Getting started in your first job as a law graduate

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.
Jaymes Carr
Jaymes Carr
Team GradAustralia
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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), which, if achieved during the probationary period, will demonstrate your suitability for continuing employment.

It is important to know the terms of your probation. This means confirming:

  • the length of your probation
  • all goals and tasks you are responsible for during your probation
  • how your performance will be measured
  • whether or not there will be a formal performance review
  • who you can speak to if you have questions or concerns about your probation
  • how the firm deals with employees who don’t meet their probation requirements (especially when prevented from doing so by extenuating circumstances).

Your employment can be lawfully terminated if you fail to achieve the required expectations (subject to the terms and conditions of your contract of employment). A strong support network can be invaluable in helping you deal with your employer’s expectations – especially if those expectations are not reasonable.

According to the Australian Government Fair Work Ombudsman, employees who do not pass their probation are still entitled to receive notice when their employment ends. Furthermore, you are not to be denied any basic entitlements, such as paid-leave and sick leave, during your probationary period.

Time management tips

Law graduates may experience some anxiety when first confronted with billable hours targets. These targets represent the amount of time each week that you charge to clients, and they can be especially daunting for young lawyers who are still learning the ropes at a new firm. The following time management tips can help you stay on top of things and meet your targets with minimal stress:

  • Keep an up-to-date to do list. There are various productivity tools you can try, from the Pomodoro Technique to the Eisenhower Matrix, as well as various apps and websites (such as Trello and Todoist) dedicated to task management. Beyond to do lists, there are also tools for managing your calendar and remaining productive throughout the day.
  • Prioritise urgent tasks. There are various ways to do this for maximum efficiency. One approach involves ranking each task by ‘importance’ and ‘urgency’, before focusing primarily on tasks that are both important and urgent.
  • Remember to keep a diary of all critical dates set up with reminders so that you are consistently punctual and on top of your schedule. You can use various tools (such as Microsoft Outlook) to share these appointments with other stakeholders, set up phone calls, distribute any preparatory material, and book meeting rooms.
  • Learn how to say ‘no’. Don’t take on further work if you know you won’t be able to complete it, and be upfront about what you can reasonably achieve.
  • Delegate tasks wherever possible and appropriate (this means not delegating tasks for which you ought to be personally responsible).
  • Update your timesheet whenever you complete a task. Avoid postponing this until the end of the day or week – it can be difficult to enter time accurately when you must first reconstruct your week in retrospect.
  • Take regular breaks to help you stay energised and focused.
  • Work on complex tasks when you are at your most productive. Always have an attack plan – know how you will break a large or complex project up into discrete, achievable subtasks before you start working.

Establishing strong professional relationships

The practice of law is frequently a collaborative process, so it’s vital that you are able to foster strong professional relationships characterised by open communication, mutual respect, and the shared pursuit of common goals. As a graduate, you can learn a lot about how to do this by observing your colleagues, taking their advice seriously, and remaining open to constructive feedback.

Your Supervisor

Ordinarily, when you start your legal career, you will be assigned a supervisor who, on a daily basis, provides you with direction, advice, and mentorship. This period of supervised legal practice is a professional requirement that usually lasts for two years. After completing work under supervision for two years, you can apply for an unrestricted practising certificate.

The relationship you have with this person can have a marked impact on your overall experience of law firm life. Here are some strategies to help you establish a good relationship with your supervisor:

  • Make sure you understand exactly what is required of you when delegated a new task. If you are confused or unsure, communicate this to your supervisor and seek clarification. You will gain respect for demonstrating a desire to learn and get things done in the right way. Taking notes is a good way to ensure you successfully integrate advice, and gives you something to refer back to if you need to refresh your memory.
  • Let your supervisor know immediately if you are unable to complete any task by a given deadline. Your supervisor can use this information to manage workflows across their team more effectively, ensuring that you aren’t assigned too many tasks or tasks of undue complexity.
  • Own up to your mistakes and seek advice on how to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.
  • Be open with your supervisor about what you expect to learn as a law graduate. Let them help you achieve your professional goals, and know that you deserve positive feedback when you’ve earned it.

The Legal Secretary

Your Secretary is a valuable source of assistance and can provide useful inside information about the daily running of your team and the firm. This is the person to approach when you have questions about your firm’s IT and operating systems, as well as its culture and work ethic. Legal secretaries also perform a range of critical administrative tasks, such as arranging meetings, transcribing interviews, and organising support from third-parties, such as interpreters and industry experts.

Be humble and courteous when dealing with your legal secretary. Their hard work is fundamental to your success and deserves respect and gratitude. Having said that, remember that you are responsible for your own performance. Avoid delegating work to your secretary if you lack the time to review it before it reaches your supervisor. You will be held accountable for any errors, omissions, or inaccuracies.

Dealing with bullying and discrimination

The Australian Human Rights Commission defines workplace bullying as verbal, physical, social or psychological abuse by your employer (or manager), another person, or group of people at work. This may take the form of hurtful remarks, social or professional exclusion, the delegation of tasks that do not relate to your job, intimidation, pushing and shoving, unwelcome touching, or sexual harassment. Discrimination happens for a variety of reasons, none of which render it acceptable, and may stem from prejudiced attitudes towards a person’s race, age, religion, sex, disability, socioeconomic status, education, or sexual preference.

You should not stay silent if you feel you are being bullied or being discriminated against at work. If you feel comfortable approaching the bully, let them know that their behaviour is unacceptable. Otherwise, speak to a colleague or supervisor about the situation, or report it to the Human Resources Department. If you feel you cannot confide in a colleague, you can contact the Australian Human Rights Commission or Fair Work Commission for information on your rights and options. It’s a good idea to keep a record of any incidences of bullying.

How to resign

Resigning from your position at a law firm can be daunting, especially if it’s one you’ve worked hard to acquire. However, circumstances do change, and not every role works out. So, if you decide to resign, here’s how to do so in a way that will preserve your professional reputation.

Wherever possible, you should strive to leave your position on good terms. A lawyer’s character and conduct are key markers of their professionalism, and, more practically, the manner of your resignation may influence whether or not you can ask for a reference in the future.

Be prepared to supply a resignation letter when you inform your employer of your decision to leave the firm. In the letter, state the date from which your resignation is effective, your notice period, and your last day of work at the firm. If it is appropriate, you can also include a brief positive statement about your time at the firm, referencing things you’ve learned, valuable experiences, or meaningful professional relationships.

It is useful to prepare a list of issues that you may need to discuss with your employer when you resign. This could include how to complete any outstanding projects, manage an efficient handover, and notify colleagues of your decision. You will more than likely be asked reasons for your resignation. Being prepared for these questions will help you respond with constructive and thoughtful comments.

No matter how negative your experience with the firm, do not insult your employer or spread rumours about them or the firm. This behaviour will only reflect poorly on your own character.

For more information on how to stay healthy and succeed during your first few years of law, consider reading the NSW Young Lawyer’s free guide titled ‘How to Survive and Thrive in Your First Year of Law’.

Maintaining mental health

Coping with stress

A healthy level of stress can keep you motivated, and may even be a proportionate and manageable response to your new responsibilities. However, in the intense environment of a law firm, it’s not uncommon for stress levels to rise beyond the point of diminishing returns. Once this happens, stress can fast become a negative force that saps energy and, if left unchecked, often leads to burnout and other mental health challenges.

Coping with the stress of law firm life starts with building resilience. You can give yourself space to do this by implementing strategies to help you maintain focus and motivation, and achieve your goals. Some useful strategies include:

  • Time management – keep a list of tasks you aim to complete each day. This will help you to break a sometimes overwhelming workload into manageable goals and gauge what you can realistically achieve.
  • Preparation – whether you are scheduled to attend a meeting with a client, a mediation, or a directions hearing, make sure you give yourself enough time to prepare adequately so you can perform at your best.
  • Focus on solutions – accept that as a law graduate you will make mistakes. Ask your supervisor(s) for advice on how to avoid repeating them.
  • Maintaining a balanced lifestyle – to perform at your best, it’s important to look after your physical and mental health. This means eating well, exercising regularly, taking time out, being social and keeping a healthy
  • sleep schedule.

Signs of anxiety and depression

According to recent research conducted by the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Research Institute, one in three solicitors and one in five barristers suffer from clinical depression, with the incidence of depression in the legal profession up to four times higher than that of the general population.

It is vital that you treat your mental health just as you would your physical well being. This means familiarising yourself with the warning signs of anxiety, depression, and other conditions, and intervening early if something is amiss. It also means learning the difference between a healthy (or proportionate) level of stress, and its opposite, which can manifest itself as toxic anxiety. The pattern whereby stress can improve performance up to a point of diminishing returns is known as the ‘Yerkes-Dodson law’.

To help you identify any mental health red flags, the Law Institute of Victoria has published a fact sheet that warns against the following signs of what could be nascent depression or anxiety:

  • absenteeism, or presenteeism (being in the office but being non- productive);
  • falling productivity and simple errors occurring;
  • Indecision;
  • bad decisions or rash decisions;
  • poor morale and uncharacteristic lack of co-operation;
  • complaints of aches and pains or tiredness on a regular basis;
  • disruptive, interfering or domineering behaviour to other team members;
  • alcohol or drug use or abuse;
  • a general reluctance to socialise or participate in company activities.

Other warning signs include:

  • an unusually sad mood that does not go away
  • loss of enjoyment and interest in activities that used to be enjoyable
  • lack of energy and tiredness
  • loss of confidence in yourself or poor self-esteem
  • feeling guilty when you are not really at fault
  • thoughts of suicide or self-harm
  • difficulty concentrating and making decisions
  • moving more slowly, or becoming agitated and unable to settle
  • having sleeping difficulties, or sometimes, sleeping too much
  • loss of interest in food or, sometimes, eating too much. Changes in eating habits may lead to marked weight fluctuations.

Support

If you require support, or know somebody who does, there are many resources available, including several services that will provide immediate support. For example, BeyondBlue and Lifeline Australia provide rapid and anonymous support over the phone and online. The Federal government also subsidises selected mental health services, allowing patients with an appropriate referral to access Medicare rebates for up to ten therapy sessions a year.

There are also resources specific to the legal profession. These include LawCare, the Lawyer’s Assistance Program, Lifeline for Lawyers (1800 085 062), and the activities of the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation, which is dedicated to promoting mental health in the legal profession. Alternatively, you can contact your state or territory’s division of the Bar Association or Law Society to learn which other resources are locally available. You may also find it helpful to investigate whether or not any support is provided by your place of employment.

If you’re looking for a good general resource with additional information, consider the Law Society of New South Wales’ free ‘Being Well in the Law’ guide. It brings together information about a range of mental health challenges and offers advice on how to overcome or manage them.