15 things that law students need to learn

Remember how many applications you wrote to get this job? Don’t waste it.

Graduate programs last between 12 months and 2 years, and usually consist of two or more rotations in different practice groups. My graduate program was 12 months and consisted of three rotations. I was changing teams every four months. While I was assigned a Buddy for support in each rotation, I found there were some useful things my Buddy forgot to tell me. I have listed these for you.

How to make the most of each rotation:

  1. Get to know everyone in your team. Including the reclusive Special Counsel.

It is likely that HR will assign you to a team and introduce you to your supervising Partner. You may be on your own from that point forward. To quickly settle in, you need to understand how your team operates and who you will get work from. It is important to get to know all members of your team. Do not assume people will come and introduce themselves. Do not assume your Buddy will go around with you introducing you to everyone. Team members may not even be aware that a Graduate is coming to their team. On your first day make sure you meet everyone in person, explain that you are a graduate and that anyone in the team can delegate you work.

Ask your Partner directly who you should do work for. Prioritise your work in order of how senior the instructing solicitor is and how urgent the task is. Ensure you get to know the team nerds, who usually come in the form of Special Counsel. While they are often quiet, introverted, quirky types, they usually have very interesting work, and it would be terrible to miss out on this work because you did not introduce yourself. Hot tip: the longer you delay introducing yourself, the more awkward it gets. Always introduce yourself formally as soon as you meet someone new.

  1. Go to Friday night drinks.

To get to know your team you need to socialise with your team. People will get to know you and trust you sooner if you share information about yourself. Appropriate topics of conversation include what law school you went to, what college of law was like back in the day, sport and happenings in the legal world such as the latest murder trial. Inappropriate topics include personal relationships, sexual orientation, and politics (unless you are 100% sure you are of the same political orientation as the person).

  1. Consider joining the same gym as your colleagues.

Health and fitness is a very easy way to bond with colleagues. I have known people who hold meetings while riding a stationary bike. I became instant work besties with a junior lawyer after we figured out we go to the same Pilates reformer class. Just make sure it looks like you have always been a member and didn’t just join to network.

  1. Ask for work the right way.

There are two extremes:

a) The graduate who walks around to every single member of their team and asks for work in a demanding/aggressive way until work it given. This generally upsets colleagues and will have you gossiped about, but has the advantage of ensuring colleagues know you are enthusiastic and a hard worker.

b) The graduate who runs out of work and simply sits at their desk until someone gives them more work. This graduate may be perceived as lazy or disengaged.

The correct approach is a method in between. If colleagues look like they do not want to be interrupted, you could send them an email letting them know you have capacity. It can take time for more senior lawyers to think of work to give to junior lawyers. Once you have let people know, there is no need to continually harass them. You can occupy yourself in the meantime by reading legal updates, tidying Outlook, or assisting the paralegal or secretary with administrative work.

  1. Be best friends with your secretary.

Most graduates are required to do their own administrative work. So you won’t be delegating your typing and photocopying to your secretary. However, having good relations with your secretary is important because often they are the person who runs the team on a daily basis. They know where your Partner is at any given time, and can give you tips on how to deal with Registry and Court staff. They also know addresses for service of subpoenas, who the best process servers are, and where to get the best coffee in the neighbourhood. The team secretary will also be asked to give feedback on how you were to work with. I recommend volunteering to do tasks like delivering briefs to Chambers when the paralegals are away, etc. This shows you are aware of the team’s needs.

  1. Put down ALL your time. Including non-billables.

If it takes you three hours to do the legal research memorandum, put all the time down. It is up to your Partner to decide whether it is reasonable to bill the client this amount or not. It is not your decision. If you don’t put all the time down you are effectively giving the client a discount. At most law firms, only Partners are authorised to give clients discounts. Alternatively, at the end of a piece of work, you could discuss with the lawyer in charge how much would be reasonable to put down.

Put down time for all work, including non-billable work. Your Partner will look at your billing sheet as a record of what you were doing that day. If you did four hours of non-billable work preparing documents for court, your Partner will not know about it unless you put it on your timesheet.

  1. Find out when home time is.

Every team is different. Some start at 7am and finish by 5:30pm. Others start at 10am but won’t go home until 8pm earliest. Finding out when home time is can save you a lot of effort sneaking out or hanging around unnecessarily with no work to do. Your home time will be after all administrative staff have left and after all paralegals have left, and usually will be around the time the junior lawyers leave. Before you leave make sure you ask if there is further work you need to do today. If not, say goodbye to your team and leave.

  1. Ask to go along to court, mediation and client meetings.

If you can fit it into your work schedule, you should try to attend and observe as many court sessions, mediations and meetings as possible. Your team members do not know what your workload is like, so it will be up to you to ask to come along. This shows initiative and enthusiasm.

  1. Be above office gossip.

Some teams love to gossip. They know all about every person at your firm’s personal life and why the Partner in Finance had a falling out with the Property team. If someone starts a gossipy conversation with you, by all means listen, as gossiping can be a bonding exercise, but do not contribute and do not start your own gossip. If it is getting particularly explicit, change the subject. As a graduate you will be moving all around the firm, working in different teams. You need to remain as neutral as possible.

  1. Make your desk your own.

You will be sitting at your desk. A lot. Customise it in a professional manner. Unless you are very lucky, you will be sitting in open plan, which means you will have a few pin up board areas to work with. Try handmade paper in office appropriate colours and a few photos. Appropriate photos include pictures of landscapes and monuments. Inappropriate photos include photos of your family, friends, partner, dog or cat. A small potted plant such as a succulent may also be appropriate. The office environment is too cold for a cactus.

Fresh flowers in a vase may seem like a good idea, but it is also a good way to make enemies with people who suffer from hayfever. If you really need flowers at your desk, opt for fake flowers made from silk.

  1. Take control of College of Law and your admission ceremony. No one else will.

There are a few firms that integrate College of Law into their graduate programs and will probably organise and pay for your admission. Not everyone will get that lucky. For example, the other graduates in my intake were already admitted, so I had to organise everything myself. Remember that “PQE” legal experience only counts after admission, so get admitted as soon as possible.

  1. Stay in contact with the other graduates.

After induction and training graduates are dispersed to different teams. While you may have promised to meet up for lunch once a week, this generally never happens. It is so important to keep in touch with graduates from other teams. They are going through exactly the same difficulties as you and can potentially help you with your problems. You may be going to their team next, in which case they can update you on the team dynamic and the kind of work you will be doing.

  1. Keep in mind at all times you are trying to convince the team that they should offer you a permanent position.

The purpose of a rotation is for you to try out a team and for the team to try you out to see if they want to offer you a permanent position. Equity Partners run law firms and dictate to HR what will happen to you after your graduate year. Even if you do not want to settle in that team, remain vigilant at all times, as you will be reviewed at the end of the rotation, and that review may help you settle in the team you want.

  1. Do not wait until your performance review to bring up issues.

One of the main issues graduates worry about is billable hours. Generally there is ALWAYS work for a graduate lawyer to do. However, much of the work may not be billable. This may make it difficult for you to reach your billable hours target. My billable hours target was 3.5 hours a day which left plenty of time for non-billable work, but at top tier firms it can be upward of 7 hours. Bring the issue up directly with your Partner. Hopefully they see non-billable work as contributing to your team and tell you not to worry about the billable hours.

  1. Be hungry!

Do not let the humdrum of daily life at a law firm get you down. Remember how enthusiastic and hungry to be involved in law you were at the beginning of the graduate year? Remember how many applications you wrote to get this job? Do not leave your motivation at the door. Stay hungry.

15 things that law students need to learn
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