Legal clerkships: what are they, and why are they important?

Anyone who wants to improve their chances of securing graduate employment must understand the legal clerkship process in detail. In fact, for many firms, you must undertake a clerkship if you want to work there as a graduate. This is the case at almost all mid-tier and top-tier law firms.

legal internship

In short, a legal clerkship (also known as simply a clerkship, or legal internship) is an integral part of the recruitment process in Australia. It’s a short period (three weeks in most states, but three months in others) where a law student works at a law firm – it serves as an extended interview for both parties.

Even just one clerkship can give you a head start in your legal job hunting.

Why are legal clerkships important?

Clerkships are necessary for graduate job offers

Clerkships are important because you will not be eligible to receive a graduate offer at certain firms if you didn’t undertake undertake a clerkship there (I’ll refer to these as Clerkship Firms). Clerkship Firms include all top tier firms, a significant number of mid tier and medium sized firms, some government departments and some small and suburban firms.

Receiving a graduate offer from a Clerkship Firm without a clerkship can occur, but usually only in exceptional circumstances. For example, you might have some sort of connection to the law firm.

There are two types of graduate offers that Clerkship Firms make:

  • Priority offers – these are made to students who did a clerkship. Offers are made a week or so before market offers are made.
  • Market offers – these are sometimes made to students that did not undertake a clerkship. A firm will only “go to market” if it decides not to offer its clerks a graduate position (which is rare, provided that firms will take around 4 times the number of clerks compared to anticipated graduate positions). That said, some mid tier firms are known to make one to two market offers each year, regardless of priority offers.

It should be pointed out that even if a firm does go to market, graduate offers will typically go to people who worked as casual paralegals or legal assistants during the year.

Legal clerkships for skill building

The other reason why clerkships are important is to gain exposure to the legal industry and to build skills. While this can be achieved by other means, such as volunteering at community legal centres, it’s much more difficult to find opportunities to do this at mid tier and top tier firms.

This means clerkships can give you some great exposure to, and will allow you to start building your skills in, these environments.

If you’re set on a specific area of law or a specific firm that does not have clerkships then this advice will not apply to you; however, consider applying for clerkships anyway to increase the options available to you at the end of your degree.

Applying for clerkships

The best advice for law students regarding clerkships is to prepare early, and apply widely.

You need to start preparing early because writing resumes and cover letters is painful. Trying to convey your achievements without feeling like you’re bragging (and selling your soul) can be difficult, so start early because you’ll ultimately need a number of revisions. The last thing you want to do is leave it to the last minute and apply for a clerkship using the first draft of these documents. Remember, this is the only things that law firms will receive to assess your application.

It’s also prudent to apply widely. By this I mean apply to all types of law firms; big and small, private and government, corporate and plaintiff, city firms, suburban firms and regional firms. You can learn about the differences between these types of firms here – it’s really important to understand what kind of opportunities are out there.

Industry internships, such as in banks, mining companies, and other corporates, can also provide amazing opportunities.

There is no harm in applying for places that don’t interest you right at this moment. Remember, because clerkships are a prerequisite to graduate employment at many firms, it’s a good idea to send off an application just in case you change your mind. You don’t want to be locked out of a type of practice area just because you didn’t think you would develop an interest in it – you might always change your mind!

Law school hunger games

There is intense competition across this process, and if you apply widely, you’ll increase your chances of securing graduate employment. Just as an example, top tier firms receive between 800 – 1000 clerkship applications, recruit between 30 – 60 clerks (in total across two or three intakes), and offer between 10 – 25 graduate positions.

And don’t think it will be any easier at smaller firms; when looking at the clerkship application to graduate ratio, graduate positions can be even more competitive at mid-tier firms. Mid-tier firms will receive around 500 – 800 clerkship applications, and this will be whittled down to 2 – 10 graduate positions!

clerkship luck

You will have a number of years at university before you need to apply for clerkships. Make the most of this time by building your resume and learning important skills (shameless plug – skills such as commercial awareness).

You should always keep in mind that the finish line of a law degree isn’t (just) being free of essays and exams; it’s landing that legal job that you have been working so hard for.

Where should I be applying?

I’m in the process of creating a five part post series to make it easy for you to research law firms. This will be invaluable by the time you have your resume and draft cover-letter ready, and you’re just looking for a firm name to insert in the title.

These aren’t finished yet, so check back soon, or subscribe to our newsletter to make sure you don’t miss out.

  1. List of top tier and upper mid tier firms;
  2. List of mid tier and medium sized firms;
  3. List of international firms;
  4. A list of boutique firms has been in the pipeline since I started this blog – don’t hold your breath;
  5. OK there isn’t really a fifth part – this is just to remind you that there are heaps of firms out there, so consult Dr Google and do your own research.

The clerkship timeline

The takeaway message here, which can never be repeated too often, is that you need to think about the clerkship process early. You need to apply in your second last year of university.

 

legal clerkships in for Australian law students
The legal clerkship and graduate employment timeline set by the Law Institute of Victoria for 2015. See below for the dates in other states.

Each year, state law societies set dates, deadlines and rules to help regulate the process for law firms and students. When people talk about clerkships they’re usually talking about this process. Because clerkships are linked to graduate jobs for these firms it’s important to consider the entire timeline; what you do in your penultimate year will affect your graduate options.

Note that the clerkship and graduate dates are set separately each year – if you’re applying for clerkships this year, you’ll need to check the guidelines again next year when you are applying for graduate jobs. As always, double check the firm webpage to confirm dates.

Remember also that many firms, particularly small to medium sized firms, do not follow the law society guidelines – these firms will have their own timelines, so you’ll need to do a bit of research to find out whether and when these applications open and close.

Plan now, so that you’re ready later

Law firms use the clerkship process to evaluate law students, and to decide who to offer graduate or traineeship offers to. Typically, Clerkship Firms will only offer graduate positions to those students who undertook a clerkship, so depending on where you intend to practice law, this process can be very important.

Start planning now, so that when the time comes, you can submit an amazing application. Due to the competitive nature of clerkships, my biggest tip is that you should be preparing early and applying widely.

Best of luck.

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