The law clerkship – an insight for a school-leaver

Tom Gerrits

For those excitedly anticipating the beginning of their legal studies, you might be surprised that the law degree is a relatively recent invention. Law was once taught as an apprenticeship, much like a trade.

While the academic study of law has today become crucial (read: you can’t become a lawyer without it), the professional and practical training of lawyers remains very important.

Clerkships and other practical legal training has emerged as an important way of:

  • learning about different areas of law from a practical perspective with “on the job” experience;
  • trying out different and varied workplaces, teams and people to investigate your suitability and preferences; and
  • law firms observing and assessing their potential future recruits.

It is important to note at this point that while law clerkships can be (and very often are) fiercely competitive to obtain, they do not represent the only (or even necessarily the best) avenue of developing a career in the law.

Other options to gain the critical professional and practical experience of the law include:

  • volunteering in a legal or administrative capacity at a community legal centre that provides legal advice (often pro-bono or at a reduced fee) to various groups or the community-at-large;
  • becoming an associate to a judge or a member of a tribunal and assisting in their legal research or administrative duties;
  • performing legal research for a barrister or an academic;
  • working with non-government organisations that have a legal focus in their work;
  • assisting the legal section of a company or government department; and
  • taking part in mooting or other legal competitions (an opportunity readily available through the Flinders Law Students’ Association).

If you are set on taking part in a law clerkship, be aware that applications, interviews and placement periods can be strictly enforced. You should check with the firms and state law societies where you hope to one day clerk. A great place to start in South Australia is the Law Society of South Australia – there is a similar organisation in each Australian state or territory (don’t worry, you can worry more about this in the later years of your law degree).
Law students that do take part in law clerkships will encounter a variety of opportunities and experiences including:

  • meeting with clients;
  • attending (and even appearing in) court;
  • performing legal research and conducting statutory interpretation;
  • assisting in business development for the firm; and
  • generally assisting around the law office.

From personal experience on clerkships I have encountered opportunities to:

  • make an application for leave to appear in court before a judge;
  • write a legal opinion on how US federal law could impact on a dispute in South Australia;
  • fly interstate to meet clients;
  • attend business development and client networking events in interesting places around town;
  • draft documents and correspondence for clients, government departments, other lawyers; and
  • experience a varied raft of legal work and working styles.

Being involved in a law clerkship can be exhilarating, laborious, fascinating, exhausting, challenging and interesting experience – often all at the same time. The trick is to seize the opportunity of a clerkship as an insight into the law and realise that there is always more to learn.
Those aspiring to a career in the law might choose to complete one (or many) clerkships during the later years of their law degree. However, remember, there are many ways to excel in the law and a clerkship is but one of them.

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