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Top tips for law students (from a government lawyer's perspective)

Top tips for law students (from a government lawyer's perspective)

By Emma Palmer, Lawyer, Victorian Government Solicitors Office


I was recently asked to give some "top tips" at the Law Institute of Victoria Career Fair. It was a pleasure to share my ideas on what law students can keep in mind in pursuing a legal career, and there were many stand out students who asked some great questions.

I'm only at the beginning of my legal career, being in my fourth year at the Victorian Government Solicitor's Office (VGSO), after I was lucky enough to secure a legal traineeship. I know first-hand, however, that it can be a challenging time for law students seeking graduate positions. If you're interested in pursuing a career as a lawyer in the public service, however, hopefully this two-part blog may offer you some ideas and tips. I hope this blog offers law students some comfort in knowing that pathways into the legal profession aren't necessarily linear or instant. With this in mind, here are my first five career tips on pursuing a career in the public service. I’ll be sharing another five with you in a few weeks’ time.

Tip # 1: Experience

This seems obvious, but it’s vital. It’s important to get exposure to the law in as many situations as possible – volunteering at community legal centers (CLCs), part time paralegal work, barrister shadowing, even just observing interesting trials (or even just the usual matters) at Court. Every experience and observation helps identify what excites you (or, conversely, what you couldn’t stand doing!).

For me, volunteering in a CLC crystallised the fact that I wanted to be a lawyer. I loved problem solving and the satisfaction of using the law as a mechanism to positively change a person’s life. I also worked as a law clerk in a commercial law firm in the city and, while it was great experience, I didn’t enjoy it – working in a commercial firm wasn’t the right thing for me because I didn’t feel like I was doing something I believed in, so I knew I couldn't work in commercial law.

In essence: take up every opportunity to gain experience in the legal profession while you’re at university (or beyond). Ask every person you know if you can sit in, watch, help, work, volunteer – just get that exposure, and then pursue what you find exciting.

Tip # 2: Talk to people

In the legal profession, communication is fundamental.

I would recommend calling, speaking, chatting over coffee with anyone (and everyone!) who has experience in the legal profession. Ask them about how they became lawyers, tips they’d recommend, what they enjoy, and what they don’t enjoy about the law.

It might be a person a couple of years ahead of you at law school who is now working in a law firm, a peer who seems to have back to back clerkships from first year law school, the local lawyer at your suburban firm, a barrister you see at Court who impresses you. You can also approach your lecturers at university – many of mine were also practicing barristers. Don’t necessarily try to get a job, just listen to their responses carefully. It’s a competitive market, and demonstrating your interest in the law artfully through a genuine conversation may be quite rewarding.

Tip # 3: Understand that career direction isn’t instantaneous or linear

Becoming a lawyer doesn’t mean that after admission in the Supreme Court and securing a job, you’re suddenly gifted with career satisfaction. It’s a journey, and it’s one that can take many paths.

I would encourage trying out jobs that run parallel to the legal profession if you can’t get a graduate law job, or try jobs that you find fun, interesting, and challenging. Becoming a lawyer, and finding your direction in the profession, isn’t necessarily instant or linear.

While I’m still relatively new at the law, a personal observation has been that those who seem to stay have had other career paths before becoming lawyers choose to engage – and continue - in legal practice because they really enjoy it!

Tip # 4: Targeted barrister shadowing

My manager told me of an exceptional person who interviewed for a traineeship at VGSO. This person impressed by having demonstrable experience shadowing barristers who specifically did government work, and who had been involved in a number of high profile matters run by our office. Targeted barrister shadowing is really impressive, and if you’re able to secure a legal assistant type of position for such a barrister – or even shadow them for a week – it can be invaluable.

Tip # 5: Any job in government is a good starting point

Any experience in government is useful if you’re interested in working in the public service. There is quite a lot of lateral movement in the public sector – people often move between departments, and also between positions. Working in policy can lead to working in law, and working in law can lead to working in policy. Gaining as much exposure as you can is invaluable, and I would recommend getting as much experience as you can.

Also, there’s a lot of interesting jobs in the public sector – both at federal and state levels – which aren’t necessarily legal, but have really interesting legal aspects to them. And, as I mentioned, lateral movement in the future is always a possibility, and I would consider other public sector graduate positions if you aren’t able to secure a government legal traineeship. I know they are very limited – from recollection when I entered the market it was only the OPP, VGSO, and TAC that offered state level legal traineeships, as well as commercial law firms with government clients. You may also wish to consider the general government graduate programs too. In a few weeks’ time I’ll be offered another set of tips for you to consider. In the meantime, I hope that you consider applying for seasonal clerkship or traineeship positions with government employers as one available career opportunity pathway. 

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