The (un)secrets to clerkship success

Do you have any idea how you’ll be assessed during your clerkship? It’s taken me almost two years of working as a junior lawyer at a top tier firm to figure out what partners and senior lawyers really look at when offer day rolls around.

If you would like a little inside information on how you’ll be assessed, read on.

I wrote this for GradConnection (a platform to find graduate jobs and internships) a little under a year ago, and thought it was about time to post it here for this year’s students.

securing a clerkship
Let the games begin.

There are two sections to this post:

  • first, the guiding principles of a clerkship – these could make or break your clerkship so make sure you’re aware of them; and
  • second, a short list of commonly observed clerk behaviors – here you’ll find some tips and tricks to help you along the way.

I’ve learnt a lot about how the recruitment process works by speaking to colleagues on recruitment committees, observing clerks myself (through delegating work and during social events), and from overhearing partners talk. How little I knew when I took on my clerkship!

The aim of this post is to bring some clarity and insight into how you’ll be assessed, and what will be expected of you.

The guiding principles of a clerkship

Much like the overarching obligations that all lawyers are compelled to comply with, there are two overarching principles that you should keep in mind during your clerkship. These are absolutely critical from the moment you walk through the firm’s doors.

Be confident in your work product

One of the most important assets (though definitely not the most important asset) at your disposal during your clerkship is your work product. Your work product is ultimately what you hand up to your supervising lawyer, which will probably be a memorandum, small research note or draft email to a client. This also requires you to show your ability to research, understand and synthesise information, and to present that information in an appropriate way for the intended audience.

Some clerks still worry that their work product isn’t good enough, despite the fact that they won out against hundreds or thousands of other applicants. Believe me, it is. You wouldn’t have been offered a clerkship if your work product at uni didn’t fall on the far right hand side of the bell curve. And yes, there really are that many applicants!

Use this knowledge to your advantage: give everything your best shot, and be confident in your ability to create top notch work. If a partner is confident in your ability to do the job right then it makes their life easier. They want to have confidence in you, so give that to them.

I just wanted to get this out of the way immediately because it can cause a lot of anxiety for clerks. You’re work product is good enough for you to be there, so don’t doubt yourself.

Understand how your actions affect the way you’re perceived

This is the single biggest risk factor for clerks. I’ve see many chances of an offer derailed by small, thoughtless acts.

If you haven’t realised yet, you are judged by people on what you let them see. The limited timeframe of a clerkship means that no one has the time to get to know you, so any small quirk or mistake will stand out and won’t be forgiven.

If you are on a three week clerkship, you absolutely must consider how the firm is perceiving you. You’re in a better position if you have a three month clerkship because the lawyers you work with have an opportunity to get to know you, but you should still be diligent.

So what could you do that people will notice? Here are just a few things that I’ve seen over the last few years:

  • turning up 10 minutes late each day
  • wearing headphones at your desk
  • failing to show enough enthusiasm (being far too laid back)
  • unnecessarily staying back later than everyone else
  • being too informal, both in conversations with colleagues and, for example, in the way you dress on casual Fridays. Pro tip: don’t wear t-shirts
  • telling sexist or racist jokes (it’s embarrassing that I even need to list this one here – seriously, what are some people thinking!)

If you’re wondering who actually cares about these sorts of things, the answer is: everyone.

This all boils down to social awareness – a firm could never put someone without any social awareness in front of a client, because there is no way to know whether they will act appropriately or not. That means no grad offer.

At the risk of repeating myself, it’s the perception you are creating that is important, and the questions which lead from it:

  • Obviously, turning up late isn’t going to affect your work product. But this is the thought pattern of a lawyer observing it: Is this clerk that disorganised or does he just not care? Can I trust him to get my work in on time? Doesn’t he realise how bad this looks?
  • Listening to music at your desk doesn’t mean you’re a horrible person who should never practise as a solicitor. But this is what some people will think: What is she listening to and is she actually focused on the task? I need to speak to her about the work I gave her, should I interrupt? This is pretty inconvenient and annoying.

It might help to put it in a non work context: imagine two people having a conversation. While the first is talking about their weekend, the second isn’t paying attention and is instead thinking about something else. The act of thinking about something else isn’t the issue, it’s the failure to recognise that this behaviour is rude.

It’s also an exercise in comparisons – if the clerk sitting next to you doesn’t make these faux pas, then they win the hunger games. So how do you actually pass the test? By being kind, considerate, and if you’re a naturally outrageous person, just holding that inappropriateness at bay until the clerkship is over. Let it all out once you have the graduate offer and when you’re not being compared to the person beside you anymore.

This isn’t rocket science. Just remember, law firms want people who can interact with us and our clients, so if you can display enough social awareness to navigate through everyday situations, the firm will be confident that you’ll act appropriately when they let you loose on their clients.

The list – six short scenarios to consider during your clerkship

The aim of this section is to highlight a few examples of behaviours that are generally considered favourably by law firms, and some that are not.

I don’t want to tell you how to act – you’re the one who has to decide whether to modify your behaviour (some people hate the idea of this) or double down (and accept the risk that it won’t be viewed positively). At the end of the day, everyone is different and you can’t predict how every single person will react to you during your clerkship, so find a balance that you’re comfortable with and run with it.

Here we go.

law clerkship secrets and tips
That’s you on the right. Just keep it together and you’ll be fine.

Be human (don’t be a sociopath)

Hopefully this falls into the obvious category, but it’s worth noting early: act like a normal human being.

It can be intimidating when you enter a new working environment, especially as a law student without any significant legal experience. The best way to approach this situation at your firm is to treat the lawyers like normal people. We’re not that weird.

Plus, everyone loves clerks! You will find that everyone will make the time to chat and answer questions, so make the most of it. If you make the effort to take an interest in people, they will probably remember you when the recruitment committee sends an email around asking for people’s impressions of the clerks. It sounds horrible and manipulative writing it down, but making people like you should be an aim of your clerkship.

There’s only one thing to watch out for; lawyers can be pretty busy (especially senior lawyers), so don’t bail anyone up for 15 minutes and force a conversation out of them. If you would like to speak to someone for a little longer, ask them if they have some time in their calendar for a coffee. This way, they can find a time when they don’t have any deadlines or demanding clients to deal with.

Communicate with your work providers

If you are running behind on something and think you might miss a deadline, it’s always better to flag it earlier rather than later.

One of the hardest things about a clerkship is managing competing commitments (and sometimes you will intentionally be given extra tasks just to test you). The key word here is managing – it’s very common to have competing commitments as a junior lawyer and you will frequently need to discuss new timeframes with your supervisor. This is fine, as long as you communicate early.

It helps to think of it from your work providers perspective – if they get notice early they can manage the situation by asking someone else to help, but if they get notice too late, then it limits their options. That means that they might have to deal with an annoyed colleague or client.

So communicate early and often, because before you know it, you’ll be out of time. And definitely speak up if you have suddenly been given five pieces of work by five different people. In this situation, you should go back to your supervising partner and ask them how they want the tasks prioritised. Always shift the onus onto a partner in this situation – the rest of the lawyers will accept their wishes.

I’m not saying this is an easy thing to do as a clerk (in fact, it’s still on my list of things to improve on), but it’s better than having to explain why you missed a deadline.

Leave at an appropriate time

To be honest, I think this one is pretty unfair: many clerks are judged unfavourably for working late. It’s ridiculous because as soon as law graduates hit the floor, they will be expected to stick around until the work is done, regardless of time.

This is probably due to the perception that clerks will not be overloaded during their clerkship (which may or may not be the case). Therefore, when senior lawyers see you staying back to 7 or 8pm, they assume you’re mismanaging your time.

The best way to approach this is to take your cues from the other junior lawyers – don’t stick around when they’re leaving, unless you’ve been told by your work provider to stay back to finish something. (And of course, you won’t be staying back late to meet a deadline because you would have already communicated your position early, as noted above!)

If you really do need more time to finish something, I’d suggest printing your work out (including any research you might need) and taking it home to finish. It’s a pretty crappy workaround, but as I said earlier, a large part of this is perception, and you won’t get penalised by doing it this way.

What to do if you don’t know what to do.

Sometimes you’ll get an assignment that’s a little over your head. First of all, don’t stress. Take some time to think it through, prepare a brief plan or outline, and then make a start. Whatever you end up with is probably much better than you think!

It’s definitely worth talking to another clerk and asking for a general sense check. Do they agree with your reasoning or conclusion? Sometimes just talking through a task with someone will help clarify things.

You can also ask a junior lawyer or two for help. They might be able to provide some better insights than a clerk (but still talk to a clerk to iron out the obvious issues first)!

If you’ve talked to a few people and still think something is wrong (or you’re so confused you don’t even know where to start!), then go back and speak to your work provider. There is absolutely nothing wrong in asking them to clarify their instructions, and this sort of communication is generally valued. A problem will only arise when you don’t understand something, and can’t be bothered trying to figure it out on your own first.

Don’t be negative

Lawyers have a special kind of love for complaining, probably due to the high pressure environment they are in all day. As a clerk you should avoid this at all costs.

You might get roped into this situation when you’re chatting to other junior lawyers who are complaining about the firm or their workload. It can be be tempting to agree, just to feel included and be part of the conversation.

Make no mistake – they work there, so social convention allows them to get away with it (and besides, they’re probably just letting off some steam). As a clerk you’re still an outsider, so if you join in you will not only be insulting the firm, the lawyers might feel like you’re insulting them too.

You obviously can’t just stand there and say nothing, so what can you do? I’d suggest applying some of that social awareness you have, and instead of feeding on the negativity, be sympathetic. There is a world of difference between saying “wow, working to 1am sounds pretty rough, do you think the workload will ease up any time soon? Can you take some annual leave for a break?” and “yeah, working to 1am is ridiculous, this firm does seem pretty crappy”.

Stay in touch!

Only around 40-60 people (that’s you) from up to or over 1000 applicants are given this golden card to keep in touch with the firm. Networking plays such an important role in creating opportunities for yourself, and it’s astounding how few clerks make use of the post clerkship period to network!

I understand why it can be difficult. Here are some of my reasons for only catching up with two or three people after my clerkship, and some responses gained with the benefit of hind-sight.

  • I don’t want to bother people (you won’t)
  • I might waste someone’s time (they will tell you if they’re busy)
  • How am I going to keep a conversation going with someone I hardly know? (just ask them about their career, try to show a little commercial nous by asking what it is about their work that their clients value the most, and talk about what you’re doing at uni)
  • What if it ends up being awkward? (don’t worry, the lawyer should have enough social awareness to end the conversation civilly, and you’ll still get credit for initiating the meeting and showing enthusiasm).

It goes without saying that you should be reaching out to both junior and senior lawyers, including partners. As I said earlier, everyone loves clerks, and lawyers are always decaffeinated – it’s perfect!

Don’t like the man telling you how to act?

I understand if this post rubs off the wrong way on some people – in a way, I’m saying that you should change how you act, or change who you are, just make a good impression. What a sellout!

I do sympathise, but I also think that’s being a little bit too dramatic. Everyone modifies their behaviour every single day to suit the situation. For example, despite how I feel, I will be more courteous that I want to be on public transport, I will be extra sympathetic if I feel my friends need it, and I will be more formal that I want to in a professional environment if I don’t know the people across the table from me.

It’s all part of the game, so play by the rules for now, and soon you’ll be in a position to treat them more like guidelines.

Good luck!

Hopefully this post has provided you with a few insights on what law firms look at, and how you’ll be assessed, during the clerkship hunger games.

If you asked me to summarise this entire post into a few sentences, this is it: You’ve done really well to land a clerkship. You’re obviously a high-performing individual so be confident when you walk through those doors. Just remember that you’re always being assessed, which means you need to act like a normal human being. If you can be kind and courteous to everyone, and give your work 100%, you’ll be great. And don’t forget to reach out for a coffee (or three) once your clerkship ends!

If you found this helpful, please share it around!

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