apply for a position commencing in the year following university finalisation, or at the conclusion of their Graduate rotations at a firm.

For the Supreme and District Courts of Queensland information will be available in December of that year for associateships commencing two years later (for example, released in December 2019 for 2021 Associateships). Information will be found on the Courts website.

There are no ‘closing dates’ for High Court associateships, however the Justices may have appointed their Associates for the next two to three years at any time.  Further information can be found at on the High Court website.

I have taken a grad position at a firm, will this mean that I have to give that up if I accept an Associateship?

You should check with the firm that you have accepted your position with.  Many firms will allow you to place your Graduate position on hold while you complete your Associateship, or for you to complete a portion of your grad program, complete your Associateship and return to finalise your grad program.  You should make sure you speak to your firm about this, and prior to accepting the Associateship, because they may reduce your grad program requirements and you may even be admitted earlier than your peers in your grad program.

What should I expect as a JA?

As an associate you should expect to be involved in:

  • legal research;
  • proofing judgments;
  • arranging circuits to rural centres;
  • ensuring that court proceedings run smoothly by familiarising yourself with files and liaising with registry staff and the parties; and
  • arraigning defendants, empanelling juries and taking verdicts in criminal trials.

You should also expect to perform some administrative work.   It’s part of the job, but this shouldn’t be seen as a drawback, rather expanding your skillset so that when you start in practice you already know how to set your calendar, bring-ups and manage competing appointments.

Depending on who you work for, you may also be invited to attend events with your Judge and this can present great opportunities to meet members of the profession and the bench.

How do I manage going away on circuit and maintaining a balance in life?

Going on circuit is definitely a factor to consider when applying for a Judges Associateship.  However, the experience gained on circuit is well worth being away from home for a few weeks over the course of a year.

Depending on which court you’re in (District Court Judges tend to go on circuit far more often than Judges of the Supreme Court), the amount of time spent on circuit in a year can be between 0 and 12 weeks.

If circuit weeks are back-to-back, some Judges opt to return home on weekends and this helps in maintaining a work-life balance.  Ultimately, circuits are one of the best parts of the job because you get to see how regional Courts operate, meet various members of the profession and bond with your Judge.

What is the best thing about being a JA?

By far the best bit of being a JA is building personal and professional relationships with not only your Judge, but also with the other associates and their Judges.  As a JA, you are also given a unique opportunity to witness first-hand how our Courts operate, watch some of the best advocates present in Court and learn from their experiences.

PLT and Admission

Who pays for my PLT?

There are several different options for paying your PLT.  First, if you are working in a law firm it is general practice for your employer to pay the costs of your PLT (however it is not a ‘given’ to have it paid).  Employers often require a commitment to stay in their employ for a certain period of time following payment of your PLT, such is the case when they pay for a Masters degree and require a prorata repayment if you leave before the time period has elapsed.  It is important to review any internal policies and procedures at your firm to determine what you are entitled to, and if you are required to make a commitment to the firm in return.  If you work for a boutique firm, or there are no relevant internal policies available on this issue, speak to your employer about options for payment of your PLT in advance.  In the times of articled clerks, it was common practice (but no written rule) that if they invest in you for two years, you owe them another two on top of that as a matter of courtesy.  These days, the time period is now captured through employment policies and your contract.

If you are not employed in the legal profession or if your firm or organisation says no (for example a Community Legal Centre may not have the funds to contribute), you will have to cover the cost of your PLT yourself.  You may be eligible for a FEE-HELP loan via the Australian government. FEE-HELP is a loan scheme that assists eligible student pay all or part of their tuition fees but it does not cover study costs such as textbooks. Loans are only available to Australian citizens or students who hold a permanent humanitarian visa. You can learn more about FEE-HELP online.  

I am in the regions, does that mean by PLT will not be the same as Brisbane students?

Not at all!  Many institutions that offer PLT training also offer flexible delivery with an ability to participate externally, including through The College of Law Queensland.  You may be required to attend on campus for a short period of time, during your course but otherwise can complete your studies online and via video link.  Make sure that when you are applying for entry into a course, that you have selected your units via external or online delivery.  The practical aspect of your PLT will no doubt be different to that of Brisbane students as you would be undertaking your practical training at a Regional firm which may have different processes and resources to that of a City firm.

I need to complete work experience in order to achieve my hours, should I be paid?

Work experience is a core component of your PLT, where you will obtain an insight into a real legal environment, and have an opportunity to apply your skills to real-life legal problems.  Your work experience for PLT purposes may not be paid (if you are not currently employed and undertaking a graduate program) and your law firm will let you know of the position prior to having you sign a contract.  What you need to be mindful of is if you continue to undertake unpaid work following the completion of your PLT hours.  The Fair Work Ombudsman states that unpaid work can include work experience, vocational placements and internships.  However, it is up to you and your prospective employer to ensure that your position is compliant with the Fair Work Act (particularly for continuing work).  Some individuals are in the position where they are paid for their work experience because they are part of a graduate program, or have negotiated that with their workplace (including for secretaries or paralegals who are also law students).  It is important to find out what is available, and try to negotiate pay where possible.  Remember, work experience does not have to be gained via the traditional route of private practice. Subject to the guidelines of your university, work experience can be offered by barristers, government bodies, judges, tribunal members or Community Legal Centres. 

I am ready to be admitted, could I ask my friend who is on a Supervised Practising Certificate to move my admission?

Yes. Under section 6(d) of the Legal Profession Regulation, the following lawyers can be a ‘mover’:

 
  • where the lawyer holds a current practicing certificate (restricted or non-restricted); OR
 
  • where the lawyer is employed by the government (being a government legal officer) in circumstances where the Board has recommended the applicant’s admission WITHOUT CONDITIONS, i.e. has issued a ‘clear’ certificate of recommendation. 
   

If the mover does not fall into one of the two above categories, they cannot move your admission.  Remember that movers will be placed in line of seniority on the day, so having a more senior mover will ensure you are moved sooner at your ceremony. 

Before deciding on your mover, consider who has contributed most to your legal ‘upbringing’, particularly in terms of senior lawyers and Partners.  Having a friend move your admission only became a ‘thing’ in the past five years, and prior to this, it was always seen as a mark of respect to ask your supervisor (Partner or Senior Associate) to move your admission.  You will always have a special bond with your mover so think about who you would like to have the role before making a decision.

Do I need to wear a suit to my admission ceremony?

The ceremony (in Brisbane) is held in the Banco Court and generally in the Supreme Court in the regions.  There is a requirement for solicitor and barristers (when not robed) to wear a jacket in Court, or they will not be heard unless leave is sought and granted.  You should wear a suit when being admitted and ensure that it is suitable (for example length of your skirt).

Do I need to find a mentor straight away?

There is no requirement to find a mentor straight after admission, and the best mentoring relationships are achieved organically.  Your firm may have internal mentoring arrangements in place that will mean you are paired up with a more senior practitioner in a mentoring arrangement (often referred to as a Buddy). 

If your firm does not have these arrangements in place, it is extremely helpful to have a mentor to help guide you through the first years of practice as you never know when you might need someone to lean on for advice! We would encourage junior members to get involved with WLAQ’s Ladder Program. The purpose of the program is to support and nurture women in the early stages of their legal careers. You will be paired with a mentor, who as a  senior member of the profession can offer invaluable support (and help you develop your professional contacts). You can read more about the program online.

How do I build relationships in the firm?

Because you spend so much time at work, it is important to build collegiate relationships.  Many of the people you work with as junior practitioners, you will work with again as you progress in your careers.  In order to build relationships within your firm, get involved!  Your firm have internal committees (such as a social committee) that you can volunteer for, which are a great way to meet practitioners outside your area of expertise.  It is also a good idea to attend internal events where you can, as these are a great networking opportunity.  Do not put too much pressure on yourself to be a social butterfly, as first and foremost you are there to how to learn to be a lawyer.  The main thing is to ensure you are achieving what you need to for work, and also being mindful of having great relationships and being a team player.  

My firm wants to send me on a secondment, I am still a junior, is this a bad thing?

Secondments are never a bad thing (and ignore what you may hear otherwise).  In private practice, secondment is an excellent opportunity to better get to know a client that you are providing services for.  If your Partner is looking to send you on secondment as a representative of your firm, this is a good thing.  If you are government based, a secondment is a great opportunity to explore other departments and areas that you may not have otherwise been exposed to, and is a good opportunity to network also. 

In order to make sure your secondment is beneficial to all, regularly check in with your Partner to provide updates.  Also look to build relationships at the client’s office so that when you finish your secondment you are front of their mind to instruct (and you have the added benefit of knowing how the client operates).  When you return from secondment be sure to share your learnings with the Partner so that the team can look to service the client to the standards they need.

Associate & Senior Associate

What is the difference between an Associate (or Senior Lawyer) and a Senior Associate?

An Associate is the title generally awarded to lawyers with at least 3 – 5 years PAE. This role is not used in all firms and is a recognition of a ‘mid-level’ lawyer in your chosen field.  Appointment to Senior Associate recognises a lawyer’s legal expertise, leadership qualities, seniority and opportunities for growth (both individual professional growth and growth of the business).  Both roles require the lawyer to comply with the relevant KPIs and behavioural expectations of the firm.  Typically Senior Associates appointed will have between 5 – 10 years PAE.   A Senior Associate will usually be responsible for supervising and delegating work to an Associate and junior lawyers.  

What is a business case?

   

A business case is a justification for a proposed promotion, project or undertaking on the basis of its expected commercial benefit.  It captures the reasoning and justification for initiating the promotion, project or task and seeking approval (or providing an explanation) for same. 

A business case in the sense of a promotion within a law firm is the commercial reasoning and/or justification as to why you should be promoted at the time you are seeking to be promoted (eg the needs of the business require you to be promoted because…).  When you move to a Senior Associate position you will be expected to produce a business case.  The lawyers who are best at building their own practice and bring in their own clients have a business case from early on in their careers.

Why is Senior Associate ‘such a big deal’?

   

Appointment to Senior Associate recognises your legal expertise in your chosen field, personal leadership qualities, ability to meaningfully mentor, support and supervise junior lawyers, ability to delegate to other members of the team, your relationship and growth capacity and ability to build and maintain strong relationships with clients.  

Senior Associate appointments are general considered as a potential pathway to Partnership and is an acknowledgment of expertise in your chosen field and firm.  In most firms, appointment to a Senior Associate is not provided simply by virtue of your PAE years, but rather requires a nomination and approval process.  This may include a nomination by your Supervising Partner, a detailed application process, interview by a number of Partners (outside of your direct Supervising Partner) and approval by the broader firm Partners.

When should I start working out what is ‘my practice’?

   

You should start working out what you want your practice area, and area of expertise to be at an early stage (we suggest by the 2-3 year PAE mark).   Useful questions to ask include ‘where do I see myself in 5, 10 and 15 years’. What are my strengths and weaknesses?  Having an understanding of your interest, goals, strengths and weaknesses will assist you in realising your practice area.  Additionally, discussion with senior lawyers and mentors (inside and outside of your firm) is also useful in this journey.  Having a clear business plan will assist you in terms of promotion and finding your fit within your firm.

How do I balance business development and billable hours?

   

A simple answer is that it is impossible to have a balance and many marketing theorists say that the best time to market is when you don’t actually need to (that is, when you are already busy!).  The more senior you become in private practice, the greater the opportunity and expectation that you will develop your own personal relationships with key clients and prospective business opportunities, with a view to generating your own work and supporting a team to delegate to.  

Balancing the business development goals and billable hour targets can be challenging, but integral to the role of Senior Associate is your ability to effectively and efficiently manage your time in these areas.

Some tips to balancing business development and billable hours include:

  • properly time record all billable and non-billable hours, including business development.  This will allow you to keep track of all of the time and initiatives you have worked on for business development;
  • carve out time in your day/week to dedicate to business development initiatives;
  • schedule one client business development catch up per month, with a new or different existing client;
  • consider creating a client seminar which can be delivered to multiple clients to maximise time efficiencies and client engagement and exposure;
  • if your firm has a business/client development resource, link in with him/her to discuss business development opportunities and strategies for the future;
  • business development does not have to be onerous.  Some effective business development strategies to add value to clients can be done by actively sharing new insights and knowledge with the client.  This can be as simple as emailing a client (or prospective client) a recent decision about a matter that is of interest to their business, or sharing other relevant industry information, on an informal basis;
  • actively engage with colleagues across various business units and offices within your firm to ensure the persons with the best expertise are available to provide the best solutions for the client and generate new business opportunities (including those outside of your practice area);
  • leverage your relationships within your law firm to create opportunities for others to make new connections with key stakeholders and clients.

 I have been Senior Associate for over 5 years, does this mean I will never make Partner?

   

No.  Times have changed over the last 20 years where it was more common for Partners to be appointed at an earlier stage of their careers.  Firms, prior to appointing you as a Senior Associate want to know that you can be part of the business and ensure you are supported and not ‘set up to fail’.  This includes making sure you are able to undertake BD, as not all lawyers will ‘inherit’ a practice from their Partner.   

If Partnership is what you are seeking, we suggest you be aware of the KPI and performance requirements for appointment to Partner, engage at an early stage with your Supervising Partner about promotion prospects and your intentions, including to Partnership, and obtain feedback (from your supervising Partner and/or other Partners and/or professional mentors) on any recommended next steps to assist you to achieve your goal. 

Should I be negotiating my salary or just accepting what I am given?

   

The best time for negotiating your salary is before you accept the job offer, and also at your annual review.  Another opportunity is following your annual review when you are advised of your payrise.  If you are being promoted from Associate to Senior Associate, prior to negotiating your salary (or initiating a discussion about salary) with HR or your supervising Partner we encourage to do your research, know what the industry is paying, understand the market range for a Senior Associate in the type of firm you work in (eg small, mid-tier or top-tier) and be prepared to engage in a discussion about salary.  There are a number of legal salary guides that are released on a yearly basis that may be useful as a guide.  As they say in litigation “if you have the evidence, your submission is more likely to be accepted”.

Additionally, as an alternative to asking for more money, you might wish to consider negotiating other benefits at the time of your promotion including a flexible work arrangement, additional leave, the payment or reimbursement of study fees or an allowance for further education, professional membership to an industry body or an opportunity for a bonus at the end of the financial year.

Are secondments for Senior Associates normal or are they for juniors only?

   

Clients are becoming more and more sophisticated and there is an increasing trend for more senior lawyers to be relied by clients for secondment opportunities.  It is not uncommon for Senior Associates to be seconded to key clients’ in-house legal teams to cover a client being on a period of leave, to assist with a significant transaction/matter or to refine specific expertise and strengthen client relationships. 

It will depend on the work required as to whether a senior or junior lawyer is the most appropriate person for the secondment.  A number of factors will determine who would be most appropriate to go on secondment, including the nature and type of work to be completed, period of secondment, workload, cost and commercial considerations by the client and resource availability within your firm etc.  For example, if the secondment involves discovery or data review, it might be more appropriate and cost effective (both for the firm and the client) for a junior lawyer to be on secondment for this task.  However if the client is looking for a secondee to work in their in-house legal team to handle all the general legal matters that arise in the course of their companies’ activities or provide strategic direction, supervision and oversight to a specific project, a Senior Associate may be most suited for the role.