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Finding legal work experience in unlikely places

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“How can I get experience if you won’t give me a job?!”

This is the question we all scream out after scrolling through the dozens of apparent entry level and junior legal positions, only to find we don’t have enough of this so-called ‘experience’. So how do we get it? Well, sometimes the best experience comes in the places you least expect.

During my final year of uni, my dad fell very ill and I was forced to quit my job as a paralegal and take the reins of his small manufacturing business for six months – the absolute last place you would expect to gain any valuable legal experience. My dad’s health and business were a priority for me, but the thought did cross my mind, how will this stint away from the law effect my career, and will I ever be able to get back into the legal market?

My role started out very non-specific – basically, just keep the place rolling. But the longer I was there, the more I started to notice a few potential workplace health and safety problems, piles of ignored paperwork, and a couple of procedures manuals and Industrial awards, some dating back almost 10 years! Now here was something I could get stuck into, and nourish my legal brain with some problem solving activities!

I clearly had no idea what the proper regulations were for a manufacturing and tooling company, so I decided to call someone much more in-the-know; WorkCover. The staff there were able to point me to the most recent policies, codes of practice, legislation and industry awards. I even discovered that WorkCover offers a non-penalty initial walk-through, to assist in pointing out potential WH&S issues, giving us a chance to have them fixed before WorkCover came in for a legitimate inspection. Perfect!

So I set about developing and implementing new WH&S procedures, creating and administering evacuation plans, interviewing injured workers and lodging workers compensation claims. Through this process I then engaged with our insurance company and workers comp case managers, who were not only able to help me through the process, but also gave me wonderful insight and knowledge into their roles and the kind of work they did. Through this process I was able to help identify suitable return to work duties and get our employees back to work much sooner.

The most exciting part of my time there was going through that pile of old paperwork I mentioned (no really, it was!). It turned out to be an old fraudulent workers compensation claim that had been running for seven years and had recently re-surfaced. I began reading through the files, workers comp legislation, I spoke to the lawyers, the Workers Comp case manager and pushed to get the ball rolling. Together we uncovered that our ex-employee had not met the required threshold to bring a claim of total and permanent disability and the matter was settled for less than his claim amount. What an unexpected adventure!

When applying for roles earlier this year, I was surprised when my interviewers would say, ‘now tell me more about your role at this manufacturing business’, and ask very little about my two and a half years as a paralegal! They know what paralegals, clerks and secretaries do, but this was different, this was interesting and it showed the initiative, leadership and problem solving skills they were after.

So remember, any experience is good experience! If you currently aren’t working in a strictly legal job, take a look around you and try and identify potential problems. How would you go about fixing them? Who could you make your suggestions to? How else can you get involved and expand your role? You’ve got nothing to lose by asking your manager or senior staff to give you more work or involve you in other matters like developing policies, and it might just help you to stand out at your next job interview.

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