Written by Dr Melanie Brockway - UNE School of Law Student; originally published on School of Law News
With around 7,500 new law graduates each year in Australia, the challenge of obtaining a graduate position in such a competitive market is well known.
While I am hoping my hard earned GPA will go in my favour, I am well aware of my Achilles heel; I have no relevant professional experience and I have been out of the workforce for seven years.
When it was announced Work300 was now available as a law elective, I quickly sought further information from the UNE Careers Office. Seriously, what a great opportunity to gain some much-needed work experience and to tick off one of my final units! It all looked like a straight forward process; find a 120 hour work placement and agree the assessments with the academic supervisor. I polished my CV, and quickly obtained constructive feedback and approval from the Careers Office. I then gave myself four weeks to secure a placement before I needed to officially enrol at the commencement of Trimester 2 how hard could it be?
I won't lie, finding a placement was time-consuming! I focussed on firms specialising in personal injury, as this aligns to my interest in health law and previous professional background. I rang or emailed around 25 firms, tailoring my email cover letter and CV to each one. Responses varied from unpleasant phone encounters with rude secretaries, to nice replies but none the less rejections. There were also a lot of non-responders. It was hard not to feel disheartened, and my concern about what this meant for future employment opportunities began to mount. Testament to the saying 'it's not what you know, it's who you know' and highlighting the importance of networking, I ultimately secured my placement through a contact I'd made as a student member of Victorian Women Lawyers.
I am now half-way through my placement at Redlich's Work Injury Lawyers, the personal injury branch of Holding Redlich. I am shadowing Tina, who at the time of writing is a Senior Associate and coincidentally a UNE law graduate. The placement is three days a week over six weeks. 2 This is ideal from a family perspective, while also allowing me to keep up with LAW480 and juggle other commitments.
I must confess, I didn't know what to expect of the placement; could I make a meaningful contribution, is the reality of legal practice what I imagined, at 40 am I too old? Fortunately, my fears have been quickly allayed.
The placement has been an amazing experience. I am constantly learning and am gaining real hands-on experience in researching files and preparing case summaries, assisting in the preparation of letters of advice, making file notes, and attending conferences with clients and counsel. Importantly, I feel equipped for these tasks. In particular, my legal research skills and ability to quickly absorb new information are holding me in good stead.
The placement has also confirmed my interest in personal injury law, and how my previous professional experience complements this. In a win for all fellow mature-aged students, my age is not proving disadvantageous. A real learning has been how my life and previous professional experience are helping me in interactions with clients. I am certain they provide me with extra confidence and skills in the workplace.
At the midway point of my placement I feel encouraged and far more optimistic about my future career prospects. I urge anyone considering Work300-LAW to give it a go; but, for now I'm looking forward to maximising the remainder of my placement.
In what felt like the blink of an eye, I had completed my 120-hour work placement! Despite my initial trepidation, I was sorry to be finished; it felt like only yesterday I had started, yet at the same time I was amazed at how quickly I had adapted to a new routine and workplace. For my children, the earlier starts to our day and the drag of after school care were decidedly less pleasing ..
The second half of my placement proceeded much the same as the first. I became increasingly confident navigating client files, and at using precedents and the firm's electronic file management system. I came to appreciate that while 'law' is new to me, my previous professional experience meant tasks such as preparing memos and other correspondence, undertaking research and interacting with clients are not. The knowledge and skills obtained through my degree helped me to quickly, and with a level of confidence I had not anticipated, transfer my pre-existing skills to legal practice. I continued to see my maturity and previous professional experience as assets, and this was reinforced by the positive feedback I received.
I completed WORK300 whilst also studying LAW480. For those yet to study LAW480, it is one of the most intensive and undoubtedly the most practical subject of UNE's Bachelor of Laws. Legal writing is a central theme of LAW480. This made it the ideal subject to be studying (other than the workload!) alongside WORK300. With Paul Akon's mantra of 'clear, concise and correct' never far from my mind, my placement provided lots of practical opportunities to put my legal writing skills to the test.
As I reflect on my placement, I have three key learnings to share.
Firstly, a work placement is the ideal 'no strings attached' way to try out a particular area of legal practice. Even if you hate it, you're done after 120 hours and you will have gained valuable experience. At the risk of sounding INCREDIBLY BORING, I know myself to be extremely process oriented, and with a good memory and an eye for detail. My placement confirmed my interest in personal injury law, but more importantly also that I have personal attributes suited to practising in this area of law.
Secondly, working at a plaintiff firm gave me the opportunity to directly interact with clients, and I loved it. I am now more certain than ever that commercial law is not for me; I want to work with clients directly to hopefully help make a difficult period in someone's life easier.
Lastly, and most importantly, my placement provided me with a much-needed confidence boost. Seven years out of the workforce is a long time! I was seriously nervous about my ability to re-enter the workforce, and whether I had anything to offer a prospective employer. By undertaking my placement, I now know I can do it. Even better, I know I possess other skills and experience that I believe give me an edge over the average law graduate.
Thanks to my placement I feel far more optimistic about my future employment prospects. Having recent and relevant work experience has given my CV a much-needed lift!
I can't have done too badly either . a week after I finished my placement I was offered casual paralegal work three days a week. I'm now making the most of this opportunity and boosting my CV and confidence a little further.