While now in my final year of law school and reflecting on my first year, there are some things I would do differently and some things that I would do the same. Hopefully my reflections can put you in good stead to smash your first year!
Your grades come first (sort of)
Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), grades are a large determining factor in whether you get a job, especially for top tier firms. It is therefore critical that you concentrate your time in law school around maximising your marks. There is no substitute for hard work. However, your marks can also be maximised through other methods such as gaming your study plan or generally working smart.
Gaming your study plan
One thing I am glad I did early in my degree is to decide to backload my study. What I mean by this is that I reduced my study load in the early stages of my degree in order to increase the amount of time I could spend studying for each unit. For example, instead of doing four units in second semester as per the normal study load, I did three units and then took an intensive unit over the summer. Now in the backend of my degree, I am smashing out as many units as I can to graduate on time. However, the grades I receive are less important as I now have pre-established relationships with firms through clerkships and graduate contracts will be signed and executed come mid-year. If I am successful at receiving a graduate offer, then my grades will become largely irrelevant after I have signed my contract as long as I pass and graduate at the end of the year.
One trap I have seen others fall into time and time again is wasting time by studying ineffectively. I think sometimes students get caught up in what they perceive studying for law requires – reading an array of cases back-to-front, reading all the prescribed textbook chapters, or creating detailed and nuanced notes which are not practically usable for exam purposes. Rather students should choose what to study by considering which task will likely help them achieve better grades. Instead of reading the full length of every prescribed case, read case summaries from online, the prescribed textbook, or by using a case citator (such as jade.io). Instead of reading every prescribed textbook chapter, skim through the chapter and only concentrate on reading sections in which your lecture notes lack detail or where your understanding is not clear. Instead of writing detailed notes with nuanced law that is unlikely to come up in a time pressured exam, organise your notes into answer structures that can be used in an exam.
The ‘sort of’ part
Good grades will likely land you a good job. And a good job will likely land you a good income. But what is the point of a good income if you do not have the physical or mental health to enjoy it? What is the point if you have no one to share in life’s experiences with?
Grades should not come at the expense of your wellbeing. For me personally, there is some non-negotiables that I prioritise over my studies. Firstly, my fitness. Working out and running gives me the mental fortitude to perform at my best when studying. Secondly, relationships. I must admit, there has been some semesters where I have been particularly poor at achieving the balance between socialising and studying. And ironically, by socialising less and instead studying, I believe it had a negative effect on my studies. I personally study the best when I have something to look forward to on the weekend. It puts the work into perspective as to why I do it – so I can enjoy my time with my friends and have the financial means to do so. Thirdly, hobbies outside of the law. Due to the time required to study law or work in law, it can be all consuming. Having a hobby outside of the law can serve as an escape so that when you come back to your studies or job, you are reinvigorated and the novelty of your work reappears.
Get career minded
As a first year, I was unusually a little antsy to get my foot in the door at law firms. If this isn’t you, don’t worry, most aren’t. I’ve heard of people who weren’t really aware of clerkships until second year and then go on to kill it with offers. So what you do (or don’t do) in the first year is not the be all and end all. However, getting career minded in first year can still get you ahead of the pack and contextualise what you are working towards in your studies.
Get some experience
Try to get some legal experience in your first year. For those interested in commercial law, rarely will first years be able to get a paralegal position at a top tier firm. These firms give paralegal positions to past clerks to further test them or simply to maintain relationships before graduate offers. Instead, look to mid tiers or boutiques for experience. If you have connections to get you a job, use them. There is no shame in doing so as someone else in the same position would, and probably is. Otherwise keep an eye on job boards (have a look at Seek or LinkedIn Jobs) or even try cold emailing firms. If you can’t get experience at a law firm, or want to try something else out, I would highly encourage volunteering at a community legal centre. I acknowledge that not everyone is able to volunteer their time for free. However, if you are fortunate to be in a position to do so, not only will you learn a lot about the area of law the centre practices in, volunteering in your community is a really rewarding experience and could expand your interests to other areas of practice you haven’t previously considered.
Get familiar with your university law society’s career resources
Generally, each year university law societies will produce a careers guide that contains useful tips for applying for law jobs and profiling the main law firms in your state. For first years, they can be particularly useful to get an idea of the legal market within their city. Whilst you don’t have to read every word, have a flick while in your first year. For your connivence, here are a few guides to have a browse through:
- Melbourne University Law Students’ Society (MULSS) 2022 Careers Guide
- Sydney University Law Society (SULS) 2022 Careers Guide
- Blackstone Society (UWA) 2022 Careers Handbook
It is also worth to have a look as to whether your law society has a careers specific Facebook page or group. Usually the careers representatives will post job opportunities here. Sometimes they will even post jobs that will not go open market and which are posted exclusively in the group to target law students like yourself.
Get involved in top tier pre-penultimate programs
If you want to do clerkships at top tiers, then try to get involved in their pre-penultimate programs. From my observations, getting involved in these pre-penultimate programs will definitely increase your odds of at least getting an interview with firms, if not a clerkship. These programs are not so much about the legal skills you pick up, but instead a way to get a feel for the vibe (see HR word: culture) of the firm and to start getting to know people in the profession (see HR word: networking). Here are some of the pre-penultimate programs run by top tier firms:
- King & Wood Mallesons’ Insight Program
- Herbert Smith Freehills’ Pre-Penultimate Workshops
- Allens’ Dive In
- Clayton Utz’s CU Up Close
Extracurriculars are important, but not THAT important
Don’t get me wrong, you definitely will benefit come the clerkship period when your resume has a consistent stream of extracurriculars from during your university career. Plus extracurriculars are a great way to socialise at university and meet new likeminded friends. Personally, I participated in extracurriculars related to my area of study in my undergraduate degree and got involved in law competitions during my postgraduate law degree. But extracurriculars should not become your priority nor should your grades suffer due to a lack of time to study. I most commonly witnessed this with those involved in the university’s law society. Involvement in your university society can pay huge dividends, especially considering the contacts you can make within the legal profession and the friendships you make within your cohort. However, if you do get involved in your university’s law society, or any time-consuming extracurricular for that matter, make sure you still have adequate time to keep your grades up and to have a social life beyond the law school.
Find your tribe and stay in your own lane
One of the best parts of law school is the cohesion that forms within your cohort (probably in light of the shared struggle). Law school is hard and takes up a lot of time. It is also more difficult as a single player game. I’m not at all condoning collusion or other forms of academic misconduct (seriously, I’m not – it can have serious implications for your admission if found guilty). Instead, I’m encouraging finding a close group of friends in law school who you can trust and depend on. Not only is making mates with common interests awesome, but it will also be valuable to have a group who you can share notes, practice exams and discuss assignments.
I also think it is important to be friendly with everyone in your law school cohort, but avoid getting into any law school drama. They will be your peers in the profession at the end of the day and the profession is not as big as you may think it is. Everyone knows everyone and word gets around fast.
Make sure you are enjoying law
I think sometimes people can get wrapped up in the perceived prestige of studying law and they forget to consider whether they actually enjoy what they are doing. Thus, I would recommend the following thought exercise. And be honest with yourself.
- Identify your motivation for doing law. Is it idealistic reasons such as money, prestige or power? Is it more substantive reasons such as an interest in the law or the intellectual stimulation you receive from your studies?
- Then, consider how you much you value these reasons. For example, it is perfectly acceptable to be motivated to study law due to the potential to earn a lot of money. However, if you are honest with yourself, do you value earning potential over work-life balance that you may forgo?
Make sure you are not studying law just for the sake of it. Make sure you have your motivations for doing so and that these align with your values.