“I think that lawyers, by nature, are incredibly driven. This can be a blessing and a curse.”
I am currently a Judge’s Associate at the Supreme Court of Victoria. Just a few months ago, I was a lawyer ‘in-between’ jobs.
As a child, I had always been interested in literature and the humanities. It was pretty usual to find me with my nose between a book, typically Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl. I progressed on to Jane Eyre at the ripe-young age of 11. How I dealt with the heavy content in that novel is anyone’s guess!
In terms of my background – I was born in Singapore and moved to Melbourne for high school at 12. My parents were set on giving me an all-rounded education (other than through rote learning) and Australia was the perfect choice. They valued education above all else, as they never had the opportunity to attend university themselves.
I settled in pretty quickly into my first year of high school in Melbourne. One of my favourite memories during those early years was watching Legally Blonde with a bunch of my girlfriends at school. We became obsessed with the vision of law it presented (which had absolutely no base in reality!) and dreamed of becoming lawyers… just like Reese Witherspoon.
It is funny how life can then take you in strange and unexpected directions. Around the age of 15, I became enthralled with science. My school encouraged us to take up work experience at a workplace of our choice. I decided that it would be a great idea to check out the Astrophysics Department at Swinburne University (back then I wasn’t fazed by rocket science, literally).
The entire experience was fascinating.
The astrophysicists at Swinburne University are still some of the brightest people I have ever interacted with to date. To top it off, they were all incredibly generous with their time and dedicated to science outreach/education causes.
I helped out with running simulations and basic C++ programming on a supercomputer to identify the likely orbits of different planets outside our solar system, known as ‘exoplanets’, around their star systems.
The aim was to pinpoint any exoplanets that had a high likelihood of hosting life beyond the Earth.
At this point, I was hooked on science – specifically Physics. I decided that I was going to be a scientist. After my work experience stint, I was offered a casual job by the Department to assist with an online astronomy program. The opportunity to work with brilliant scientists, many of them PhD candidates – if not already professors – was not to be missed.
It was an inspiring environment, and highly rewarding to assist with science communication, including theories about how the Universe began.
At the end of school, I had to make a choice about what I would do. It was a big decision at the time. I decided to take up a Commerce / Science double degree.
My Economics subjects were particularly interesting and touched on my longstanding interest in the humanities and how human psychology can ultimately affect various markets (not necessarily financial) in the physical world. During my undergraduate studies, I continued working part-time at Swinburne University.
A year into university, I gradually got the sense that my ‘true calling’ was not in the Sciences.
The realisation grew over time, particularly after every session of lab work where I had to frantically pencil up a report on my latest experiment.
The issue really came down to one of mathematics. I found that there was a disjoint between the science taught in high school (far more humanities-based) and science at university (far more quantitative).
For me, mathematics was never a passion.
I understood at this point that a lack of aptitude for pure mathematics would preclude me from finding success as a physicist later down the track. In an ironic twist of fate, it turned out that my backup plan to be an economist was also doomed to fail. This was given the importance of mathematical modelling in Economics, and a minimum PhD requirement, to secure any sort of job in the field.
It turned out that my Commerce / Science degree foray was a bit of a false start. In my third year of university, I made the difficult decision to drop my Science degree.
It was tough to let the dream go.
The most heartbreaking part was telling my colleagues at the Astrophysics Department that I wasn’t going to be a scientist anymore. Surprisingly, they took it really well. I am still in touch with some of them today.
From this moment, it was back to the drawing board – and to my original love of the humanities and reading. I found myself coming back to the old dream of law. I put in my application and sat the 4-hour Law School Admission Test Exam (otherwise known as the LSAT), which tests your critical reading, verbal reasoning, and analytical thinking. Sitting the LSAT feels like being put through a wringer and I could certainly feel a collective sigh of relief from the 300+ candidates at the end of the exam.
I was fortunate to get into the Juris Doctor (JD) program at Melbourne Law School.
The first few weeks were amazing and scary. Everyone seemed so intelligent and opinionated, it was intimidating. One of the interesting aspects of the JD was that everyone had a ‘previous life’ – most had an Arts/Criminology background, but there were also musicians, and a former Olympic rower!
I eventually settled into my studies and within six months, I knew that I had made the best possible choice. The intellectual rigour and social aspect of law was incredibly satisfying. Everyone at law school had a contribution to make about the development of law.
As a matter of practice, I found that law is not an area confined to the ivory towers of academia and there is in fact no great mystery about the subject area. I personally believe in greater law outreach/information for the general public, as it affects all of society and should not be viewed as arcane.
Towards the end of my 3-year JD degree, I embarked on a joint-degree partnership program with the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
I spent my final semester learning about Chinese business law in the bustling city of Hong Kong. I met a bunch of other exchange students from all over the world, including China, the Czech Republic, France, Germany and the USA. We had a fabulous time exploring Hong Kong together. It was also rewarding to start consolidating my knowledge on Australian law (of the common law tradition) and compare differences with Chinese law (of the civil law tradition).
It was around this time that the post-university reality of job hunting started to set in.
In the penultimate year of legal studies, law students have to take up internships known as ‘clerkships’ before they can secure a graduate job after university. It is a very stressful time for law students having to balance studies, their other work, and clerkship applications. It is incredibly competitive.
At the time, each of the larger law firms in Melbourne was getting over 700-1000+ applications and only accepting 30-60 applicants for clerkships that year. From the clerkship applicant pool, each firm only offered graduate jobs to 10-30 candidates, depending on demand that year.
I could feel the air change at law school during the application process – a heavy vibe of stress and panic.
Overall, it was not a pleasant time for anyone.
For the most part, I was lucky to have a wide network of friends outside of law school. This was pretty important for me to maintain a balanced perspective on life on the ‘outside’. Getting a clerkship was not a be-all and end-all for me. I believed that things would work out regardless, and was prepared to enjoy the process. I had a few interviews and managed to fill 3 clerkship places.
I believe that having a life outside of my studies and extracurricular activities played an important role in that result.
I was part of the university debating club, played tennis and was in a women’s networking group called 85 Broads. I didn’t participate in these activities with the aim of becoming more employable, but because I was genuinely interested in getting involved in other areas.
I also worked as an Economics tutor at Melbourne University and ran tutorials for first-year university students. I remember that it was a bit confronting, as the students would walk into the class to realise their tutor was only a couple of years older than them!
Upon finishing my studies, I was fortunate enough to secure a graduate position at a top-tier law firm in Melbourne.
I had a really great time in my graduate year. We had 11 people in my cohort, and it was such a great experience being able to share in both work and laughter. It was like being back at university in some ways.
I eventually settled in the commercial litigation group. We worked on general commercial litigation, insolvency and government regulatory work. As the litigation is often complex and often involves thousands, if not millions, of documents – the work has to be split in various ways.
Junior lawyers tend to work on document review and legal research, while senior lawyers tend to deal with clients and manage the overall running of the case. In this sense, how work is distributed and checked is fairly hierarchical in nature.
It is quite different from how smaller firms operate. There is certainly a trade-off between the experiences that one would get at a large versus a small firm. In a large firm, you would often be involved in a complex and high-profile case, which will almost always feature in the media – however, the downside is that you could feel like a small cog in a big machine as it is simply impossible to know every aspect of a complex case. Based on other friends’ experiences at smaller firms, they often get to work with their clients much earlier and have a better feel of how to run a proceeding.
I can say with certainty that being a lawyer is hard work (as with many other professions).
There is a lot of reading and you need to learn how to prioritise. Most of the time, it certainly is not as glamorous as the lives of lawyers in TV sitcoms from the US. One downside of starting at a big law firm is that you do not get a lot of face-to-face contact with client at the beginning. Even if you do get taken along to meetings, you might find yourself in the role of a glorified note-taker. However, I saw this as an opportunity to learn, to be a sponge and absorb all that was being said and done.
With that said, the work is certainly not for everyone. There is a lot of grunt work required to get a handle on a case. It is very paper-based. At any one time, I could be reviewing thousands of documents for a matter and only two may be truly relevant.
I however believe that these days may soon be behind us, as the nature of work changes with technology. A significant number of jobs that junior lawyers did then, and do now, will likely be carried out using Artificial Intelligence.
Personally, I enjoyed most of the work.
It was really interesting to be involved in some high-profile matters, some of them controversial. One of the best parts of legal work is getting a glimpse into human psychology, particularly on how people behave when facing adversity or disputes.
My favourite aspect of my work however, was for a legal clinic called Justice Connect. We did a great deal of pro-bono legal work at my firm for people who were homeless or at risk of homelessness, mainly in respect of ticket infringements or housing disputes. It was immensely rewarding to be able to help a client in difficult circumstances.
We got to act for clients who wouldn’t normally have access to expensive legal services, and we really saw the difference our work made. There is however much to be done in this respect as the legal system is inherently less accessible to those who cannot afford it. The lack of access to justice in our society is a pressing issue that desperately needs proper attention.
It is my hope that in my generation, we will be able to combine technology and expertise to deliver a platform that can address this issue.
After three years at my first firm, I decided that it was time for a new challenge.
An opportunity came up at another firm that worked mainly on mainly on arbitration and construction disputes.
Arbitration is different from litigation because it does not take place in open court. It is governed by a clause in a contract of the parties. This means that the general public will never know the intimate details and outcome of the dispute.
Arbitration is especially favoured in the construction industry because it is seen as more commercial, closed to public scrutiny, and parties can be in more control when managing their dispute. An arbitrator (or three, as it should be an odd number for a binding decision) would be appointed to resolve conflict between disputing parties. Arbitrators are usually ex-judges, law firm partners, or barristers who have expertise in the area in question.
It was a pretty intense year with a lot of early mornings, late nights and plane travel.
My average day was 12-16 hours in the office for months on end, often with work on weekends and public holidays. I had to travel interstate nearly every week for two months, which meant waking up at 4.30am on Mondays to get prepared before catching the taxi for the airport.
At some point, I realised that I needed a break. It is funny how things can hit you at the most unexpected of moments, and no matter how persistent in your planning – it all just gets thrown out of the window in an instant. It happened when I was in the office at 4am, thinking that maybe things could be done differently, when another lawyer mentioned that she probably should head home to make sure that her one-year old was OK.
That’s when I started thinking about leaving. It’s not that I didn’t want to work hard.
But I wanted to find greater purpose in my life than dealing with bottom-line profits and losses for a corporation while missing out on important personal life milestones. Unfortunately, the excessive hours put in by lawyers is an endemic problem in the industry, particularly at the larger law firms as this was the same for my friends working in other similar places. Often it means giving up on the important things in life, like taking care of your health and spending time with family.
I decided to put in my resignation after a year. I travelled Europe and then visited family in Singapore.
It was an important time to reflect and think about where I wanted to head in my next journey. Most of all, it was probably the first time in a long while that I did not have to be somewhere in a hurry or work late into the night. I think that when you are in a state of ‘busyness’, you can often lose track of what really matters.
I learnt a lot during my break, including the importance of meditation, self-introspection and being satisfied with less rather than more.
I think that lawyers, by nature, are incredibly driven. This can be a blessing and a curse. From law school, we are taught that we need to be impermeable. That we need to be strong, confident, perfect. So we put on this façade, and it’s really hard to break through that, to admit difficulties or struggles.
We forget we are human, with lives and families and friends outside of work that we have human obligations to. It is crucial to step back – and say, it’s OK to be human – and to be kind to yourself. I think that one of the biggest challenges that lawyers in private law firms face is the number of hours that they are expected to work to achieve their billable targets.
It is not difficult to see why mental health issues plague the profession as a consequence.
Again, I have a great hope that this will change over time with better technology in the mix and greater pressure to move away from the billable-hour to fixed fees.
After my travels, I returned to Melbourne with the intention of finding work with a social purpose. I was selective about my options and turned down a number of offers from recruiters to work in other law firms.
I had a number of interviews for legal roles with the Victorian Government and quite a number of rejections.
I had completely underestimated how competitive it was applying for government roles, even with a number of years of legal practice under my belt. It was an eye-opening experience. Up to this point, I hadn’t encountered too many rejections. It was humbling, and as weird as it sounds, refreshing. I felt that it was character building to accept rejections, to learn from them and to remain persistent.
Again, I believe that things have a way of working out in the end, if you are persistent (and with a bit of luck). I decided to apply for a role as a Judge’s Associate at the Supreme Court of Victoria. I was keeping my expectations low, given the number of government interviews I had gone to by that point which did not translate into an actual role. This time, the pieces fell perfectly into place.
Being a Judge’s Associate is a role like no other.
It is an incredible opportunity to learn from the best legal minds in the country. It is a particularly good move for those who aspire to become a barrister.
The Supreme Court of Victoria is a beautiful and historical building. The library, which is well-worth a visit, is open to the public. I am again on a steep learning curve and enjoying every moment of it. Most of all, I love the aspect of knowing that my work is in furtherance of a greater purpose – to serve the people of Victoria in achieving better justice outcomes, rather than solely about a financial bottom-line.
I don’t regret any of the jobs I’ve done so far.
They have been extremely valuable experiences, both in terms of gaining knowledge of law and the industry, as well as learning more about myself. Life can’t always be too easy, and it’s good to go through tough times to grow and develop. I’m grateful to be on the journey that I’m on now.