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Getting started in your first job as a law graduate

Jaymes Carr

Starting a new role can be daunting. Here is your complete guide to make sure you get of to a strong start in your career.

Getting an offer

Your contract of employment

Before entering into a contract of employment and accepting your first legal position you should seek clarification on the following:

  • Start date.
  • Duties and/or job description.
  • The number of hours you will be required to work (keep in mind you may be told that you have to work 9-5, plus any further hours as required to meet your clients’ expectations and demands of the job. In private practice it is possible that you will spend at least 10 hours a day in the office in order to meet your billable budget requirements and the inherent requirements of the role).
  • Rate of pay and method of pay (weekly/monthly).
  • Whether the salary offer is a package (i.e. base and superannuation combined) or a base salary plus superannuation.
  • When and if you will be entitled to a salary increase (particularly if you are paid junior rates).
  • Any leave entitlements, including maternity/paternity and long service leave.
  • Whether you will be employed on a permanent, part time, temporary or casual basis.
  • When you can expect to receive a written contract of employment.
  • Confirmation of all employment conditions in writing (including your next salary review date).
  • Which Enterprise Agreement or Award you will be working under, if any. (There is no applicable award or agreement for a lawyer.)
  • The notice requirements of both parties.

Before signing your first contract read it carefully, making sure that you don’t sign anything you don’t understand. There’s no need to feel pressured into signing a contract on the spot. Tell your potential employer that you want to take the contract home and that you will return the contract as soon as practicable. If you don’t agree with a certain clause in a contract you can rule a line through the provision that you don’t agree with and place your initials in the margin.

Your salary

Lawyers’ salaries vary substantially between large and small firms and between country and city firms. Mahlab Recruitment, Naiman Clarke Legal, Hughes-Castell, and Dolman conduct and publish annual career and salary surveys for the legal profession. These surveys list the legal professional salaries throughout Australia and also on an international basis.

More generous salaries are likely to be associated with larger firms or certain practice areas. For example, solicitors who work in mergers and acquisitions may be required to work long hours to liaise with international clients. As a result, they can generally demand higher salaries as compensation. According to research conducted by GradAustralia, the average starting salary for law grads is above average at $72,000 per year. Some 37% of graduates earn more than $75,000 per year to start with, while less than one percent receive a salary below $45,000 per year. Graduate lawyers work the longest hours of any profession, averaging about 49 hours a week.

Awards

Graduate at Law (State) Award

A new award salary for lawyers came into effect with the Legal Service Award 2010, which also specified the rate at which the minimum award should increase during subsequent years. This award applies only to law graduates, law clerks, and administrative personnel. As of the last indexing date – July 1st, 2016 – the award for law graduates is $904 per week, or $23.80 an hour. Graduates are also covered by the National Employment Standards outlined in the Fair Work Act. These standards outline an employee’s rights when it comes to things such as public holiday pay, community service leave, notice of termination and redundancy pay, and minimum annual leave entitlements.

Secretary/Law Clerk/Paralegal Clerical and Administrative Employees Legal Industry (State) Award

The Clerical and Administrative Employees Legal Industry (State) Award has been adjusted in accordance with the State Wage Case 2009. Under the federal workplace relations system, minimum wages for employees are no longer included in awards. They can now be found in Australian Pay and Classification Scales, which form part of the Australian Fair Pay and Conditions Standard. Further information, including the current minimum wage rates can be found on the Australian Fair Pay website.

Superannuation

As a general rule you are entitled to a minimum of 9.5% superannuation paid into a fund of your choice. However, if you are employed as an independent contractor or on a contract for services you will not automatically be entitled to superannuation.

If you have previous superannuation policies but are unsure of the name or policy number of your previous fund, contact the Australian Taxation Office Superannuation Line on 131 020.

If you have had previous casual and part-time positions it is likely that you have several superannuation funds.

To consolidate your accounts, obtain and complete a rollover form from your current superannuation fund of choice. Rolling over your superannuation will:

  • minimise the risk of you losing your superannuation
  • minimise administration fees you are likely to be charged
  • help you keep track of your superannuation as it is all in one place
  • minimise the statements you will receive.

What is probation?

Upon commencing a new role, it’s not unusual for graduates to be placed on probation. During this probationary period, which typically ranges from three to six months, your employer will assess whether or not you are effective in your new role. Generally, they will help you to develop performance goals (often referred to as key performance indicators)