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Roundtable Discussion: What do I need to know about a Clerkship?

Welcome to Roundtable Discussions, The Footnotes column that is born from your questions. Readers pose their career and study quandaries, from how to work out what you want to do –  to how to actually get there; and we find the experts who’ll offer their qualified opinion over a meal.

Hi Footnotes, I’m about to start the process of applying for clerkships and I was wondering if you guys have any stories about people who have done them in the past? Also, some application tips would be amazing!

For this round table discussion, we call in:

  • Alice – clerked at Mills Oakley
  • Jimmy – clerked at Clayton Utz
  • Zoe – clerked at MinterEllison

Did you enjoy your clerkship overall?

Alice: It was a very useful experience – I learned a lot. I really valued the exposure to an office environment because most of my previous work experience had been in hospitality. It was good to feel like an adult and do something different, even though it was hard adjusting to the hours of 9-6 every day. I had 11 clerks in my team and we all got along well.

Jimmy: Yeah, I loved it. You essentially get dropped in a corporate situation with 35 new people (in my firm at least) who are all of a similar age, so there was a pretty good social vibe. Our clerk group got on really well.

Zoe: I think it was a fun summer, you didn’t have to work very hard once you were in the door, if I’m honest. But the whole lead up with the application process was so stressful.

It’s kind of two polar opposites I would say – the application process was so hard but then I had a really fun summer with a good, genuine bunch of people. They have all these social activities for you like sport every week and drinks every Friday – you go home at 5 and life is good.

What did you do day-to-day?

Alice: Well I started off in the intellectual property team and first, I was just doing research tasks and writing research memos for the partners. Towards the end they got me writing draft advice for clients and that was really good because I felt like I was contributing more. I also wrote a couple of journal articles in the not-for-profit team – that team actually had less work for me to do, which is why I ended up writing those articles, I think.

Jimmy: You do two rotations that go for about 5 weeks each – I started in M&A (Mergers and Acquisitions) and then went to Major Projects. You might be reading contracts, drafting clauses, doing research. Personally, I got to do some more substantive matters too like due diligence, for example. Another thing they did at Clayton Utz was give us a ‘knowledge management task’, which was like a generic firm task like writing case notes or looking at legislation. It was basically just a task that you could do on the side if you had no work to do for your team.

So many law students get quite worried and frenetic – they always want to be doing something or handing something in. Whereas I realised pretty quickly that you don’t have to do much, it’s really about getting a feel for the firm and the team you’re in.

Zoe: You get to put down preferences, and we got 3 rotations. I think people generally got 2 of the 3 preferences that they wanted. In the litigation team, I attended court a lot just to get to see what they were doing which was so interesting and I helped prepare the documents for court. I had some really interesting research tasks when I was in other more transactional teams to do with the Banking Royal Commission and the Aged Care Royal Commission. I found that I got a really good variety of work and it was great to get a taste of lots of different areas in such a short time.

I found the workload depends on the team and how prepared they were for a clerk, some teams were like, “we really need the help” and then other teams were like, “oh we’ll find something for you to do”.

Best and worst part of the experience?

Alice: I really enjoyed going to court. I went with the intellectual property team a few times to watch the process and even though I’d been to court before, these cases were taken to the Federal Court, which was cool. Also, every Monday we played sport with all the other clerks at different firms and that was really fun.

I found that they try to reward you for getting the clerkship by not making you work too hard. But it wasn’t really a reward because often I had nothing to do and that was quite boring. For example, they didn’t give me any mundane tasks like photocopying, but I probably would’ve preferred that to doing nothing.

I think they’re trying to reward you and win you over for the grad positions, but I would rather have had more work.

Jimmy: For me, the best thing that stood out was definitely the social aspect. The firms put on social events, there was clerk sport every Monday, and the big clerk cruise party. The worst part was the application process – it’s just a complete nightmare. It’s just this arduous, protracted process that feels a bit fake in parts. You’re trying to sell yourself obviously, but you get over it and it starts to feel a bit disingenuous.

Zoe: I know it’s very cliche to say but it’s the people that you meet. You do kind of feel like “I’m going to be starting my career with these people” and that’s really exciting cause we now all know each other. Another real highlight was when I rotated through the employment team and do those really interesting research tasks. It felt like everything was worth it and this is what I want to be doing, it just clicked. In terms of the worst part, the application process was the most stressful thing ever.

What was the pay like?

Alice: I was paid well, we were paid casually at a rate of $28 an hour.

But we got a month off over the Christmas period and we didn’t get paid for that because we were employed causally. I think that was a bit unusual and most firms pay on a contract, which meant they were paid through the holidays. Although I think they only got two weeks off over Christmas, not four.

Jimmy: Yeah it was pretty good. I think it probably works out to be about $30 an hour – you wouldn’t earn any more or any less if you worked in a pub five days a week for the same hours.

Zoe: I think it was $1,100 a week for about 12 weeks.

Tell us a bit more about the application process. How did you find it?

Alice: I used a website called Insidesherpa, which lets you look up all the information about the different firms and their clerkships. I applied for about six firms in the end, which in hindsight wasn’t nearly enough, but I just didn’t know at the time.

Jimmy: I applied to six places that really appealed to me, because it’s mentally draining having to constantly prepare and organise your life around interviews. Even six was still a lot, but it was more manageable in my opinion. But I guess everyone takes a different approach to it, some people might want to throw their hat in the ring everywhere.

Zoe: I applied for about ten all up. You get to the end and you’re so worn out, I couldn’t do anymore.

You go to these cocktail evenings – my friend said she would leave the cocktail evenings and cry on the way home. There’s one person from each firm to twenty students: you’re not going to be remembered. All the interviews, the psychometric testing… I actually developed sleep paralysis because I was so stressed.

What kinds of things did they ask in the interviews?

Alice: I got interviews at two places, my firm (Mills Oakley) and Ashurst. I had a group interview with Mills Oakley, which was interesting. I remember thinking at the time, “Wow, all these other candidates are amazing”. So then when I got a call back for a second-round interview, I asked them how they chose between everyone.

They told me they asked the partners who were sitting in on the process, “Who would you most want to work with each day?” So even though we did all these activities like mock negotiations, it was really about how they got along with people.

The second-round interview was a really relaxed half hour chat and then offers were made the same day.

The Ashurst interview process was more a bit more intense and competitive, it involved a lot of behavioural questioning, which I hadn’t done before and it’s quite tricky to do when you haven’t got much commercial work experience. They also do lots of cocktail parties as part of the interview process.

I’m probably not the person to ask about interviews because I didn’t really prepare much. My style is more to wing it and give off a genuine vibe. However, they typically give you the name of the person who will be interviewing you so, it’s probably good to research what they do and research the firm more generally. Sometimes they might ask if you can name some of the firm’s clients and it’s fairly easy to research this ahead of time.

Zoe: For the first round, I expected typical interview questions about working in a team and soft skills, but it was more of an informal conversation where we cracked jokes. I was actually really confused when I left the interview, like “what just happened?”

After that round, you have a coffee with a grad or a low level lawyer, but it’s actually a test and they’re also there to find out if you’re interviewing anywhere else. A lot of people leave the formal interview setting and they drop their guard.

I actually saw one of the sheets and it said “Could you work with this person? Where else is this person interviewing?” – that kind of thing. If you pass that, you also have a cocktail evening at the firm. I always found it more worthwhile to have a chat with a grad rather than with a partner at those events.

Do you need prior work experience in law?

Alice: It’s definitely a big advantage. It’s unfortunate but I had friends who applied for upwards of a dozen firms and didn’t get a single interview because they hadn’t worked as a paralegal. My work as a paralegal was honestly mostly administrative work, but I think it just helped me get through to the interview stage.

Jimmy: Funnily enough, I think having worked as a paralegal at Clayton Utz actually disadvantaged me (except at Clayton Utz).

The other firms often questioned why I would choose them over a firm that I was already working at – I definitely got a weird vibe at some places and I think that’s because there’s so much competition between the firms.

Overall, it’s definitely not a prerequisite but I don’t think it gives you much of an advantage other than showing you’ve been proactive about getting work experience.

Zoe: I think it definitely helps. I was very lucky that I already worked at MinterEllison beforehand, so that was a safety blanket. It doesn’t even have to be legal but any hospitality job – you just want to have to show your customer service and client skills. Anything like that is really good, that’s what they kept saying to us at the firm.

Does having connections at the law firms help at all?

Alice: Look, I’ve heard mixed things about that. I had a couple of contacts, but in the end, it didn’t really make a difference for me. It might help get your foot in the door to the interview stage, but I doubt it would get you the whole way. I think they’re making an effort to avoid nepotism as much as possible.

Jimmy: Look, knowing a junior lawyer isn’t going to help you – having contacts probably won’t get you anywhere unless you know a partner. Obviously, I knew some people at Clayton Utz from my paralegal job, but they weren’t strong contacts. But if you know a partner, definitely hit them up.

You don’t have to use them to get the job, but you could ask to get coffee with them and ask them for advice.

Zoe: I think it can definitely help a lot, on every application form I think there was a place to put “do you know anyone who works at this firm?”  Stories come out later like, “this person in the clerkship cohort is family friends with this partner”. I understand that you gotta do what you gotta do, it’s your career. I was so lucky working there already, I had a partner help me out with the interview process and I understand not everybody has that.

Any other tips?

Alice: Find someone who successfully landed lots of interviews and ask them to look at their cover letter.

I think that the cover letters were really important because I had friends whose marks weren’t amazing, but obviously they had a great cover letter. I was worried about sucking up too much but I do think it’s important to tailor you cover letter carefully to the firm, because you need to show you’ve done your research.

Also, don’t make cupcakes to suck up to your team. Especially not in the colours of the firm. You’re not in primary school anymore, no one appreciates it. Not that I’m speaking from personal experience or anything…

Zoe: Look after yourself and really monitor your mental health. For the interviews, just be relaxed because if you’re nervous you don’t look genuine. If you can’t talk to two adults sitting across from you, how are you going to talk to clients?

Is it the end of the world if you don’t get a clerkship?

Alice: No, not at all. I think at the top 6 firms, they pretty much give all their grad roles to people who clerked with them, but lots of mid-tier firms don’t offer clerkships, they only have graduate positions. Even Mills Oakley usually open up a few grad positions to non-clerks. I would recommend trying to get a paralegal job while you’re studying, and this will be really helpful when applying for grad roles.

Jimmy: It’s definitely not the end of the world and I do think it’s unfair how much pressure they put on this process. It definitely makes it easier to get a grad position, but I know at least 10-15 people who didn’t do clerkships but have grad roles now.

I think it’s almost analogous to the HSC – if you do well in the HSC, it makes your life easier because you can get into the course you want. But it’s not the be all and end all, you can still find a way into the course you want later down the track.

Zoe: There are so many other avenues into the legal profession and I feel like for some places it’s like “clerkship or bust”. There are so many ways to get into commercial law. I admire my friends who didn’t get clerkships. I watched them get the rejection after rejection. One of them turned around to me and asked for my help in applying for paralegal positions and she got one in.

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