Candidate Article by Kate Hewson
At the start of my law degree, I had little idea (if any) of what I planned to do after graduation. I understood the concept of a career plan and the importance of having one, but I was never able to settle on long-term goals or even a clear-cut occupation.
I chose law because I understood it as a strong foundation for an appealing set of professions: journalism, policy reform, entrepreneurship, maybe even international advocacy or work as a diplomat. I figured that my end-goal would crystallise at some point during my studies and that the plan would follow.
That never happened. Not a clearly defined goal or well-articulated strategy to be found.
Without goals and strategies, I inadvertently wound up on the golden norm of career paths (‘golden’ according to the dominant view at law school). I started casual work as a paralegal at a top-tier corporate firm, where I later completed a summer clerkship. I was offered a graduate role at the firm and quickly accepted it. That’s how the readily discernible, practical and strongly advised conveyor belt ran.
The decision felt too big too suddenly. I was hesitant – and scared that I would become stuck, still plan-less, in a career that didn’t suit my interests or values. To buy a little more time, I deferred the graduate position for two years and completed a Masters of Health Law. Why? It remains unclear – but I did enjoy it.
I undertook my PLT independently and successfully gained admission as a lawyer. With three degrees, certification to practise, a strong CV and lots of passion up my sleeve, I hopped off my accidental career path in search of a better suited, more purposeful one. If I had found work as an inexperienced freshman, I assumed I could do so as a fully-fledged lawyer.
A Brave New World – And Making Sense of It
A job-seeker once again, my apparent failure to develop a career plan was still a source of anxiety. In hindsight though, it did have a backhanded silver lining. The situation of legal graduates in 2015 bore absolutely no resemblance to the landscape that had existed five years earlier. The best laid plans of even the most diligent young lawyers were made irrelevant by a pointedly different legal market.
The flow-on effects of the Global Financial Crisis were not kind to lawyers. Market downturn caused public, private and NFP firms alike to ‘downsize’, with mid-level lawyers among the first to lose their jobs. At the same time, law schools continued to churn out graduates in growing numbers. NSW alone produces 17,000 new legal grads each year and, with 28,000 already in practice, there is a huge deficit in graduate positions. To compound things a little further, the rare 0-2 years PAE roles that do become available are frequently filled by over-qualified candidates … the mid-level lawyers who had to re-enter the job market after the GFC.
There is also the advent of new roles like the Legal Secretary, the rebranding of old roles with new names, changes to educational and PAE requirements, and different valuations of candidate CVs. Job opportunities fluctuate with the rise and fall of industries and of practice areas. Did the last generation of lawyers plan to practise in ‘smart city’ infrastructure projects or driverless car litigation? Did anybody foresee a career dealing with the international legal ramifications of a president’s late-night tweeting?
I didn’t know how to thrive without a plan, or how to plan when so many factors were unstable. It felt something like a dilemma that plagued the brilliant programmer, Aaron Swartz: every day becomes an existential problem—an empty space of possibility that has no ceiling but also no walls and no floor.
It’s hard not to beat yourself up when being capable, willing and qualified seems to get you nowhere. It’s harder still to persevere after a slew of unsuccessful applications for jobs that you may not even want. Two principles eventually saw me through the doldrums:
- Keep pivoting, and
- Actively pursue offers of help and opportunity whenever they arise.
It doesn’t matter all that much where or to what you pivot, as long as you keep striving for work that is genuinely a good fit. Remember, there is no clear path any more. I found it better to accept work in outwardly peculiar roles than to stagnate at home, periodically refreshing LinkedIn.
In addition to odd jobs in publishing, research, events and even web design, I worked for two years as an animal handler at a dog day care and training centre … periodically refreshing LinkedIn. Along the way, I developed skills that I rely on to this day, both personally and professionally.
Clearly, pivoting was under control. Recognising and accepting offers of help was far more difficult (and a common struggle for lawyers). Fortunately, I managed to shake that reluctance when Cox Purtell reached out and offered to help my job search. As far as help and opportunity go, very few things can rival the benefits of a dedicated employment agency.
I found the most valuable assets to be:
Many recruiters specialise in distinct industries or professions, which allows them to understand more thoroughly the trends, contacts and opportunities relevant to their candidates. The best recruiters also specialise internally, with different sectors, client groups or areas of law handled by designated teams and agents.
Specialisation only pays off when the right agent is representing the right candidate, for the right reasons. For me, this is what really separated Cox Purtell from other legal recruiters. While other agencies ignored or forgot my interests, pushed their own agendas and confused me with other candidates, Cox Purtell listened to my input and worked hard to match me with a well-suited role and like-minded employer.
They succeeded and, four months into my job, I’m still blown away by their attentiveness.
Even the most concerted job-seeker cannot locate and assess every available position on the market. Agencies can’t either, but they certainly cover a lot more ground. Their systems and networks exist for the very purpose of filling job vacancies with strong talent. Make use of them.
As it turns out, recruitment agencies know a lot about recruitment. I had always done my homework when applying for a job, but the advice and support I received from Cox Purtell made me feel truly prepared. They talked me through every aspect of the recruitment process – the position description, the structure of my CV, salary expectations, interview prep, the culture of the organisation, reporting lines, time frames and more.
This one is simple. If the job hunt has you feeling disillusioned, exhausted, hopeless or unmotivated – a good recruiter has your back. They are always receiving new leads and new clients, which means you can allow yourself to take a break, sleep, eat, even venture outdoors.
Everything to Gain
Young lawyers can’t afford to nominate single, intransigent career paths in the current job climate, and there’s every indication that the nature of work will only continue to diversify. But even when there is no ceiling, no walls and no floor, it is possible to find a foothold. We can flounder indefinitely, or we can arm ourselves with resources that help us to make meaningful progress. Cox Purtell was my greatest resource.
I still don’t know where my career will take me – and I may not know until I get there – but I’m confident that I’m heading in the right direction.