From Careers Fairs to Cover Letters:
Mastering the Clerkship Application
The only thing between you and a clerkship is several information sessions/ careers fairs/ networking events, hours of research and painstaking application preparation, and (hopefully) a few interviews. Let’s get started!
The start of clerkship season is filled with opportunities to learn about prospective employers and the clerkship programs on offer. Law careers fairs occur in most major cities between March and May each year and are a great way to meet with HR representatives, lawyers and past clerks from firms you are interested in.
The law faculty or your local law students’ society/ association may organise clerkship networking events or arrange for firms offering clerkships to give on campus talks. Some firms even run in-house events for law students to visit their offices and network with potential future colleagues.
Do some research about firms and their clerkship programs before these events so your questions are targeted; that specific question you have about the intellectual property group rotation probably can’t be answered by a website or brochure, and it shows that you are interested enough to have done your homework.
At these events there are usually a lot of students clamouring for a few minutes with the recruitment partner or clerkship recruitment manager. Be friendly and keep it brief: introduce yourself with a smile and a handshake, then ask your (brilliant, insightful) question. When you have your answer, thank them for their time and move on.
You don’t need to wear a suit to these events but you should dress neatly and do your best to make a good impression. If you make a good (or terrible) impression at a pre-clerkship event, representatives are likely to make a mental note of your name and keep an eye out for your application when they start to arrive.
Researching Law Firms
It can sometimes seem like all firms offer the same benefits and types of work. In reality, a bit of research will reveal that each has its own distinct culture and areas of specialisation. You can expect to spend almost as much time researching your clerkship applications as you would a law assignment. With so many firms offering clerkships, a few hours’ research will help you to narrow your hit list to a few firms.
Research will also improve the quality of your applications. Reading the “About us” page on a law firm website and using some catch words like “dynamic” and “innovative” in your cover letter isn’t really enough. Researching law firms helps you to tailor your application to each employer, which allows you to demonstrate your genuine interest in that particular law firm. You’ll also spare those reading clerkship applications another generic cover letter.
Start by reading law firm websites and look at the different practice groups that firms have, the rotations available, the range of pro bono work firms undertake, and the overall structure of the clerkship programs. Also read information about the firm’s culture and head to the news section of the site to read about recent deals and cases that the firm has acted on.
If you want more information about a law firm, you can check out legal news sites such as Lawyer’s Weekly or pick up a copy of the Australian Financial Review on Friday and read their weekly legal affairs section. You can also follow many firms on Facebook and Twitter.
If you want to get a feel for a firm’s culture, speak to former clerks about their experiences or read Survive Law’s Summer Clerk Diary series.
Frequently asked questions
How do I apply?
Most firms require a CV, covering letter and academic transcript from would-be clerks. Some firms also require students to answer additional questions as part of the clerkship application process. The submission method varies between firms: some require applications to be submitted directly to them, others accept applications via the online application system cvMail. Check the application method with each firm you apply to.
How important are academic results?
While a strong academic transcript is undeniably appealing to a prospective employer, marks alone are not enough to secure a clerkship position. Participation in extra-curricular activities or work experience can give you skills that are not attainable through study alone. It is these skills that law firms will seek to utilise.
When applying for firms, look at your academic transcript. Strong marks in subjects that correspond with practice areas of a firm are advantageous. For example, if you want to practice property law and you have achieved a high result in Real Property, make this clear to the firm in your cover letter. An improvement in your marks throughout the progression of your degree is also a positive sign, so don’t be disheartened by a weaker academic record during the beginning of your degree.
What skills do firms look highly upon?
Law firms look for a wide range of skills in prospective employees. It is good to have an awareness of what these skills are because there are several opportunities to exhibit them.
Whether it be written or verbal – communication skills are vital to success as a lawyer. For the most part, lawyers have to translate complex legal concepts to provide clear advice to clients. There are many opportunities for employers to examine your communication skills during the recruitment process:
Your cover letter, CV and application form will be a test of your written skills.
In your CV, highlight activities that demonstrate your competence as a communicator: public speaking, debating, mooting or freelance writing, for example.
An interview is a chance for the employer to see how well you can communicate verbally.
While many applicants say they are interested in certain positions and practice groups, to distinguish yourself you must substantiate those claims.
If you have a background in a practice area a firm has, it will be viewed favourably. For example, you may have done some mediation work and may wish to practice in the dispute resolution practice area of the firm. This shows a genuine interest in this particular area.
Your interest in particular areas is not only reflected through previous employment. It can be shown through marks achieved in certain subjects, awards, extra-curricular activities, extra training courses and more!
To be a successful lawyer, you need to be personable and people orientated as your ability to relate to people is a core skill of legal practice. Once again, employers assess your competence in this area through different aspects of the recruitment process:
Your work experience or other activities may demonstrate that you are a team player and are confident in working in a group to achieve an aim.
The interview will provide another opportunity for the potential employer to see you are a sociable, likeable and sincere person. While you may have strong academic results, emotional intelligence (EQ) is just as important as IQ.
What are leaders? Leaders are people who take initiative, are proactive, make key decisions, are organised and manage larger groups. Although you may not get a chance to exhibit some of these skills as a summer clerk, firms are looking for people to give these opportunities to as they progress in their career.
To show your leadership skills, look to your university, professional or extra-curricular achievements. For example, you may have been part of an executive or council in a university club or society, a captain of a sports team, or held a management role in the course of your employment – either way, you will need to outline your responsibilities as a leader and your ability to work with and lead a team.
Prior experience means you’ll likely adapt to a new work environment quickly. This previous experience does not have to be legal experience. For example, if you have a retail job and want to work in consumer or competition law, you’ll already have an appreciation of how the rules play out in a regular retail setting.
Knowledge of the firm
Although firms will look at your commitment to being a lawyer, they will also look at your commitment to being part of that particular firm. What distinguishes that firm from others? Why does that firm appeal to you? If you’re able to impress interviewers with your knowledge of the firm, they will be able to see you have done your research and that you really care about getting that particular position.
SOME CLERKSHIP APPLICATION TIPS
Remember that the point of a cover letter is not to re-write your resume in prose form. Make it interesting – your fantastic problem solving skills and stellar work ethic are key selling points, but reach for a thesaurus and consider how you can present this information in a more engaging way. Spend less of your word count stating your positive attributes and tell firms how you’ve demonstrated them.
Your CV should be easy to read: consider using bullet points and plenty of clear headings. Ensure you tailor your resume for each clerkship application, and don’t forget to include any charity work, involvement in university groups, etc.
A really obvious but helpful suggestion...
Double and triple check your application before submitting it. Print it and read it aloud – you’ll be amazed at the mistakes you didn’t see when you were checking your application on a computer screen. If possible, also have a friend check your application. (Hint: you may need to bribe them with baked goods).