A clerkship can be a great way to sample life in a law firm and can even be a step towards securing your first job.
But ask any law student and they’ll tell you that the application process can be cloaked in confusion and fraught with uncertainty.
In this article, we’ll demystify clerkships and help you better navigate the process.
What’s a clerkship and how is it different to a graduate program?
A clerkship is a short-term opportunity to gain work experience with a legal employer. Think of it as a ‘preview’ of life in the firm. A clerkship usually runs for a few weeks and gives students the chance to observe and take part in various areas of the firm.
Unlike a graduate program, a clerkship is usually for a short period of time and is only intended to provide work experience; there is no guarantee that a clerkship will lead to a job with the firm. Clerkship applications are generally offered to law students in their penultimate year of study, but this can vary.
Graduate programs, on the other hand, are usually open to students who are about to graduate, or have already graduated. Individuals who are offered a graduate program position are usually hired to become future lawyers (i.e. graduate lawyers) of the firm, and the graduate program involves a period of rotating through the various practice areas of the firm before settling into a more permanent group.
What are the benefits of undertaking a clerkship?
First, it can provide a valuable opportunity to learn more about the actual practise of law. This helps put the theoretical aspects of your law degree into context.
Second, it’s an opportunity to test whether legal practice is for you. For those who already know they want to be legal practitioners, a clerkship may help to clarify the type of law they wish to practise.
Third, the work experience gained in a clerkship will be a valuable addition to your résumé and will be highly regarded by employers when applying for jobs in the future.
Although a clerkship program does not necessarily lead to employment at the firm, in some cases it is a prerequisite (or at least an advantage) to have carried out a clerkship at a firm in order to be considered for their graduate program.
Who offers clerkships and where can they be found?
Most clerkships are offered by the larger law firms, such as national and international firms. However, there are also some smaller firms that offer clerkships. It is also worth noting that in recent years clerkships are not just being offered by law firms; in-house legal teams, consulting firms, government departments, charities and other organisations that value legal skills are increasingly offering clerkship programs. So it is worth keeping an open mind when considering where to apply.
Most firms will advertise their clerkships through their website, and most university law student societies also list clerkships on their website. You might also want to visit the website of your state’s Law Society/Institute, as they usually list most of the available clerkships as well. CvMail and Legal Vitae are also popular portals for firms to list and accept applications for their clerkships.
Other sites that list clerkships opportunities and provide further information are:
When am I eligible for a clerkship, and what are the key dates?
These details vary for each firm, and may also vary between states.
Clerkships are generally made available to students in their penultimate year of law school.
Application dates, as well as the dates of the clerkship, will also vary depending on the firm. In some states (such as NSW, QLD, SA, VIC, WA) a number of firms have agreed to abide by uniform clerkship rules. These rules are generally determined by the law society in each state and provide standard dates and processes for clerkship recruitment. These uniform rules are designed to provide consistency and certainty.
For example, in Victoria over 60 firms have signed up to the Law Institute’s Clerkship Guidelines, and applications generally open in July each year. In NSW, at least 20 firms are signatories to the Clerkship Program Participation Guidelines, and applications generally open in June each year. Most firms in WA open their clerkship applications in July of each year.
Not all firms participate in these uniform clerkship rules and not all states have this system (e.g. NT and TAS), so it pays to check the individual requirements of each firm’s clerkship program.
What’s the process to apply for a clerkship?
For most clerkships, you will need to submit a résumé, cover letter, and copy of your academic transcript. In some cases, you may also be asked to answer specific questions or provide a sample of your written work. Some firms also ask applicants to record a short video of their answers to set questions. Every firm’s process may be different, so be sure to follow their instructions carefully.
If your application is shortlisted, you will likely be asked to attend an interview. Some firms may require you to attend more than one interview, and there is a growing trend toward firms inviting shortlisted applicants to attend ‘cocktail evenings’ where you are given an opportunity to mingle with the firm’s staff and learn more about its culture. It’s also a chance for the firm to observe you outside the formal setting of an interview.
Depending on the firm, you may also be asked to carry out testing as part of the application process, such as psychometric and personality testing.
The final step in the process is usually reference checking, whereby the firm will contact your referees to gain their views on your performance in previous employment, study, or extracurricular activities.
What makes a good clerkship application?
It’s no secret that clerkships are highly competitive, so it is important to put your best foot forward. Here are some key tips for putting together a strong clerkship application:
Attention to detail
Every document you submit needs to be perfect. Make sure you check for grammar and spelling errors, and get someone else to look over your application as well. Statistics show that even one spelling error can mean the difference between getting a clerkship and missing out.
Tailor your application to each firm
Every application needs to be specifically tailored to each firm. HR Managers can tell when an application is generic, and this can seriously harm your chances. Here’s a good general rule: If you can replace the name of the firm in your cover letter with another firm’s name and the letter still makes sense, then it’s a bad letter. You are always better off submitting five highly-tailored applications than 20 generic ones.
Address all the selection criteria
Not all firms ask you to address selection criteria. But for those that do, it is crucial to address each and every one of them in your cover letter. Follow the firm’s instructions precisely.
No legal experience? Focus on the transferable skills
For those who have existing legal experience, be sure to highlight this in your application. But if you don’t have any legal experience yet, don’t fret – you are still eligible for a clerkship. The trick is to focus on transferable skills from your non-legal and extra-curricular experiences. For example, if you have worked in retail, focus on skill such as customer service, complaint management and reaching sales targets - these translate well into client relationships, dispute resolution and billing skills which are valued in a firm environment.
Practice, practice, practice
If you manage to progress to the testing or interview stages of the application process, it’s time to start practising. Run some mock interviews with your university career counsellor or with a fellow student. There are plenty of websites with examples of questions to practise, such as this one from gradaustralia. Gradaustralia also offers some tips for testing and links to practice tests.
Do I have to undertake a clerkship? And what if I don’t get a clerkship?
Clerkships are not compulsory and you are not necessarily disadvantaged if you do not carry one out. Even if you miss out on a clerkship, many firms still offer graduate programs which you may still be eligible to apply for in your final year of study. Some firms also offer graduate programs to students who have completed their law degree, regardless of whether they carried out a clerkship.
It is also worth considering that clerkships aren’t for everyone, and there are plenty of opportunities to gain valuable work experience in legal (and non-legal) environments without having to going through a structured clerkship process. In fact, the vast majority of legal employers (which are small and medium-sized firms) don’t offer structured clerkships, and you should not feel that large commercial law firms are your only option. There are plenty of smaller environments and sole practitioners who are willing to provide equally valuable work experience and mentoring to students who reach out to them.