What the hell is a clerkship?

Short answer: a fancy word for a summer internship at a corporate law firm. The long answer…

If you’re doing a law degree at uni, you’ve probably heard someone refer at least once to the mysterious “clerkship” (for the uninitiated, it’s pronounced clark-ship), and wondered to yourself while being too embarrassed to ask out loud, what the hell is a clerkship?

The short answer: it’s a fancy word for a summer internship at a corporate law firm.

The long answer…

It’s the process of getting some experience in the legal industry while also getting your foot in the door at a particular corporate law firm with the hope of being offered a graduate position.  If you decide to apply for one, it will also become the bane of your existence for about six months while you write attempt to write numerous cover letters that don’t all sound exactly the same, attend cocktail functions and make awkward small talk while wondering if you’ve got food stuck in your teeth, stumble through clichéd interview questions, nervously await responses as your classmates turn up to uni in suits then self-importantly leave class an hour early, and ultimately (hopefully!) get a clerkship offer.

Law students typically apply for clerkships in their penultimate year (that’s fourth year for undergraduate combined law students and second year for postgraduate Juris Doctor students).  You will start hearing about the process in around March: this seems early, considering you won’t be starting work until late November, but the earlier you start thinking about your options, the less stressful the whole ordeal will be.  Many university law societies will organise speakers and publications from the different firms, who will all tell you the same thing: we have the best clients, the best lawyers, and the best culture.  The most important thing to do here is your own research: the internet is great but it’s even better to chat to people (older university friends or people in the industry) who have worked at the firms you’re considering, who might give you a more realistic picture than a firm website spruiking the firm’s latest deals and important clients.

Applications for most firms will open in around June and remain open for about a month (there goes your plans to escape winter for a month to sail around the Mediterranean and come back with an enviable tan and countless stories about how much you drank).  You will have these dates drilled into you and it seems obvious but this is one thing you can’t stuff up: it’s not the best look to miss the very first deadline you’re presented with.  Plus it’s fairly obvious if you haven’t had time to proof read your applications and submit something with an awkward typo or the wrong firm name. Avoid this by giving yourself a non-stressful window of time to get all your applications finalised and submitted.

Unless you’re a straight A student who speaks four languages, is an international debating/mooting/mock trial champion, volunteers weekly mentoring underprivileged kids who can’t read good, is the president of a dozen student societies, has approximately six years of relevant legal experience and isn’t a complete social robot, it’s probably better to hedge your bets and apply for as many firms as you think you’d be happy to work for.  The competition is always stiff and you never know what each firm is looking for, so pinning your hopes on just one firm might leave you disappointed.  This comes back to research: don’t just apply for the big-name firms that you’ve heard people in the law library whispering about; do some research and find out about smaller firms that might just be a perfect fit for your personality and skill set.

You’ll start hearing back from firms in the next few weeks, either inviting you to a social event and/or a first-round interview, or politely telling you that the candidature this year was particularly competitive and after much careful consideration…blah blah blah, who cares?  Delete that email, don’t take it personally, and try not to dwell on what could have been.

Hopefully you’ll be invited to a few cocktail evenings and first-round interviews. That way, you can hone your small-talking skills and develop some confidence answering the typical interview questions that are bound to crop up time and again.  It’s hard to make a particularly good impression at the cocktail evenings as you’re often in a large group and most of the people there probably aren’t going to remember your name, but it’s easy enough to make a bad impression.  Just don’t be that one person who had too much to drink and got too familiar with the managing partner, or heckled the speaker during their presentation, or fell down the stairs and ripped the knees of their brand new pants (on that note, make sure you take the tags off your clothes: nothing screams “first job” more than leaving the labels on the outside of your suit).

It goes without saying that prior to these social evenings and especially your interviews, you should have had a think about why you want to work at that particular firm (I’ll say it again: research, research, research) and why you think you’ll be a good fit there.  Answering these questions in a thoughtful and considered manner means you’ll get remembered for all the right reasons.  Every firm structures their interviews differently, so you might get interviewed by an HR representative and/or a partner.  You’ll find this out before the date so you have time to bone up on your interviewer’s position at the firm and maybe even a little about them (LinkedIn is your friend).

After that, the process will start again for second-round interviews, usually involving another spate of polite automated rejection emails. Some of the nicer firms might give you some feedback on why you weren’t successful, but if they don’t, just assume that “it’s not me, it’s them”.  By this stage, you will probably have a far better idea of what the different firms are like and where you think you’d be happy to work, and this enthusiasm will come across in your interviews.  As a result, at least one firm you like is usually going to like you (and remember, just like your mother told you when you were crying into your family-sized tub of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream about still being single on Valentine’s Day, you only need one!).

Offers come out on a Friday around the end of September.  Avoid university at all costs on that day: half your cohort will be trying to sneak into conversation how their phones have been ringing off the hook all morning and how they’re going to have to spend the whole weekend weighing up their myriad of options, and the other half will be claiming “I never even wanted a clerkship anyway!”  If you’re one of the lucky people who does get more than one offer, you have until close of business Monday to narrow it down to two, and by 5pm Tuesday you have to have made a decision.  This process ensures a level playing field, so firms can offer again on Monday if they don’t get as many acceptances as they want.  If you didn’t already know which firm you had your heart set on, that wave of relief when they call you will probably give you a pretty good indication that they’re “the one”.

Now you can breathe out: the hard part is over.  You can focus on catching up all the uni work you neglected while biting your nails and staring at your empty inbox, although some people take the view that once you’ve got a clerkship offer, your transcript no longer has to impress anyone (neither true nor recommended).  Your clerkship will start at the end of November and here is where everyone’s experience becomes a little different.  There are lots of variables: firm size, clerkship cohort size, practice area rotations, workload, length of clerkship, expectations and so on.  But if you’re enthusiastic, willing to help, sociable and hard-working, you’ll breeze through. And if you’re getting worked to the bone, you can always look forward to the weekly inter-firm sports competition to blow off some steam (just kidding, please don’t be the person who takes it too seriously). There’s also a variety of other social events scattered throughout the clerkship calendar, where everyone can compare their experiences on a scale of how similar their office is to Suits, and budding inter-firm romances can blossom.

And despite the impression the above has painted, clerkships are not the be all and end all of a law degree.  Corporate law is definitely not for everyone, and even if you’re certain it is for you, clerkships aren’t the only way to get in.  If you are disappointed when the offers have come out and your phone hasn’t rung, don’t lose hope.  You can always look for a legal volunteer role (worthwhile causes like the Aboriginal Legal Service, the Refugee Advice and Casework Service, and the Women’s Legal Service often take on law students) or paralegal work.  This way, you can use your summer getting some experience to make your CV a bit more impressive if your marks leave a little to be desired, and try again in the future.  Alternatively, you can spend the summer Snapchatting your pasty clerking friends who are holed up in tiny cubicles wearing stuffy suits all day with pictures of you working on your tan on the beach on a lazy weekday afternoon, just to remind them that there’s more to life than being a summer clerk.

What the hell is a clerkship?
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