By Kim Koelmeyer
The Australian legal market is notoriously saturated with graduates, which makes finding employment as a lawyer extremely competitive in an average year. As the spread of COVID-19 continues to affect the economy, those odds have now severely decreased.
The full effects of COVID-19 on the law graduate landscape it yet to be seen, but the worldwide economic shutdown has seen the ravaging of many industries. The legal sphere is no exception. Multiple law firms including Gilbert + Tobin, Hall & Wilcox and Maddocks have announced pay freezes, drawbacks and other measures to weather the impact of COVID-19. But when it comes to graduate recruitment, students are in the dark.
“I think everyone will be making huge cuts, but no one will really fully know the extent of it. So instead of taking 10 grads in Melbourne, that might be down to two, we really don’t know,” Deakin Law Students’ Society president Bella Weinberg says.
A cornerstone of Australian law graduate recruitment is the clerkship program. Recruited for in a law student’s penultimate year, a clerkship is a short placement within a firm. Graduates are predominantly recruited out of a firm’s clerkship pool, so competition for spots is tough.
For students reaching the end of their degree, this means facing a career market with a lot more uncertainty. Weinberg is one of the many law students who have opted to defer their graduation one year as a result.
“I was supposed to be applying for clerkships this year, but because there’s so much uncertainty, I decided to do it next year when everyone actually knows what’s going on.” Weinberg says.
Students are also forced to forego upcoming internships and placements, potentially affecting their professional development and competitiveness in the job market. Penultimate year student Mikayla Hutchins is going ahead with clerkship applications for the 2020/2021 season. She started the year with many exciting opportunities on the horizon, all disrupted by COVID-19.
“I was going to be volunteering as well as being a legal assistant, working as a paralegal, and also doing a placement unit with Monash [University]. All put on hold. Even the job has been put on hold, which is quite stressful leading up to clerkships, especially when this was going to be my concrete experience,” she says.
Originally, firms leaned on the optimistic side, reiterating commitments to attracting and retaining the best legal talent. But a full nine weeks later, and two months out from recruitment for seasonal clerkships in Victoria, law students remain in the dark about what the virus precisely means for upcoming winter clerkships and graduate intakes.
Victorian clerkships and traineeships are regulated by the Law Institute of Victoria (LIV), which has come forward and released updated Clerkship and Traineeship guidelines for the 2020 recruitment season.
In consultation with students, firms and other stakeholders, key changes include:
- Extending the clerkship and traineeship application periods;
- Allowing for virtual interviews and clerkships; and
- Introducing ‘top up offers,’ which allow firms to offer more graduate places later in the year, should they find they have additional recruitment resources for 2021.
“Please remember that LIV Young Lawyers continue to support you and are dedicated to helping you achieve your full potential,” manager of the LIV Young Lawyers Rose Inglis says in a video announcing the guidelines.
When it comes to obtaining graduate roles, building a meaningful network is an important piece of the puzzle. So organisations that have traditionally offered career enhancement opportunities have been forced to augment their approach to best serve students.
Firms have taken it in their stride, rolling out a suite of virtual offerings to maintain contact with students, such as Allens’ Meet & Engage, and King & Wood Mallesons’ Virtual Reality and Virtual Experience Program.
However, Hutchins feels the human element at the core of networking simply doesn’t translate online.
“Networking events are the cause for that professional setting and that career information, but at the end of the day, those connections come through the more lighthearted, more human, down-to-Earth conversation that you have. And that is what is lacking, with everything being online as quickly as we try to adapt,” Hutchins says.
One organisation attempting to bridge the adaption is The Legal Forecast (TLF). TLF is a not-for-profit aimed at early career professionals passionate about disruptive thinking and access to justice. TLF launched TLF Connect, a virtual mentoring program designed to connect future-focused law students with professionals working in legal innovation, design and operations.
Program Director Cristabel Gekas says, in light of COVID-19, she was unsure of how to proceed, as the program was originally an in-person offering.
“The challenge that we had was: do we just bring the traditional mentoring relationship – which can be somewhat hierarchical – online and make it really didactic in that way and make it about the old teaching the young, and the leaders teaching the next generation of leaders, or do we reconsider what that relationship looks like, and do we make it more about, a conversation, and a community?” she says.
This second approach struck a nerve, with people from all over the world now interested in getting involved.
“I was not sure how people would react to TLF Connect going virtual. I wasn’t sure if we would get the uptake that we wanted. I wasn’t sure if people would be on board with the idea of it being all conversational, but it turned out to really hit a note with lots of people around the world,” Gekas says.
A final-year law student herself, Gekas sees COVID-19 as a mandate for students to be more creative and innovative in their career management.
“Frankly, some options that people were going for even two months ago won’t be available next year. So, I think people have to reimagine what their role in the industry will look like,” she says.
Criminal Division lawyer Alice Cooney, who graduated during the 2008 recession, also reassures students with hindsight: “All those I’m still in contact with from law school (and there’s a few because I was lucky) are working as lawyers if they wanted to (some had clear career changes they chose!),” she wrote on LinkedIn.
The full effect of COVID-19 on the legal profession remains unclear. With the status quo changing daily, law students face an unprecedented future, and are now forced to adapt or retreat at a moment they have been working for their whole degrees.