Life as a Grad Law Clerk
As a law student, you will have been studying for a significant amount of time already. But while you’ve probably got the hang of being a student, what happens when you do finally finish and what does being a law clerk involve?
What is a Law Clerk?
Generally speaking, if you land a job in a law firm after graduation your title will be that of a ‘Law Clerk’, and you will become a ‘Solicitor’ after you are admitted to the Bar. As the most junior lawyers in the office, your role will be a mixture of administration and legal work – including a lot of proof reading, researching and drafting legal documents. A lot of bigger firms also offer ‘Summer Clerk’ positions which gives you the opportunity to experience working in a law firm over the summer break in your penultimate year of uni.
Differences between Law Firms
The law firms you will want to interview at will depend on what field of law you intend to specialise in once you leave university. In corporate law, bigger commercial law firms such as Simpson Grierson and Chapman Tripp can offer more options and allow you to find a specialisation early on in the corporate field, whilst smaller to mid-level commercial law firms will be more general in their roles, giving you experience over a wider range of topics. Bigger firms will also hire more grads, so there will be more people of your experience level. Most corporate law firms will have corporate and commercial, litigation and employment teams, with the larger firms likely to offer roles in property, competition law, environmental law, banking and finance, etc. These firms typically deal with large corporations and high net-worth individuals.
Looking away from corporate law firms – criminal, consultancy, environmental, property or family law firms will be more specified in the services they provide and have different, defined target clients depending on their size and location. These firms are less likely to advertise for graduate positions during the typical recruitment period but on an as-needed basis, so keep an eye out on job search websites and your university pages.
On top of ‘law firms’, law clerk positions may also be available in in-house legal teams for large companies or governmental departments, police prosecution or legal aid.
Differences in Law Clerk Positions
The team you work in at your desired firm will depend on the firm itself. For example, Simpson Grierson provides their graduates with a six-month rotation period, so grads can experience at least two different service lines before they specialise. Other firms will have offered this experience for their summer clerks, so by graduate recruitment they will be hiring for specific positions only. If you didn’t get a summer clerk role and you aren’t sure of what you would like to specialise in, I would recommend applying for positions that do offer this rotation as you’ll be able to make a more reasoned decision about what you prefer. In smaller firms, rotation may not be an option but you are likely to be exposed to a broader range of legal issues as they arise, so you don’t feel like you will be trapped into one type of law!
Our recent blog “Salary Expectations for your First Grad Job” provides that graduate lawyers’ salaries typically average around $41,000. Firms with more resources may be able to provide bigger graduate salaries, but try not to be dictated by this – find a graduate role that appeals to your interests, will keep you stimulated and has a culture that you think you will enjoy working in, the financial benefits will even out in the long run!
Two Weeks in – My Experiences So Far
I started as a law clerk two weeks ago at a mid-tier corporate law firm and I have had to hit the ground running! There has been heaps of work for me to do, which as well as attending meetings has mainly involved proof-reading contracts, drafting resolutions and letters, researching and summarising the impact of changes in legislation. Usually I would have a quick chat with the person in charge to get a brief understanding of what the client is trying to achieve and why we are doing the work we are, before I get to have a crack at whatever task I’ve been given. I’m very fortunate to be at a firm that is eager for me to learn, has a lot of work for me to do, and is happy for me to ask a million questions because there have been a few times that I’ve felt way out of my depth!
It feels a bit funny giving tips when I’ve only just started – but here are some little things I’ve learnt already!
- Corporate Wear: start collecting corporate clothes when you can afford it during uni so you aren’t faced with the mammoth (and expensive) task of assembling a wardrobe the week before you start! Also, invest in some good shoes as even though you’ll be at a desk, you actually get up and down quite a lot and law clerks are quite often required to hand deliver documents to different firms around the city!
- Casual Friday: find out as early as possible whether casual Friday happens in your office – as you’ll need to have “business casual” appropriate clothes for that as well! Also, confirm how casual ‘casual’ actually is – in my office we wear jeans with heels but other firms are happy with nice sneakers.
- Lunch Breaks: take one! Even if it’s only 10 minutes, getting up and away from your desk will give your brain a break and you will come back to your work a lot more refreshed. Taking a break will also make it more bearable to work past 5pm!
- Working Late: be prepared for this – even in your first week! Firms are usually pretty understanding about sport or other commitments but sometimes work just does need to be done before the next morning. Make sure you have a safe way home or arrange to be able to work from home just in case!
- Take it on the chin - some of the work you need to do as a Law Clerk isn’t the most engaging, but it’s stuff that needs to be done by someone to enable everyone else to be able to do their jobs. Be prepared to have your work returned to you covered in red pen as well – you aren’t expected to know everything nor are you going to be perfect when you start, but take those critiques as a learning experience to get better!
Why are Graduate Roles Important?
Unless you’re not planning to work in the law after you graduate, a law clerk position is usually the next step once you finish your studies. Some of the more specified jobs that lots of students want usually require 1-2 years of experience, so do look into some more formally advertised roles (even if they aren’t exactly what you want) as it will give you the experience you need. A lot of young lawyers tend to go overseas in their 3rd or 4th years of practice which will open up gaps in these more specified fields, so having some general experience will be very helpful.
By Tayla Court, Auckland, New Zealand.