Graduate lawyers: it’s time to start thinking outside the box about your career

“We are wired to be outside, not cooped up in front of a screen comparing our lives to everyone else's highlight reels.” - Matt Prior We've come across so many outstanding law students and graduate lawyers who are struggling to understand their options beyond the elusive role at a law firm. This is such a crucial stage in your career. But it's also a point where you don’t have the right guidance and advice on how to pursue the career you desire.

Getting that elusive role at a law firm

You've been fighting for the last 5 years to get the best marks so you could get that distinction average. You've volunteered your time across extra-curricular activities to bulk up your CV. You've done internships to build your experience. You've achieved the academic awards that the top tier law firms are looking for. You may even have done an international student exchange. And now it’s time to break into the profession with a graduate spot at a leading law firm. You've been competing with your classmates to get the role that will set your career up like nothing else. Or so they tell you.

Law schools do a terrible job advising law students on their career options outside of practice. This is understandable; they design the course to teach and train future lawyers, after all. Only, we don’t need more lawyers. This article in the AFR paints a stark picture: in 2015 there were 14,600 law graduates from Australian universities. This is into a profession consisting of only 66,000 practising lawyers nationwide. Unless the profession faces a 23% attrition rate each year, most graduates will not end up in practice. In the same article, it mentioned that 1 in 4 graduates were still unemployed 4 months after graduation. Many are forced to stay on this track until they at least get admitted to practice. Because that’s the end goal after all, right?

The numbers don't lie

This Lawyers Weekly Report mentions that there were 325 summer clerkships with leading national law firms in 2015. There were 11,765 applications for these 325 roles. This means you would've had a 0.02% chance of securing a role, all else remaining equal. The thing is, it’s actually very far from a level playing field. If you don’t have a GPA in the top 10%, or don’t come from a brownstone law school, or are missing any of the other things noted above, then your chances are even lower. That’s how the CV screening programs are set up. Given the probabilities, it’s staggering how much time and energy law students invest in this one path. And how little time they spend learning about the full spectrum of other career options open to them! It really is putting all your eggs in one basket. Usually, it’s only after the clerkship dream is dead that law students consider other options - and by then it can be too late. At the very least, they have lost time that they could have spent making progress in the right direction.

How many years will you stay in practice knowing that you don’t want to be there? How many years will you let pass before actually moving in the direction you want? I say this because more than half of the graduate intake will have left in 2 years' time. Could it be that these sought-after jobs aren’t all they are cracked up to be?

So, what is a graduate lawyer to do?

The best and brightest graduates should prepare for various career options, both in and out of practice. You need to think of your law degree as less of a vocational course, and more as a way to learn broad-based skills for other roles. Large law firms are a great way to enter the profession, get real-world experience and gain valuable commercial insight. But they are by no means the only or the ideal place to start your career, period. In fact, for those who realise that practice is not where they want to be, it could actually be a waste of time.

Law firms and law schools are in the driver's seat when it comes to shaping outlooks on these things. The firms do a wonderful job of selling the benefits of working for a top tier international law firm. The law schools take plenty of sponsorship money from the firms, so they parrot a similar message. You may see a diverse range of options at career fairs, but the majority of roles are practice orientated. So, from the outset, the best and brightest students have a narrow view without many alternative options around to consider. In fact, if you wanted to seek advice on alternatives it would be hard to know where to start. This is a shocking state of affairs. Investing all these resources into a career option available to only a fraction of students is letting so many other students down.

The reality of practice

The reality of day-to-day practice becomes apparent to many quite early on. The firms do a great job of bringing graduates and summer clerks on board with all the bells and whistles. It can seem like a fun, challenging place to be. But the reality soon begins to set in; document review, research tasks, document review, not enough people and not enough client contact. Working as a small cog in a big operation. The lack of autonomy, the drudgery of the work, the long hours and the high expectations. Many find that the work isn't as intellectually challenging as they expected either.

The idea that they will exercise their intellectual muscles at work is often what attracts graduate lawyers to work in practice. That they will have the opportunity to work on complex commercial transactions. That they will advise some of the world's biggest corporations on these issues. These ideas often don't come to fruition. Instead, the best graduate lawyers often find they can't use their intellect and creativity how they would like. The confines of practice can become a hurdle for even the most motivated juniors to overcome.

Help, I'm stuck in a career I don't like!

What keeps people on this track, even when they discover that it isn't what they want from a career? There are many forces at play here. It often boils down to the high expectations of others and of themselves. You did your law degree and put in all the hard work. To step away from a career in practice now would be a waste, right? Let's not beat around the bush; lawyers in this situation will have other fears keeping them on the track. Fear of losing perceived status, fear of what others will think about your decision, fear that you are throwing out the baby with the bathwater, fear of making less money, fear of not knowing what else you can do, fear of what your colleagues might think of you... To mention a few. What's interesting is how little weight lawyers place on their overriding happiness vs. their fears. So they get stuck. Getting unstuck requires to you address each fear and each obstacle head on.

This can be the hardest part, particularly if you have been in practice for 1 - 3 years and realise you need a change. Who do you talk to about these issues? Law firms have career counsellors and mentor programs, but they cater more to retention than exit strategies. Most lawyers are also conscious of confidentiality. If your partners get a whiff that you are having second thoughts, it may impact the quality of work you receive. It might even compromise your position in the team. So, most will not take this risk unless they are 100% certain they are going to leave.

Who can I talk to?

It can be difficult to get an objective sounding board - many colleagues will have vested interests or will use it as a way justify their own decision. Beyond personal connections, the avenues for advice on these points are very limited. What most lawyers need is to speak with someone who has a broad-based perspective on legal careers. Someone who has made the transition and can speak to it from an open-minded perspective. There are so many professionals who have struggled with these challenges and have landed on their feet. Most importantly, they have been able to take back control of their lives and careers. This takes courage, but if you want to separate yourself from the herd then you need to start engaging with people who inspire you.

If you are starting to think that practice isn't right for you, you need to speak with someone who understands the profession but isn't tied to it. A fresh perspective is sometimes all you need to give you the impetus to take action. In the end, you can't have your cake and it eat it too, at least not without it affecting your happiness and wellbeing. The sooner you start talking about these issues and start taking action, the better. Or else you may find yourself a few years down the track with the same conundrum.

Private practice may well be the right place for you, but you need to go in with the mindset that you will be there for a period of time and not just to “see how it goes”. Few graduate lawyers who decided to “see how it goes” are still around after 5 years. At a minimum, expect that it'll take 3-5 years to determine if it is the right fit for you. So, if you decide to go in, then go in with the mindset to be patient, to grow, and to make the most of the experience. Stick it out for 5 years. You will get experience across practice groups and possibly even overseas. You will learn how to be an excellent professional. 5 years isn't a huge investment in the grand scheme of things. But if it seems too much at the outset, it's the wrong pathway for you.