How to be a ‘proper lawyer’ – a few tips for new lawyers (by Clarissa Rayward)

It seems not that long ago that I was three years into a five year law degree trying to work out how on earth I was ever going to actually be a ‘lawyer’. A ‘proper lawyer’- the sort that wears a fancy suit and shiny black shoes that would spend her days gazing out a big glass window, enjoying the expansive view from a tall story office. Well that was what my friends spoke of anyway.

The problem was, I didn’t want to be ‘that lawyer’. I wanted to be anything but that lawyer. But after already having had tossed in that architecture degree, I could not cope with seeing the disappointment on my Dad’s face when I had to tell him I was doing it all over again!

So I decided I had better go and actually be a ‘lawyer’.

The beginnings of this ‘proper lawyer’

Sixteen years ago it was a bit easier to land that first job in a firm and so I did. A very small firm with greyish brown walls, small windows and no expansive view. Not quite the glamorous setting my friends spoke of but it was a law firm and I had a job. I was soon to be a ‘proper lawyer’.  In those days we had a wonderful thing called Articled Clerkship. I was an ‘Articled Clerk’! I of course had no idea what that meant but it sounded impressive and was obviously only one step down from being a ‘proper lawyer’, so I took the job!

I soon learned that ‘Articled Clerk’ was a fancy way of saying “general office dogsbody”. The job description seemed to include no end of tasks and would have one also aptly known as ‘Receptionist, Chauffeur, Luggage Handler, Glorified Office Assistant, Secretary, Filing Clerk, Girl (or boy) Friday and my favourite- Barista- of the coffee variety, not to be confused with the actual legal role of ‘Barrister’. I was, by the end of my term, an expert in all things of the instant ‘International Roast’ coffee kind!  Of course your pay equated to the high level skill required for your diverse role. In fact, I am certain that most Articled Clerks found themselves right where I was- earning less, working long full time hours, than they had at university thanks to the combined efforts of the Austudy program and their weekend hospitality job!

But did we complain- well yes, to each other- but no, not really. We accepted that we knew so little about the law that our skill set was best put to use trying to make coffee art out of the weekly Office Works delivery of the 1kg tin of International Roast and complimentary monte carlo biscuits!

Two and a bit years later I was of course a talented Barista (of the instant coffee variety), filing guru, dictation wiz and Girl Friday extraordinaire! I could answer your phone with the dictation headphones still running, typing those documents before whipping that coffee art into shape.  And, the best bit, I was now a ‘lawyer’! A ‘proper’ one….

Somewhere in amongst fine tuning my Girl Friday skills, I had also been running to Court every second day, meeting clients in prisons, being chased around shopping centres trying to keep the Channel 9 Current Affair team away from a newly infamous client, drafting urgent Court material for the return of young children, briefing counsel in many and varied court actions. I had somewhere in there actually learned the skills of a ‘proper lawyer’.

The modern day ‘proper lawyer’

Now I have the privilege of running a bustling little family law firm. Now, I am ‘that lawyer’, deciding the fate of new, young lawyers who look and sound a lot like me 16 years ago, trying to get their first break.

Right now, where I live, there are more students finishing law degrees than ever before. And yet, there are fewer jobs, than ever before, for these young graduates. Now, thanks to changes in our profession, the long lasting role of an Articled Clerk has gone by the wayside. Young graduates after 6 months of post graduate study are all of a sudden ‘proper lawyers’- the fancy kind with nice suits and sparkly eyes (but without the ability to make International Roast Coffee Art thanks to George Clooney and his Nescafé pod machines lining office boardroom walls).

Each day I am hearing and seeing more and more of these ‘proper’ young lawyers struggling to find their first break. Our industry is competitive, how do they stand out from the crowd?  I was not the girl at University with the highest marks, I was not the one running the social groups, the debating team or the Law Review. I was the girl that worked four jobs to pay my way through. But that experience taught me my passion.

When I first sat in my little greyish-brown office with the dusty floor and mouldy desk, I knew that there was just something about it, something about the people, something about the relationships that was just for me. I quickly experienced how challenging divorce can be for families. I also quickly learned that my skills, my knowledge, my values and my passion meant that I could help families through their separation in a ‘better’ way. My family and my relationships with others are the most important things in my life. There is no more important a relationship than between a child and their parents.

While whipping up International Roast lattes, I learned that the small comfort of a cream biscuit and a poorly made coffee could be enough to settle a scared client, to make them feel at home. I learned that my silly stories of my travels, my childhood and my then limited life learnings were enough to offer comfort.

I soon realised that I was not alone in my passion. I found mentors that shared my passion- senior lawyers, barristers, counsellors’, psychologists, clients, business owners and friends and I watched, listened and learned.  Law school can’t and won’t teach you the skills you will need for so much of your career.  That highly competitive environment was never set up to teach its graduates the skills needed to actually work ‘with’ people and yet these are the skills that most of you will need to be able to survive in the modern day law firm.

Follow your passion (legal or not!)

Sixteen years later and I now run a team of young graduates becoming ‘proper lawyers’. Will they start their careers as proper lawyers knowing the world? Of course not- but what they will know is their passion and how to find their way to creating a career that aligns with their dreams.

I am not sure we are teaching our graduates to find their passion let alone follow it. But do. And don’t give up. Don’t be afraid to take that first step wherever it might be and just start. Carve your career by finding your mentors, show them respect and they will share their knowledge, their wisdom. Your job as a lawyer will be so little about the law. It will be about people, your clients, their fears, their concerns, their worries. Learn about your clients, learn about people and learn about your colleagues.  And most of all learn about yourself. In a career that can from the outside be seen as stifling you will find so many talented, creative, interesting people finding ways to make a difference for others.

Because for so many of us that is what led us to law in the first place- the desire to make a difference in some small way in someone else’s life.

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Article by: Jerome