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Risk and reward

Risk and reward

By Kathie Karapalidis


With a background in journalism and medical education, LIV Later Lawyers Network leader Audette Smith is finding her new career in law a healthy change.

What was your former job/career?

I started as a graduate management trainee in banking before turning to journalism and then falling into medical education. I've spent many years developing and delivering training to help doctors improve their communication skills and prescribing habits based on evidence-based medicine. I really enjoyed it because I learnt a lot about common illnesses and how best to treat them, and I also learnt a lot about the challenges of communicating messages to patients. I have continued to take on projects where I can to contribute to improving the interaction between clinicians and patients, and now I am working as a sessional tutor for Monash University's medical program teaching fourth year medical students about health law.

Why did you switch to law?

I think this was a natural progression in my career. It became apparent that there was potentially a lot of risk with the way healthcare was being delivered (whether because of poor communication, time challenges, a lack of education or other reasons). I am also motivated by transparency and accountability, and ensuring systems are fair.

What challenges did you face when balancing life, work and study?

Moving four times in four years, including interstate, was difficult but I was fortunate to have the support of my partner. I was able to study full time, including through summer school, which helped to spread my workload across the year. Through moving a lot, I lost momentum in developing and maintaining networks, and it was difficult to find work in regional areas. As an online student, it was hard to sustain motivation day to day for so many years, but assignment deadlines certainly made me better at managing my time.

What support did you seek?

I worked casually as a research associate with the Australian Centre for Health Law Research at QUT. I provided strategic advice on their inaugural International End Of Life conference. The directors of the Centre and other academic members continue to provide encouragement and career advice, which helps me focus on the areas of law I'm interested in.

I also have a mentor in Melbourne I found through the LIV. She is a health lawyer and so she understands my background. She has been a wonderful sounding board and is always prepared to listen to my ideas and offer encouragement.

What kept you going/what were you excited about knowing you would soon be a lawyer?

I didn't set out to be a lawyer, rather, I was looking for an intellectual challenge and to see what opportunities presented. The closer I got to completing my studies, the more excited I became about the opportunity for another pathway.

Were there any unexpected hiccups?

The job market is more competitive than I expected, and employers seem to go for students who have chosen the in-house training program (SLT) as opposed to the PLT pathway (through universities and law colleges). Even volunteering is difficult, because some volunteer coordinators do not seem to understand that PLT is endorsed by the profession as equivalent to in-house training.

The other challenge is that starting salaries for graduates are low and don't reward the myriad skills that later lawyers bring, including relationship management, time management, teamwork, maturity, flexibility and loyalty.

It has been quite a slow start to my law career, and I am hearing the same from many later lawyers. But I am determined to follow through with it and I'm enjoying my volunteer role with the LIV as the Later Lawyer representative.

What advice would you give yourself now if you were to begin your studies again?

Find out about the career pathways as soon as possible – you have to search. Most later lawyers I know were unaware there is a two-year supervised requirement once you are admitted.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

Employed as a lawyer in an area where my previous career skills are recognised and utilised.

What are the biggest challenges for later lawyers?

It is difficult to get your foot in the door when the profession still seems to recruit into their own SLT rather than looking at graduates of the PLT. You need to network at every opportunity, know what you want and don't want (and what sort of work culture you're prepared to accept), and accept that you will be paid less than you may have been paid for years.

What advantages do later lawyers have?

Confidence, well developed skills, massive amounts of experience, networks, independence and flexibility. Specialist law firms and organisations should consider later lawyers who have had previous careers or training in their areas because of the added value.

Tips for later lawyers

Build your professional network.

The adage "it's not what you know, it's who you know" applies. Network-building is the best way in a competitive market to learn about opportunities and obtain referrals for roles that might not be advertised.

Reach out and find a mentor.

Preferably one who works in the same area of law you are interested in.

Be involved in the LIV.

The Later Lawyers Network is part of the LIV YL. This group caters for all new members starting out in their careers who share many similar challenges. No matter what age we are, we can learn from and help each other.

Investigate different career pathways.

Seek out opportunities beyond roles in private law firms such as in academia and government. Later lawyers may also have more flexibility in terms of moving interstate, so be sure to canvas all your options and cast your net wide.

Stay positive.

It is hard not to feel rejected after knockbacks. It is even harder when employers don't respond to letters or job applications. You are not alone – we all experience these rejections. If all else fails, take a break and enjoy your hobbies – you never know where inspiration may come from next.

Kathie Karapalidis a JD student at Monash University, a communications consultant and member of the YL Editorial Committee. She is a volunteer paralegal at Fitzroy Legal Service.

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