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To all the graduates, the junior lawyers, the new employees – hang in there

what to expect as a graduate or junior lawyer

Opinion Piece

To all the vulnerable new professionals out there …

I was once where you were. No really, I was. You may see my title ‘Senior Associate’ and think ‘what does she know or care, her career is established’. But I do know and I do care. Because I was once one of you.

I was once the student who in my last year of law school couldn’t sleep at night wondering if I would be able to secure a good graduate position. I was once the junior lawyer terrified that if I made a single mistake I would be thrown out the door and lose my poorly paid and below par treated position in the firm I then worked at. I was the new employee anxious to carve a place for myself when I was a small fish in a very big pond.

I graduated from law school in 2008. Admittedly, graduate jobs were easier to come by then in comparison to the almost impossible task law school graduates now face in securing employment. But in my time it was still a rat race and there was still an incredible amount of competition in the scramble to secure a job.

My fellow graduates were all just as intelligent, bright and enthusiastic. Job interviews would almost resemble episodes of ‘The Apprentice’ where we would gather before a panel and sell our souls in order to be hired. We all reeked of desperation and fear. The perfect recipe for potential employers to potentially take advantage of if they so desired.

I took on a variety of clerkship roles throughout law school, both paid and unpaid. They certainly opened my eyes to the unglamorous and utterly confusing landscape of the legal profession.

As a clerk I was expected to show up and shut up. Don’t smile too much, don’t laugh too loud. If you are too confident you might make the female solicitors feel offside. If you are too friendly the male solicitors may begin to think of you as a pretty little play-thing and not a respected colleague.

It sent me into a tailspin of uncertainty. Accordingly, I often found myself in situations where I muted my usual bright, witty personality in favour of appearing meek; something I would never dream of doing now. 

As a graduate lawyer and then a junior lawyer I spent the first two years of practice drenched in a constant sweat of anxiety. What if I made a mistake? How do I earn the respect of my fellow employees? Did I just talk too much during that meeting? Did I just say the wrong thing? It was a time of constant self-doubt and seemingly never ending internalisation. To be frank, it was one of the most stressful periods of my life.

But I hung in there. I simply put one foot in front of the other. Millimetre by millimetre I moved away from the graduate, junior, new employee roles and into more established positions.

The more established positions brought with them a plethora of advantages – greater job security, more personal confidence, a feeling of being able to contribute meaningfully to my profession and my place of employment. The passage of time played an instrumental part in this transition. It was a matter of cutting my teeth, doing the grunt work and putting my resilience to the test.

So what lessons have I learned along the way? What can I impart to you to hopefully make your career path easier?

Recognise that you know nothing

Trust me, you really know nothing. Law school is a poor predecessor to life in legal practice. The only way you become a good practitioner is to experience practice for itself and recognise that when you start out in practice you are literally starting from scratch.  

Do the grunt work

Far too often I see juniors or new employees unwilling to do menial tasks because they think they are far too advanced for such work. Such attitudes are unwelcome and immature. Willingness is hugely appreciated in new employees.

Stop expecting

I’ve seen junior lawyers ‘expect’ pay rises or promotions when they clearly aren’t warranted. Pay rises and promotions are results driven and by results I mean largely in the form of billable hours (in the private sector at least).

I’ve seen new employees ‘expect’ to be given promotions and pay rises soon after the commencement of their employment without having achieved any results or any other outstanding contribution to the workplace. They simply feel they deserve a promotion because they turn up to work every day. In this competitive industry that is not nearly enough.

Take on board constructive criticism

Why is it that people can’t seem to take on board ideas to contribute to their self-improvement? If your senior tells you that you have made an error, accept that you have made the error. Ask what you can do better next time. Seek to learn from the experience, not resent from it.

Lose the ego

The legal profession is not an episode of Suits and you are not Harvey Spector (no one is Harvey Spector but Harvey Spector). Your ego will be your undoing in this industry. Be gracious and be thoughtful in your approach to fellow practitioners and sensible in your behaviour in the office.

Make friends and connections

The legal industry is a tough field. Unless you are in it yourself it can be hard to comprehend. Forming relationships with fellow lawyers can be your lifeline of sanity and support during stressful periods.

Find a more senior practitioner to mentor you

This doesn’t have to be mentoring in a formal sense. It can be forming a friendship with a senior practitioner and catching up for coffee occasionally, or emailing them when you need advice or assistance.

Remember that this isn’t forever

Your time as the little fish in the big pond gradually passes so long as you hang in there and build a respectful reputation for yourself in the industry. It isn’t a quick path. It takes years. So be prepared for the long haul. Don’t ever forget your time as the little fish though. It is always valuable to remember where you came from.

Camille McDonald
Senior Associate
Andersons Solicitors Family Law Department