First of all, SCL would like to congratulate three of our law clerks who were admitted as lawyers yesterday: Elizabeth Wye, Tina Domm and Johanna Fisher. Welcome to the profession and here’s to a long and rewarding career.
Our three bright sparks have finally made it after many years of hard work and sacrifice.
Becoming a lawyer
It’s no secret that law is one of the most difficult fields to gain entry into.
Law schools nationwide require top marks for a coveted place in the LLB program, and that’s only the first step.
Those who achieve the grade must then go through years of gruelling study, often while juggling a part-time job, extra-curricular commitments and a social life, all the while wracking-up a huge HECS debt – before fighting for a job in one of the most competitive areas of employment around.
And with more law schools opening up around the country, it is becoming increasingly difficult for law graduates to secure relevant employment. The oversupply of high-calibre law students in recent years has led employers to look beyond marks to identify candidates who stand out from the pack and possess the necessary attributes and skills to succeed in the field.
So besides getting high marks in an LLB program from a respected law school, what makes a good lawyer?
Being a People Person
Legal futurist and analyst Jordan Furlong suggests that the modern lawyer must possess 12 key skills to succeed in legal practice.
Previously, lawyers were expected to possess six core qualities – analytical ability, attention to detail, logical reasoning, persuasiveness, sound judgment and written ability.
But Furlong suggests that lawyers now need an additional six skills to succeed in the legal profession.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, socially-oriented skills took out the top spots on Furlong’s new list.
In particular, Furlong says that an ability to collaborate is the most important skill a lawyer can have. And it’s easy to understand why – lawyers must constantly work with other lawyers and experts in various fields to construct optimal legal strategies, regardless of the field that they specialise in.
But this skill transcends basic teamwork. According to Furlong, lawyers must also be able to ‘put ego aside and help bring out the best in others.’
For those working in criminal defence law, this skill is paramount – criminal defence lawyers must engage with clients from all walks of life on a daily basis and build relationships of confidence and mutual trust. They must remain open-minded and respectful of the client’s wishes – and work towards getting the best outcome in the circumstances.
Criminal lawyers must never become egoistic, arrogant or patronising, because learning and growing as a lawyer is a lifelong process where listening to your clients, colleagues and other professionals, and learning from others’ areas of experience and expertise will enrich your knowledge-pool and enhance your ability to formulate and implement techniques and strategies that produce results.
Collaboration also relates to communication, which is imperative when it comes to working in the legal field. Experienced lawyers agree that it is important to communicate quickly and effectively with clients; to respond in a timely manner to their requests and to ensure clients understand legal concepts relevant to their cases.
Besides this, it is important to communicate ideas and work with other lawyers in the firm to ensure that clients are provided with the most thorough representation.
Furlong also suggests that besides being intelligent in a traditional sense, lawyers must also possess emotional intelligence. In other words, they must be able to read other people’s emotions, listen to others effectively and care about clients.
In a criminal law context, this is particularly important as it can assist in negotiating with the prosecution and gauging the responses of magistrates and judges in court, as well as witnesses during cross-examination.
Having Good Organisational Skills
Also ranking highly on Furlong’s list are organisational skills such as time management and project management.
Law students who already have their foot in the door may find themselves frustrated by the lack of organisation that often plagues the profession: briefs may arrive from police in no particular order, important documents may need to be chased up from various organisations and individuals, and conferences may need to be rescheduled. If not managed effectively, these minor issues can cause headaches down the track.
But those wishing to get ahead can avoid last-minute chaos by planning well in advance. Furlong suggests that lawyers should learn to prioritise tasks and manage their time, be able to say ‘no’ when they feel overwhelmed, and delegate tasks to others where necessary.
Being Tech Savvy and Having Good Research Skills
Young law students looking to enter the profession may be pleased to know that employers are on the lookout for candidates with good technological skills.
The legal profession is notorious for being backwards when it comes to technology, with many firms still paper-based, and most barristers preferring to receive hard copies of briefs.
But modern firms are increasingly looking to technology to maximise efficiency, so a sound knowledge of email and electronic diarising processes is a must.
And with the majority of cases published online these days, being tech savvy goes hand in hand with having sound research skills. Law graduates are expected to know the ins and outs of electronic research platforms such as Austlii, LexisNexis and the Judicial Commission website.
Should Law Schools Teach These Skills?
There has been much discussion about whether law schools should bear the responsibility of ensuring that graduates are equipped with these skills before they enter the workforce.
Traditionally, universities have focussed on teaching students the law rather than practical skills such as advocacy, teamwork and time management. Following study, law graduates must complete their practical legal training, yet this only touches on practical skills and does not offer the opportunity for students to develop over an extended period of time.
The onus is too often left on law firms to train graduates from scratch, which can be resource intensive.
Yet some Australian universities are taking the initiative to re-design courses with a more practical focus.
Last year, UNSW revitalised its law degree to include alternative dispute resolution, statutory interpretation and international law components, and will also push students to undertake clinical legal placements within law firms.
At the University of Wollongong, students are required to learn advocacy skills as part of their coursework and undertake a legal internship to complete their degree.
But universities which invest students with practical skills appear to be the exception rather than the norm. Perhaps the changing attitudes of employers will push law schools to adopt a more practical approach in coming years, but like all changes in the legal profession this is bound to be a slow process.