"Girlfriends of the Court"

3 Top Tips from ‘Girlfriends of the Courts’

In Balance, Career, Employment, higher education, law students, women on May 11, 2011 at 2:13 pm

Should I have asked about the dress code in the interview?

A career in the law: be prepared…

The NSW Young Lawyers have just released a great booklet on how to ‘Survive and Thrive in your First Year of Law’ (the pdf is available from their site click here). It is full of honest advice about starting life as a law student, and then as an early career lawyer. Have a look back at our post on Depression and the Dark Side of the Law.

Amicae Curiae has asked some of our ‘girlfriends of the courts’ on their top tips* for starting out in a law career, and here are the best ones (read on):

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Kris Walker has worked as a legal academic, and as a barrister. She got straight to the point:

  1. “Be confident (but realistic) about your abilities.
  2. Put yourself forward for responsibilities and for experiences that will challenge you.
  3. Be pleasant and courteous (this is advice I would give any new practitioner).”

Paula Gerber has worked in private practice in the US, UK and Australia, and as a legal academic. She also was direct:

find a successful woman to be your mentor and guide you in your career progression;

try and do a stint working as a lawyer overseas – international experience is highly regarded;

don’t limit yourself to working in a law firm; consider alternative positions such as being a judge’s associate.

Melanie Schleiger has worked in a public interest law centre, and in private commercial practice:

1. Build a network. (Law school is a great start). Let your friends and family know what it is that you want to do, and gratefully accept any offers that they make to connect you with their acquaintances who work in similar jobs or areas of law. This will become easier once you have more exposure to the legal industry through law school, working in legal practice and joining professional committees (eg with the Law Institute or Society).

2. The path to your dream job may take many small steps. Work towards whatever it is that you want to do by building skills in your desired field, for example through research, further study, writing articles for law journals, volunteer work, a secondment, attending seminars.

3. If there’s an organisation where you’d like to work, arrange a meeting with the boss (head of practice) or someone who works there.

Megan Macgregor has worked in private practice in Scotland and in Australia:

When I graduated in law over 20 years ago there were hardly any female partners in Glasgow law firms. Those that I encountered were taciturn, unfriendly, miserable and probably completely exhausted. As a trainee I watched the head shaking of young female lawyers as yet another senior associate ‘gave up’ and decided to have a family in her thirties. For most of my time as a baby lawyer I thought that I would have to commit myself to working like a dog and having no social life to stand any chance of becoming a successful female lawyer. Over the first few years of my professional practice that is exactly what I tried to do.

Thankfully these days it seems to be increasingly popular to be both a female lawyer and a successful human being. For what it is worth, here are my top three tips for managing this:

1. Choose an area of law or legal practice that you passionately believe in

You will spend a lot of time at work and even more time thinking about it – while you cook dinner, go for a run, lie on the beach in the sunshine. If you love what you do, you will be happy.

2. Stay fit and healthy

Eat regularly and exercise. I’d recommend bringing healthy food with you to work so that you are not inclined to forage for junk food at 3.00 pm. One thinks better without belly discomfort and intestinal rumblings I find.

3. Learn to switch off

It is 3.00 pm, you have a court document to file at 3.30 pm. This is the time when photocopier decides run out of ink, your office encounters a power surge and the Internet dies on you. At times like these and there will be many if you do not know how to deal with anxiety you will steadily take years off your life. Study yoga and/or meditation or relaxation techniques. Do things outside work that make you laugh. Then when everything goes to pot, as it will regularly, you will be in a good position to not only cope but to get yourself and your team through it with smiles on your faces.”

Leanne O’Donnell has worked as a legal researcher at a Court, volunteer lawyer in South Africa and in private practice, and she gives out readings!

First: the graduate in our team had her admission ceremony last week and I sent her this piece by Jay Shepherd [http://abovethelaw.com/2011/04/small-firms-big-lawyers-how-to-handle-self-important-senior-associates/]

Fortunately our team does not have any self-important senior associates, nevertheless, the message “Speak up for yourself, or you’ll never learn how to speak up for your clients” resonated with me.

The second tip would be to ensure you have strong research skills including understanding how legislation works. As a junior lawyer you’ll often be asked to do research tasks for partners and they’ll expect you to know how to use the common online resources.

Use the official government sites for legislation research or sites such as Anstat or Legify that link to the government sites. Know how to find repealed legislation, legislation at a certain point of time and extrinsic material such as second reading speeches and EMs. The Law Institute of Victoria regularly runs legal research training sessions if you need a refresher.

The third tip would be making mistakes are inevitable. Don’t make your mistake bigger by not telling your supervisor straight away.

Lizzie O’Shea works in the social justice practice of a large law firm, she suggested this:

1) Don’t let criticism get you down

In every lawyer’s career, there is plenty of criticism and generally a bit of failure. Just ask any one of us – no one is immune. The test is how you recover from that.

Many lawyers and law students are perfectionists. You must not let this get in the way of enjoying your achievements. Equally, you can’t let a fear of failure prevent you from taking the plunge when you see an opportunity. Courage is scary but it also gets you places.

2) Trust in your abilities and have faith that you are capable

Lawyers are generally pretty smart cookies. You simply wouldn’t have gotten this far if you weren’t. There will always be someone who is more successful than you, and they usually manage to do it at a younger age and are better looking. But equally, there almost no chance that you will be the worst at your chosen endeavour, staying awake usually satisfies that criteria.

Women often suffer from a lack of confidence that is wholly, mysteriously, blissfully lacking in their male counterparts. You are up against men who think they are the good at what they do. Who is to say you are not even better?

3) Hold firm to your sense of justice

Being passionate about what you do is the most important thing in your career. Key to that is maintaining a strong sense of justice – an understanding and purpose to what you do. This is especially important when what you are doing is controversial or not very glamorous or not what other people might think you should be doing with your career. In my opinion, a sense of contributing, of trying to make the world a better place, is a big help in keeping the black dog of depression at bay – which is of course a huge problem in our profession.

I think this is something women are generally better at. You can be very effective if you are willing to put your ego to one side. Lots of men really struggle to do this, women are socialised to consider other people’s needs. This is a great strength of being a woman and we should use it to be better at what we do.

(*excluding matters of fashion!)

Thanks to these wonderful women for their advice. What 3 tips would you give yourself, if you could speak to your ‘early career’ self?

  1. Very insightful tips and a great article, thank you.

    As a law student I don’t really have anymore advice to contribute to other baby lawyers, but I do strongly agree with Melanie Schleiger’s advice about networking by ‘joining professional committees’.

    I was scared out of my wits before my first Victorian Women Lawyers Committee meeting, but joining turned out to be one of the best things I have done so far. The women were not only intelligent and successful, but also really lovely and easy to get along with. This committee restored my faith in myself and passion in my chosen career. I highly recommend joining such committees in order to keep passionate and get involved.

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