Lessons learned along the road from student to lawyer

Lauren van Arendonk is a commercial and general litigation lawyer in Sydney. Lauren emigrated from England to New Zealand in 2008, and completed her studies at the University in Waikato. When Lauren is not arguing with angry court officials, or squeezing puns into affidavits, she writes a blog on managing workplace conflict, career progression, and advice to graduates entering the workforce: available here

I remember my first day of law school. I had big dreams: I wanted to be a renowned litigator and a fierce partner of a top tier firm, I wanted to drive around in the latest Mercedes, wear Givenchy suits with matching Christian Louboutin heels, and be a boss career girl with a badass reputation. Right then and there, I would have signed a deed with the devil to trade my soul to be Queen of the corporate world.

I recall looking around the lecture hall and thinking, "almost every person in this room wants to be lawyer and I bet they all have a similar dream…" (in hindsight, I don't think any of the mature students were nearly as egotistical or naïve as I was). It suddenly dawned on me that I was a lottery number, no more likely to be chosen for a graduate position than anyone else.

Every law student begins from the same starting line, but it's what you do between now and the finishing post that determines your career and your opportunities.

Lesson 1: You must work to set yourself apart, and not just academically

A law student's first instinct is always to "work hard and get top grades". That's a great starting place: good grades show intelligence and diligence. However, academic brilliance doesn't translate to initiative, social skills and common-sense. As a student, it's comforting to bask in the interim relief that the perilous working world belongs to "future you". If you don't prepare for life post-university, one day the future will show up like an unwelcome relative and will leave you fumbling around for a place to hide.

A lawyer will not survive on grades alone as legal practice is not made up of assignments and exams. Learn how to study efficiently so that you can study smarter, not harder. You don't need to read every page of your text book or know case judgments word for word. Instead, focus on gaining excellent time management and careful planning, as this will help you to maximise your available time. This will mean you can focus on developing a dynamic skill set that will serve you in the working world.

Lesson 2: Don’t forget the value of your personal life experience

I'll never forget over-hearing a mature student saying to her friend, "no one wants legal advice from a 20-year-old." It was a hard pill to swallow - realising that a middle-aged divorcee could bring a better package than I could. Life experience and insight certainly count for something.

We may think that it’s not usual for someone our age to ponder over what constitutes ‘valuable life experience’. Between the ages of 18 and 22, life is saturated with the enjoyment of eating McDonald's four times a week without gaining weight, growing your Instagram following during class, and curing hangovers with weekend Netflix marathons.

However, "life experience" is no cookie-cutter definition. You don't have to be a prisoner of war in an Eastern European country, survive a coup or live through an ice age to gain "life experience", you just need to get out there and make things happen. Start by turning your attention to your passions: volunteering, travelling, public speaking, sporting events, community involvement - the possibilities are endless. Your experiences mould your skill set, and in turn will create your point of difference.

Lesson 3: Get real about money

The US TV series Suits is entertaining, but perhaps the most fictional representation of the legal profession lawyers have ever seen, for a host of reasons. It's little more than a cruel fantasy that lawyers earn big bucks the moment they step onto the legal career catwalk. Alas, there is no pot of gold at the end of the university rainbow. In fact, your first pay check is a bit of a slap in the face.

You'll hear all sorts of rumours at law school about graduate salaries, and how someone's cousin knows a guy who knows a lawyer, and he makes like, so much money that he has a Swarovski crystal microwave and a pet Tiger. Remember what they taught you in class, hearsay evidence is inadmissible. Million dollar salaries are for partners in top tier firms, who have 10 years’ experience and work 80 hour weeks.

If you're a self-funded student, you already know the realities of having too much week at the end of the money. Whilst you might not be in a position to save, adopting a conscientious and savvy approach to handling the income that you do have, will be the best financial decision you will ever make.

Now that you know you'll be drinking tap water, not Don Perrier champagne on your graduate salary, if you're living at home, take full advantage of your ability to work and save. You're in a better position having money and not needing it, than to wish you had it later.

Lesson 4: Start building your network now

University is one of the best and the easiest places to network. There is a minefield of people to reach out to through: groups, clubs committees, associations and organisations. From Debating teams to Star Trek Enthusiasts’ Extreme Off-Road Mountain Biking Clubs, and everything in between, you are bound to find something that's interests you.

If Star Trek or debating isn't your thing, there are seminars, information evenings and guest speakers, to name a few events that are excellent for expanding your circle of connections. Although you may be thinking, why start now?

Opportunities in life often present themselves through others. Building up a solid network of contacts now, will open the door to opportunities for you in the short, mid, and long term, often in surprising and unpredictable ways. Your connections can become close friends, clients, references or employers. It also provides an opportunity for you to strengthen your interpersonal and communication skills. A network is crucial to your success in business and in life generally. By way of example, it's not uncommon for firms to offer employees a bonus or commission for all new business and employee referrals.

An established and reputable individual has a significant advantage when it comes to career opportunities and progression. Although one thing's for sure, you can't have a reputation if others don't know who you are. If you're interested in learning more about networking, check out my article on 5 Ways to build your network as a Graduate, here.

Lesson 5: rejection happens! Use it to improve for next time, and don't let it get you down

At the end of first year, I applied for every offering internship, and received nothing but rejection letters. I was despondent, particularly after working my butt off all year. What could I possibly be doing wrong? I thought I'd nailed this cv writing business. I imagined I must have been competing against all the Martin Luther-King's, the Emma Watson's and the Olympian Child Stars' of law school. Whatever I was doing, I wasn't selling myself as the right candidate for the role.

Fortuitously struck by rare moment of ingenuity, and armed with the power of common sense, I decided to visit the free and very helpful career advisor on campus, to get to some much needed cv first aid. This was one of the most practical afternoons of my university life, and a step in the right direction.

As a student or graduate, getting your foot in the door can be a hard nut to crack. Reaching out to your available resources can certainly assist with the process. Asking for feedback as to why you didn't get an interview, also provides an opportunity for you to go back to the drawing board and improve your game for next time.

Nobody enjoys rejection, but insufficient appreciation of your successes, and dwelling on the "let downs" creates an overemphasis on your unsuccessful experiences with applying for jobs. This is the culprit that undermines confidence, and creates a generally pessimistic outlook towards your career, before it's even begun. Always remind yourself of how far you've come on your journey to date, and keep ploughing on.

You reap the seeds you sew, but accept that not every harvest will be fruitful. With enough patience and the right resources, your seedlings will turn into flowers.

A final note…

Everyone learns their own unique lessons along the journey from student to lawyer. I learned that the top tier law firm life was not the life for me, and that designer shoes are horrendously uncomfortable. You don’t need to fit into a neat little box, or conform to a stereotype to have a successful legal career (or any career). Big dreams and “badass reputations” are obtainable, it just takes a lot more than wishful thinking. In the words of Napoleon, “Victory belongs to the most persevering”.

If you have any questions, I’d love to hear from you. Tweet me @lvalawyer or drop me a line on my blog http://lawyerlauren.com.

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