Australian Big Law
Welcome to the Australian Biglaw guide created by yours truly. All views are our own so please make a call yourself as to whether this information is right for you. This guide will give you an overview of the path usually taken to landing a job as a lawyer at a large commercial law firm.
When going through preparation materials, most Aussies head to Whirlpool or Reddit, which may often take hours to trawl through, and hours more to figure out which comments are actually correct and helpful. Hopefully, this guide represents a decent effort to provide some sort of structure and advice for incoming candidates interested in a commercial law career.
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Finally, we’ve found the Letter of Intent newsletter to be an absolute staple for any aspiring or current Aussie dealmaker – you can sign up for free at www.letterofintent.com.au. The newsletter is written in a super digestible way and will help bring your knowledge of the market up to date for interviews and in your careers moving forward
What is Big Law?
Big law refers to working in a large law firm specialising in commercial law in any of the major cities in Australia. Big law typically includes any area of law that a corporate client (e.g. a company) may require assistance with, which is why big law will almost always involve working at a “full-service” commercial law firm. These roles often involve long hours, tight deadlines and a high pressure working environment. Big law does not include other types of law such as family law, criminal law, immigration law etc, which are usually not required by a corporate client.
We see the legal market segmented into the following (in order of quality):
- a Big 3 (HSF, KWM and Allens);
- the balance of the Big 6 (Ashurst, Clayton Utz and Minter Ellison);
- the upper mid-tiers – who refer to themselves as top-tier but are not really – (Corrs, G+T);
- global firms – that have offices here but have their biggest office overseas – Norton Rose Fulbright, Clifford Chance, Allen & Overy;
- large mid-tier national firms – Thomson Geer, Piper Alderman, HWL Ebsworth; and
- the rest.
When we talk about big law, the line becomes a bit blurred around the “large mid-tier national firms” category, but for the sake of this guide, this shouldn’t matter too much.
For more in-depth information on these firms, check out their firm profiles on www.theaussiecorporate.com/law-firm-profiles. We can’t tell you what you should prioritise in selecting a firm (pay, prestige, deal sheet?) but these firm profiles should help you in reaching your decision.
Pathways into Big Law
The most common way into big law is through completing a summer clerkship with a law firm in your penultimate year of university. As this is the main method that large law firms recruit its young lawyers, after the clerkship, you will usually be offered a graduate role to start after university. This process is by no means easy or straightforward, and you will have to go through weeks of writing applications, interviews, cocktail nights and networking before any chance of an offer. Depending on your state, the application process for summer clerkships usually kicks-off around June/July every year. Keep your eyes peeled, because this will essentially be your only chance in the year to land a summer clerkship.
We have heard that some firms offer very limited winter clerkship spots. The winter program is often a lot shorter but if you can land a gig, it could set you up well for a subsequent summer clerkship, so you really have nothing to lose here by applying.
Because this is the main way to break into big law, this page will focus on preparing you for clerkships (though it may be helpful more general as well).
Alternatively, if you miss your chance at landing a summer clerkship, you could apply for graduate roles in your final year of university usually at the start of the year. Graduate roles can be a lot more limited than summer clerkships for the big firms but there are also some national mid-tiers that only take graduates. Because the space is still generally competitive, your application will have to stand out to be successful. Making sure your resume has the relevant legal work experience and good grads that law firms are looking for is essential.
Big 4 Tax
If you miss out on clerkships, many budding law graduates will apply for a Big 4 tax vacation program instead of doing something related to their other degree for the summer. This is a decent way to set yourself up for a graduate offer by showing that you received some sort of legal experience and you are still keen on a career in law. The only trap is if you get a bit too close to your Big 4 tax team, you might feel inclined to stay on!
Many ambitious lawyers who did not manage to land a role in a big law firm will also find it a lot easier to jump across to a Big 6 firm after several years at a smaller law firm (e.g. a national mid-tier). This is because the Big 6 and upper mid-tiers suffer high attrition rates in its junior lawyers at around the 2-4 PQE mark. This often results in vacant spots at these firms for ambitious lawyers from the mid-tiers who want to work in a larger firm.
It is quite uncommon from someone to lateral in from a non-law job. The types of lateral hires that we have heard of and that are not from commercial law firms are generally from government or in-house. Suffice to say though, the more common trend is for big law to go in-house, but there are instances where reverse-secondments have led to offers of a permanent position to talented individuals.
Preparing for clerkships
Landing a clerkship is no small feat and requires years of planning, hard work and preparation. Preparation can be broken down into five main categories. Each of these categories loosely represents an element of your attractiveness as a candidate. The idea is to be amazing at each but if you are lacking on one then you try to improve the others. The earliest and arguably easiest thing you can do to set yourself up for success is to have a history of academic excellence. In most people’s minds, this is a combo of you university (e.g. Go8) and marks.
Don’t muck around at university, do your readings and make sure you participate in class for those easy CP marks. In Australia, you will usually be required to do a double degree to study law, so if you are finding it hard to balance the two, at least make sure you focus on your law studies. Law firms only look at your law WAM during the clerkship process, so sometimes it might just be better to cut your losses on that arts degree (even if it is easier and more enjoyable), and focus on smashing your last law electives to boost your law WAM.
Law firms generally don’t care what subjects you do well in, but if you wanted to show them that you have a passion for commercial law, then try to get good grades in contracts and business administration, and do electives that relate to one of the practice areas at a big law firm (e.g. takeovers law, IP law, finance law).
While there is no official cut-off, you should generally try to aim for a 70+ WAM. Some firms, like Allens, will place a greater emphasis on grades but for some others, they may place equal, if not more, emphasis on work experience as well.
Previous work experience will be a key way for you to differentiate yourself. The key is having relevant experience and/or a good track record.
We would recommend focussing on obtaining relevant work experience at a law firm, legal centre or anything tangentially related to law in order to make yourself stand out. However, it isn’t the end all and be all if you don’t manage to snap something like this up. Some firms (even the Big 3) love to see commitment and passion in its candidates, so working for 6 years at Maccas throughout uni might look better than a couple weeks at some obscure law firm in the suburbs.
Our two pieces of advice on this are:
- Make sure you absorb everything in your job, ask questions and use the chance to network. While the supervising solicitor at the volunteer legal centre may not be from some flashy law firm, they likely will have gone to university with someone who is. Treat your job and others with respect, make yourself valuable and you never know where this might land you.
- Don’t give up and be shameless to get work experience – send out cold emails, cold calls, pester friends, family, friends of friends, lecturers. Trust us, it only gets harder to do this when you’ve graduated so take advantage of your status as a scrappy young student to lay it all out.
Not everyone is able to get great work experience as a student, but the great thing about uni is the access it gives to societies and other extra-curriculars that are aligned to the field. Get involved in the Law Society, do a few moots and if you’re talented enough, apply to be an editor for publications that your Law Society release. Attend careers fairs and learn about what it’s like to work in law firms. Use these opportunities to gain information to use in interviews but don’t use these as a chance to get an actual job. It’s highly unlikely that that will happen and you might just come across as pushy or ignorant. If you can show that you are a friendly and genuinely interested candidate though, this may leave a good impression in the eyes of the firm’s representatives.
Throughout the clerkship process, you will meet tonnes and tonnes of people. We won’t lie – its exhausting and you often walk away not really knowing whether your interactions that evening even got you anywhere. Our tip here is to just listen and ask thoughtful questions. Quality is better quantity here and lawyers love hearing their own voice, so if you can keep them chatting, they’ll walk away feeling pretty good about themselves and you. Show genuine interest and lay off the alcohol. There will be plenty of that once the clerkship starts.
Another great tip is to be aware of where alumni from your university have placed and connect with them on LinkedIn. Don’t be afraid to shoot that cold email or DM as long as you are genuine and have thought about your approach so as to not waste people’s time.
Related to people skills, it isn’t just enough to be a friendly, interesting and keen candidate, but you really need to be able to talk to your goals, passions and strengths in an interview. There is always a fine balance when it comes to interview prep: you don’t want to sound too rehearsed so that your answers sound robotic and fake, but you also don’t want to underprepare and stumble on your words. You also cannot possibly prepare for every single question.
We think to find a good balance, we recommend developing a framework to approach questions and to always rehearse answers by sticking to the framework.
Some of you probably don’t even know why you’re in law school, let alone why you want to embark on a gruelling career in commercial law. The obvious reasons are money, stability and prestige but you can’t really say this in an interview.
This is sort of the initial gating item in your interactions with firms, so you should practice it ad nauseum and respond quickly to the kind of feedback, explicit and implicit, that you receive from your initial interactions. This will require a lot of emotional intelligence to determine if your interviewers are responding favourably to your answers or if they’re writing you off right from the get-go.
Behavioural questions and using a framework
In addition to the “why law question”, law firms will likely also ask you a bunch of behavioural questions (with the exception of a couple of firms, who have take the approach of just having a chat about your CV – we know KWM is one of them).
Here, it is important to use a framework when answering questions as there is no way you will be able to prepare for every single one of them. Yes, behavioural questions are hella annoying, but it is inevitable that they will be asked.
Behavioural questions will rely on you recounting an anecdotal example of how this improved a soft quality of yours. The key here is to have a handful of solid examples that can cover different soft skills. e.g. volunteering at uni helped with developing leadership, communication and organisation skills. Having 3 strong examples will be a lot easier for you than having 6 weak ones.
One of the first things that the interviewer will do is look through your CV and ask things that interest them. It could be anything from your exchange year in France to that random volunteering experience you added to buff up your CV. Make sure you know your CV inside out and that you can talk to anything you’ve added in there.
Make sure to have 2-3 deal/cases you know well that recently took place. If these deals/cases were managed by the firm, even better. AFR Street Talk will usually call out the law firms for transactions, so that’s where you can get that info. Know the facts, but importantly understand the rationale and have an opinion on it. There is no right / wrong answer but you want to be able to flex your logic and reasoning skills. Expect whatever opinion you express to be pressure tested (irrespective of whether the interviewee agrees or disagrees with you… it’s just part of the game)
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Networking during the interview process
If your interviews go well, you’ll often be invited to networking opportunities with people at the firm. These may involve coffee chats with junior members of the team and partners at networking evenings.
Our advice here is to always be yourself (we know, so cliche urgh!) — introduce yourself and express interest in learning about the firm and your role.
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There’s a whole lot of detail that goes with everything we’ve mentioned above and we’re more than happy to help!