Last year, Australian universities produced 12,000 law graduates – a figure that represents 20 per cent of the country's total number of working lawyers.
With the supply of graduates far outstripping demand, top-tier law firms have become increasingly selective. At the same time, young lawyers have had to become more flexible and strategic when applying for graduate roles.
That's what makes the experience of David Conway and Rochelle Schuenker so impressive and encouraging.
David is a graduate of Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business (2012) and the University of Technology Sydney School of Law (2013) and is a former Sydney Swans reserves player. Rochelle is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame's School of Law (2014) and the University of Sydney's School of Veterinary Science (2011). Both of them now work for one of Australia’s most prestigious law firms: MinterEllison.
A member of the prestigious 'Big Six' group of law firms, MinterEllison is an industry heavyweight based in Sydney and with offices in five countries. In 2015, it employed 600 lawyers, generated $426 million in revenue, and managed a client portfolio that includes 70 per cent of the businesses on Australia's stock exchange.
The secret to MinterEllison's success? Building a team of talented and ambitious lawyers just like David and Rochelle.
We sat down with them for a frank discussion about why they chose MinterEllison – and, more importantly, why MinterEllison chose them.
For both Rochelle and David, the desire for a balanced corporate culture played a large role in helping them decide which law firms to apply for.
“The interview process is a little like dating,” Rochelle says. “The top-tier firms generally offer the same experience in terms of workload, challenges, and range of clients. So it really came down to a sense of where I’d fit in best – and, for me, that was MinterEllison.”
David agrees. “I think each of the Big Six law firms have very different cultures,” he says. “I just happened to click with the people at MinterEllison, so I knew it was a place where I could fit in and do well.”
Interestingly, David and Rochelle's emphasis on the importance of culture confirms what researchers say is a growing trend amongst young job-seekers. According to a recent survey, 90 per cent of ‘millennials’ considers the corporate culture of a prospective employer to be an important factor in predicting their workplace satisfaction and happiness. Little wonder then that MinterEllison's promise of a balanced start to life in law caught David and Rochelle's attention.
It's easy to wait until graduation is imminent before you start to think about what happens next. However, for David and Rochelle, reaching out to top-tier firms much earlier in their degrees made an enormous difference.
Both of them completed clerkships at MinterEllison while they were still both in their penultimate year of law school – and this, they say, gave them a significant advantage when applying for competitive graduate roles later on.
“The majority of graduates are recruited because they've done clerkships,” says David. “This means that it's really tough coming out of university if you haven't already built up your experience.”
Rochelle agrees that her clerkship was one of the most appealing things on her graduate application.
“It was difficult to get the clerkship,” she says. 'But completing one made it much, much easier to successfully obtain a graduate position.”
Of course, David and Rochelle also stress that clerkships aren't the only way to get hired as a graduate at a top-tier firm. What really matters is the determination they represent – and determination will find a way, with a clerkship or without one.
The clerkship process often begins with an online application – but what happens next? According to Rochelle, applicants to most firms must be prepared for a rigorous two-stage interview.
“The first interview involves a series of psychometric questions and an in-depth discussion of your resume,” she says. “The second interview is less about credentials and more about personality – it's a get-to-know-you chat.”
Interestingly, David and Rochelle both felt that the second interview carried more weight. With its focus on individual experience and personal qualities, it gave them a valuable opportunity to demonstrate what distinguished them from other candidates. And, according to David, it's an opportunity that most successful candidates take full advantage of.
“I think the best tip for prospective clerks is to remember that each firm sees a huge number of candidates,” he says. “On paper, there mightn't be much to tell them apart. But in person, you can really stand out – be yourself.”
Perhaps the best news to emerge from our interview with David and Rochelle is this: while the pursuit of a top-tier graduate role may be tough, the reward speaks for itself. Successful candidates can start their career among talented colleagues in a fast-paced and stimulating environment.
Also encouragingly, David and Rochelle stress that winning a graduate role at a Big Six firm doesn’t mean you'll have to sacrifice all your leisure time or do away with the idea of achieving work-life balance.
“Making time for yourself is really important,” Rochelle says. “So knowing what has to be done and what can wait for tomorrow is an essential skill– otherwise the pressure can overwhelm you.”
By balancing work and play, as students and now as working lawyers, David and Rochelle have been able to establish themselves at a prestigious law firm in a competitive field. In doing so, they've shown that – even as graduate numbers climb – there are still ways for ambitious students to make a name for themselves and get where they want to go.