Legal eagles are sought after hires

A legal background can be a springboard to many industries

By Sophie Toomey

Any recruiter you care to ask will tell you that a law degree is going to be good for your career and take you anywhere you want to go, especially when tailored to your goals.

Catherine O’Mahony, careers officer at La Trobe Law School, assists law graduates every day to get into jobs they dreamed about when starting their studies. She says law is highly regarded for the skills that it instils in graduates.

"They include good written and oral communication, research, analysis and problem solving among others. As well as those skills, law students get an understanding of law in a social, political and economic context, and that’s something that can be applied in different employment settings.”

O’Mahony emphasises the importance of making the degree fit your goals by choosing subjects wisely, and perhaps marrying two degrees together.

"For example, someone who is interested in working in human rights would include human rights law in their degree. Someone who combines the generalist focus of law with a strong commercial focus would be highly sought after by many employers, including those in international business.”

Nathan Baunach, senior consultant, legal, for recruitment firm Talent2 agrees that law is a highly regarded degree for a number of reasons.

"It’s well-known that it’s hard to get into law school, and that completing four or five years’ study is no small achievement, a strong test of application and intellect.”

But Baunach says lawyers are valued for more than just the completion of a gruelling degree. "They understand confidentiality, problem solving and communication. They are also lateral thinkers and have strong organisational skills. They can negotiate and take the emotion out of commercial dealings, as well as interpret legislation and understand contracts."

Baunach also agrees that law is a valuable degree whatever your career goals.

"It’s been dubbed the new arts. It’s a degree you can take in conjunction with any other area of study but it’s certainly perceived as more useful in the long term than an arts degree because of its relevance in the commercial sector.” Baunach has placed graduates and former lawyers in many careers, including business affairs, contract management and as company secretaries.

"As well as these areas lawyers can head into academia, government, the financial sector, diplomacy, journalism, HR and insurance.”

Anna Tearne chose to move into government policy after acquiring a law degree by taking a job at the Department of the Attorney-General in Canberra.

Says Tearne, "When a job came up in the minister’s office I was in the right place at the right time.”

Tearne is now senior adviser to the Federal Attorney-General Phillip Ruddock. A law degree was a pre-requisite for the job, and is something she uses every day.

"I use basic legal principles and analytical thought processes that I took from my degree. On any given day I might be examining policy, responding to new issues and preparing input into speeches.” Tearne’s specialist area is national security.

"That includes counter-terrorism measures, protective security and major event security, amongst many other issues.”

Tearne says experience in the department was undoubtedly instrumental in landing her current job. "Portfolio-related experience can be helpful when working in a minister’s office. In my case having experience in security policy was important, and it would be extraordinarily difficult to do my job without it.”

Self-employment is another option open to former lawyers.

After seven years as an arts and entertainment lawyer, Anthony Anderson started his own production company, Red Carpet Productions. He produced the Australian film Somersault which won critical acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival and AFI awards.

Anderson said taking the leap from a legal career into self-employment was frightening, but has proved incredibly rewarding. Like many ex-lawyers he relishes the freedom of being self-employed.

Anderson says his success in the film industry is at least partly a result of his legal experience.

"In legal practice I learned a great deal about the challenges facing film people. I learned the best way to manage deals, understand film funding bodies and draft contracts.”

Anderson agrees that the skills he learned as a legal practitioner translate into any context. "I use my problem solving skills consistently. A lawyer’s daily role is assisting clients who have a problem and seek out a solution. A producer’s role is frequently the same, one of encountering a problem or problems and not giving up.” He says his legal experience has also opened financial doors. "Having a law degree somehow engenders a degree of trust in people, and that means they are more willing to trust me with the millions of dollars being raised to finance a film!”

As well as careers in the public and private sectors, working in academia is an attractive option for many law graduates, although only available to those who achieved consistently excellent results at university in undergraduate and postgraduate study.

Julia Tolmie is associate professor of law at Auckland University, after completing 10 years lecturing law at the University of Sydney. She moved into the academic world after many years in both private and public practice, and obtaining a masters of law at Harvard.

"My main interests and teaching subjects are in criminal law, with a special focus on how the law impacts on women’s interests,” she says.

She relishes the autonomy her job provides.

"I have amazing flexibility in terms of hours and the projects I focus on. This means I can pursue things that I believe in and have a passion for. It’s unlike working in practice, where client needs and problems totally dictate the areas of law you’ll be working within.”

Tolmie says she can make a difference in areas that matter to her. "I love the fact that I have input into people’s lives at a formative time in their career and life path: in young adulthood. I have particularly loved teaching women and watching students have intellectual and emotional epiphanies within the course. I love being privy to that.”

International travel is another part of her job.

"Every three years I get a sabbatical and have six months off from teaching to pursue research, preferably in a scholarly institution in another part of the world. I get to travel the world and listen to other scholars talk about their research in conferences.”

Tolmie stresses that those with an interest in working in academia must work as hard as possible to achieve high academic grades.

"You also need an enquiring mind and be very self-directed.”

Tolmie says that learning to speak in public and find a public voice and opinion are things that many academics struggle with in their early careers: not necessarily skills they bring from private practice or legal studies.

Baunach says in the last several years there has been a major exodus of graduates from legal practice.

Statistics indicate that six years after graduation only 25 per cent of graduates remain in legal practice.

He attributes this to many factors, not the least of which is the traditional hierarchical structure of large and medium-sized law firms. Add to this a system which requires graduates to complete two years of articles or gruelling postgrad
uate study in order to practice.

"Depending on which state you graduate in you will spend a further two years as an articles clerk on possibly $22K per year working 16 or 17 hour days. That is a big ask.”

Baunach says once in practice many graduates become disenchanted with the often limited areas of practice and limited exposure to clients.

The Weekend Australian

Related articles you might be interested in reading