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.

Vocation

by Peggy Kerdo

Peggy 2_Pic

“Follow your bliss. If you do follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while waiting for you, and the life you ought to be living is the one you are living.

When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in the field of your bliss, and they open the doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.

If you follow your bliss, doors will open for you that wouldn’t have opened for anyone else.” Joseph Campbell

There are lots of reasons why people become lawyers.

Some people do it for the money and power.  Some people do it because their parents want them to be a lawyer. Some do it because they got the marks, and medicine was out because they suck at maths. And some see law as their vocation.

The word ‘vocation’ comes from the Latin noun ‘vocatio’ or ‘vocare’, which means ‘to call’.  So a vocation is a call to a particular type of work.  The Oxford Dictionary describes it as “…a person’s employment or main occupation, especially regarded as worthy and requiring dedication.”

When I was about 15, I felt a ‘call’ for the first time.  It was a summer’s night and my father had closed the Milk Bar, piled us all into the Holden and taken us for a drive to the back beach at Williamstown. I was an angry teenager, desperately unhappy, bursting for some freedom, some experience of the world. I stood at the water’s edge and it seemed to me that out there, on the black horizon, was something – something calling.  I felt the pull of the call in the middle of my belly and strained to understand what it was, and how to get to it.  What I knew for sure was that there was something ‘more’ than my tiny restricted life, and I resolved to find that and live it.

When I finished high school, I got into university and left 4 years later with a science degree (I had wanted to be doctor – but that’s another story). Then, over the next 14 years I did the following:

  • Diet kitchen supervisor at the Children’s Hospital;
  • Nursing (didn’t finish);
  • Accounting (didn’t finish);
  • Marketing (didn’t finish);
  • Child Psychology (didn’t finish);
  • Women’s Trade and Technical Course (finished it!);
  • Pre-apprenticeship in Carpentry (finished the pre-apprenticeship only.  But I can use a nail-gun!).

In amongst all this, I got married, had 2 children and got a divorce.

Nothing stopped the yearning I felt in my belly, not even having my kids.  There was something more… something more… something.

I went back to university and did some subjects in marine biology, which were a joy and inspiration.  I loved the work; the scholarship.  But after a year or so, I realised that my interest was leading me to be one of only three people in the world focusing on a particular type of unicellular red algae.

While I am all for knowledge for knowledge’s sake, I realised that this was not enough.  But what was? So I made a pact with myself to just stop for six months.  I thought that perhaps, if I stayed still for a while, something would come to point the way to ‘the call’.

And it did.

During my six month hiatus, I read ‘A Secret Country’ by John Pilger and was shocked to my core.  The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody had been released for a few years, and I read that too.  At the end of my self-imposed mini-exile, I turned up at the offices of Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service, first as a volunteer, then as a clerk.  Eighteen months after that, seeing what the lawyers did, I applied for and got into law at the age of 35. I was admitted to the profession when I was 40.

The discipline of law school honed my mind into a discerning, focussed tool. My training gave me knowledge and skills that I could use to advocate for disadvantaged people. The power and status of the profession gave me instant authority in the eyes of the community. I had a weapon that I knew how to wield.  I had a voice that would be heard.

And the yearning stopped and I have never experienced it since.

The law gave me back my power.  It is a gift that I dedicate to improving the world, perhaps just a little bit, by advocacy or through teaching. It is more than a job, more than money or kudos.  It is part of my bliss, the vehicle of my vocation:  a call that I answer.

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.

Competing with Experience

Q:

Hi newlawyerlanguage – this week I had an email for a Junior Solicitor’s role in a boutique firm specialising in strata management (which I hadn’t heard of but Googled extensively before the interview). I connected well with my would-be employer, she was friendly, professional and seemed to think the same of me. I sent a predictable but friendly email saying ‘nice to meet you today etc etc’ later that afternoon. The next day and to my surprise (I thought I nailed the interview) I received the email I know so well, the ‘Dear Sylvia …. unfortunately….we wish you well in the future.” I was upset and defeated – I wrote back asking why I wasn’t picked and (rubbing salt in the wound) my never-to-be employer said I was great, very presentable and articulate, but someone else had direct experience in building dispute and strata management law (who is this person??).

My question to you is how am I supposed to compete? I’m doing everything I can to make myself employable but it’s not working. I’m anxious whenever I open my email because I know I’ll have at least a couple of “unfortunately” emails. I know the “see how it goes…be patient…accept things you can’t change” kind of advice is sound and I take it on board but I’m interested in why there are 50 legal secretary jobs for every 1 junior solicitor job advertised and how I’m supposed to get myself a job with those odds.” Sylvia 😦

A:

Dear Sylvia,
I remember being overjoyed as a new lawyer to land a job in a small boutique law firm. All went well until I asked the partners one day why they had hired me. To which they casually replied: “there was only one other applicant actually and he annoyed the hell out of us. His whole CV ran for pages. He’d done everything. Who wants someone like that working for them?”

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear! And here I was running about telling everyone how brilliant I must have been to land the job!

And how annoyed must he have been?

You ask how you can compete with experience. You can compete with experience by being willing to learn.

Some employers want someone who is new and able to be trained to their liking. It really depends on the employer but as a new lawyer you need to work on your strengths. Your strength is being a recent graduate who would be grateful for the work you get and eager to learn how to be a great lawyer. So it didn’t work for this job. That doesn’t mean it won’t work for the next.

You next ask why are there 50 legal secretary jobs for 1 junior solicitor job. Unfortunately, it is a reality of our workplace that there are more lawyers graduating from law school than there are lawyer jobs. It is also a reality of our workplace that for every lawyer there needs to be at least two secretaries. Or, so it seems! At the Bar there is a paucity of secretaries and we manage quite well but it appears that there is not a solicitor in practice who can get by without half a dozen assistants answering their phones, writing their letters and transcribing their musings from a Dictaphone. Goodness gracious! How do legal secretaries put up with it?

If you are ever thinking of applying for one of these jobs come to me first so I can tie you to the clothes-line before you have a chance to send in your application.

Oh, and Sylvia…see how it goes.  Be patient. Accept things you cannot change…Arna 🙂

Lights! Camera! … Please Take a Seat This Could get Boring

By Arna Delle-Vergini

Gloria

Recently I almost had cause to change my entire career. Sort of. Maybe. Quite possibly. Perhaps not. Well, not at all really.

It happened innocently enough. It was a Friday afternoon. I was casually reading a copy of ‘In Brief’ (newsletter for Victorian Barristers) when I saw it: a call-out for all interested barristers to audition in a ground-breaking, all- barrister cast, of ‘12 Angry Men’. You may remember the 1957 American movie produced by Reginald Rose and starring Henry Ford. Or you may be too young to remember or even care. Suffice it to say ‘12 Angry Men’ is a classic, up there with ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. How could I say ‘no’?

More importantly, how could I deny BottledSnail Productions (the company producing the play) my talents? Afterall, did I not play ‘Kate’ in the High School Production of ‘Kiss Me Kate’? And did not my mother and other disinterested spectators suggest that Cole Porter himself would have been proud of my rendition of a newly married shrewish harpie?

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