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Things I wish I’d known at law school

A big pile of files with arms sticking out from behind

Law school doesn’t teach you everything you need to know for your future career. We asked Mallesons lawyers around the country, “What do you wish you’d known at law school?” From graduate lawyers all the way up to seasoned partners, here is what they told us about finding your dream job and making the most of it.

It’s never too early to think about your career

It’s never too early to start thinking about what you might want to do when you leave law school. Many roles are filled years in advance so investigate career options early, and start thinking about the type of marks and experience you will need to land your dream job.

While the end of your law degree seems like an eternity away at the start, once some of your summers are filled up with holidays, exchanges and general beachside laziness, there are not that many summers left to try out every opportunity you might like to before leaving the safety of law school. Go to careers fairs and talk to lecturers and tutors about their careers in the law.

You should try to gain really broad experience in a lot of different legal avenues, because you never know how much you might like something until you try it. Then, when you do know what you want to do, be ready to explain why each of those different, broad experiences make you an ultimate candidate for the job you really want.

Subjects don’t necessarily correlate with practice areas

You really liked studying IP? That’s great, but it doesn’t mean that you’re destined to be an IP lawyer, because the practice is often very different to the theory. Conversely, much of a firm’s work, and its practice areas and sectors, don’t have an ‘equivalent’ subject for you to study at law school.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that corporate lawyers do what you learned about in Business Associations, or that a government sector team spends all day on Administrative Law issues. The best thing you can do when starting at any firm is keep an open mind, and rotate through as many teams as is possible and practical.

You don’t need to study commerce

Do you love Russian literature? Are you fascinated by the great modern American novels? Always wanted to learn more about revolutionary France? University is a great opportunity to study things that you’re genuinely interested in.

Studying commerce, economics, or other similar courses are not a pre-requisite for the practice of commercial law. Law firm recruitment is geared around diversity, so don’t feel that you need to combine your law degree with a Bachelor of Business.

If you can study hieroglyphics, do

It will place you in good stead when you have to decipher a partner’s red scrawl on your document. If you thought doctors’ handwriting was bad, you haven’t seen what a BlackBerry or iPhone-wielding (ie doesn’t write longhand very much anymore) lawyer can do in the cramped margins of a client memo or agreement. And they’re never around when you need to decipher it and get the document out to the client, leading to some creative interpretative leaps of logic…

Master some ‘lawyer skills’

Never underestimate the importance of taking a detailed file note of all conversations, phone calls, etc. This is especially important if you are advised about any procedures – ie from the Court Registry or other organisations.

When it comes to filing, do it thoroughly, frequently and with focus. Not only will it be of assistance to anyone who works on the file after you, but it will help you!

Don’t be afraid of the library. Legal research skills are not just important for passing assignments but are also key skills for a junior lawyer.

Other helpful skills include learning how to interrupt partners who are always seemingly busy, how to calculate interest, estimates or timesheets, how to sign off an email, and how to write an advice that is “flickable.”

Be social

Go to university or faculty social functions, but not for the reasons you might think. Yes, they’re great ways to make friends or network, but they’ll also set you in good stead for a career of wining and dining. From your early experiences in the various recruitment processes, to Friday night drinks and other firm functions, and all the way through to client entertainment and marketing, it’s important to get your tolerance up early and then maintain it.

The corollary: join a gym.

Nobody is perfect

While you might think you are meticulous and perhaps even listed “attention to detail” as a strength in your cover letter, time pressures and other stresses at work will mean that little things can slip through the cracks. You will make mistakes.

Proof read, check and double-check as much as you can, but be ready to go and tell your supervisor as soon as you discover you have made a mistake. It’s not a capital offence to get things wrong. Partners were grads once too. They know you’re learning and chances are telling them won’t be anywhere near as bad as you think. Hiding away won’t help; the quicker the issue is resolved the better.

Also, it’s ok to not know the answer! You just have to back yourself that you can find it.

This post is sponsored by Mallesons Stephen Jaques.

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