The Scenic Route

by Peggy Kerdo

Image credit: wajan / 123RF Stock Photo

How easy is it to get swept away by someone else’s idea of success?

When I started law at the age of 35, I was crystal clear about what I wanted to do:  I saw myself as a lawyer working for people who were disadvantaged in some way.  I wanted to use my hard won knowledge for people who were lost or stuck in the legal system. I didn’t want to work in a corporate law (not that there is anything wrong about working in corporate law – it just isn’t my thing).

And yet in my penultimate year of law school, I found myself, like everyone else, madly sending out letters to all the corporate law firms in Victoria asking for articles.  Something had changed by this stage of my law degree so that my identity and measure of my ability and success was somehow bound up with whether I would be selected to work at a corporate firm.  I knew I would hate it.  I knew they would hate me.  And yet I applied.  And waited, in angst, for replies.

I got many, many, MANY rejections.  Most of them went something like this:

“Dear Ms Kerdo

Thank you for your application.

As you would be aware, we receive many applications at this time of year, far more than the positions we have available.  This year, we received 800 applications for the 2 positions that we have.

Unfortunately, you have been unsuccessful.  However, we wish you well for your career in the law and encourage you to keep us in mind once you have qualified.”

So polite, somewhat exasperated with the inundation of applications, but very encouraging nonetheless.

All except Firm X.

I knew as much about Firm X as I did the other corporate firms:  not much.  I wrote to them because they were on the list given to me by the law students’ society.  The response I got from them really took my breath away.  It went something like this:

“Ms Kerdo

We received your application for Articles with our firm.

From your resume, we note that you are not a Firm X type of person.

Accordingly, we will not be offering you an interview.”

I looked at my CV, full of things like “ Convenor of Women’s Law Collective” and “Indigenous Tutor” and “Law Clerk, Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service” etc.  Yep.  That must have been it.

As I write this, I smile:  it is really very funny almost 15 years later.  There is a part of me though, that still feels the drop of my jaw and the chagrin in my body at the arrogance of Firm X.  But they were completely right.  I am not and never have been, and never will be, a Firm X type of person.  (In fact, I reckon I could get a job now by putting on my CV that I am not a Firm X type of person.  Yes, I’m still blowing raspberries at Firm X!).

I did end up getting two interviews with very big corporate law firms.  Most of the time, we eyed each other warily and I answered questions on how I would deal with their client who was a uranium mining company (professionally) , or how I would go taking instructions from ‘young’ people (what the…?). They were puzzled at my lack of enthusiasm for their jarrah staircases and view of Melbourne. “What about your pro bono work?” I asked, a question that was not fashionable back then.

I didn’t get those jobs.  It didn’t matter. It doesn’t matter.  It really, really doesn’t.

Universities get lots of money from corporate law firms.   Law schools trumpet how many of ‘their’ law graduates got into Firm X, or Y or Z, as if this is a measure of the value of their teaching.  It isn’t.   Whether or not you get a job with the “Big” firms says nothing about your value, whether you are or will be a success (whatever that is), or whether you are cut out to practise law. It just says ‘Not now’.

If you really want to get into these firms, try the scenic route.

Someone I know really wanted to practice in the corporate sector.  Her marks were OK, but she didn’t get articles with a big firm.  She got articles in a boutique firm.  She worked very hard.  She loved her job.  She moved to a bigger firm, worked hard, loved her job.  She got into her favourite big (BIG) firm, worked hard, loved her job. She applied for partnership: No, they said.  No women partners here.  OK, she said.  She moved to another State where she knew the same firm had a less Neolithic approach and – became a partner.  Another person that is close to me was devastated from the continual traineeship rejections.  He finally decided to finish his last year of law part time and got a full time job as a senior policy officer in a Government department that had knocked him back for a legal traineeship.  He stated on the same day as the legal Trainee started.  The Trainee did the photocopying.  My friend, on his first day, wrote memos to Ministers.

All the way through, these two people did what they loved and kept focused on what they wanted.  They didn’t give up or see it as an irrevocable character failing when they received knockbacks.  They just picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, nursed their bruises, took a deep breath and away they went again.

So if you don’t get the traineeship, or the job, it will be OK.  It says nothing about your worth or your capacity in this profession. Just make sure you are doing what you really love and doors will open. You may have to take the scenic route, but you’ll get there.

Peggy Kerdo is a solicitor and lecturer at La Trobe Law School. Peggy is also currently a PhD candidate. Prior to her work at La Trobe Law School, Peggy was employed by Victoria Legal Aid in the field of human rights law, specifically in the areas of refugee and immigration law and mental health law. Peggy has also advocated on behalf of marginalised and disadvantaged members of the community and is passionate about access to justice. Her teaching focuses on clinical legal education, emotional intelligence and law reform issues that arise at the limits of the law.