Just Give me the Job: A Guide to Developing Professional Skills and Applying for Legal Work

Note: This post is largely based on the ‘Careers Assistance for MLS JD Students: Professional Portfolio Guide 2013’

Whether it’s an internship at a public interest organisation or a clerkship at a commercial firm, making inroads into the legal profession can be a difficult process. Most publicly advertised positions (especially clerkships) receive tens, sometimes hundreds, of applications and the interview processes can be gruelling. For this reason, an appreciation of the professional skills that employers look for is an important asset, and might just make the difference when you’re going for your dream position.

This guide aims to demystify the application processes for work in the legal profession by providing an overview on some of the most valuable professional skills law students can have, and suggests ways that these skills can be demonstrated in a cover letter or resume. It also suggests ways that students can develop skills they may not have yet, which may be particularly valuable for students just starting their law degree.

Before we begin, it is worth emphasising this point: writing applications for internships clerkships or other positions, like writing law exams, is a skill. It is not uncommon for students to find that writing their first cover letters is a difficult, time consuming and stressful process, and it’s important to keep things in perspective. The more applications you write, the easier you will find them in the future. This means that although you might not be successful in every application you submit, in the long-run you are building your proficiency and confidence in an area that will become very important – especially as you enter the graduate-jobs market.

Let’s get started.

 

Research Skills:

Strong research skills are essential for work in legal practice or in legally related fields. The most important of these skills include the ability to locate and retrieve relevant information using a variety of technologies, databases and approaches, and the ability to draw on relevant primary and secondary sources for the purpose of research and analysis.

 How to demonstrate

Think of activities you’ve participated in or positions you’ve held that have required you to conduct research. Assessments in law school and undergrad, mooting competitions and any legal positions you’ve held (like as a volunteer paralegal at a Community Legal Centre) are a great place to start. When you’re referring to these skills in a cover letter or in response to selection criteria, try as much as possible to unpack the areas of law (or non-legal subject matter) you were researching and link your research skills back to your analytical skills.

How to develop

There are a number of ways you can hone your research skills both at MLS and elsewhere. These include:

  • Getting involved with the Melbourne Journal of International Law or Melbourne University Law Review in an editorial capacity
  • Registering for MLS Library Research Workshops
  • Undertaking elective units requiring/allowing preparation of substantive research papers
  • Participating in university or external mooting competitions (MULSS moot information here)
  • Taking the compulsory subject ‘Legal Research’, where you will be required to complete an 8,000 word research paper on a specialised area of law.
  • Seek work as a research assistant at the MLS Library or for a member of faculty

Further Information

 

Oral Communication Skills

At a general level, lawyers – like most professionals – require good communication skills. This may be in the context of articulating complex legal principles to a team of lawyers at a law firm, CLC or other organisation, making a presentation or pitch to a client, or arguing in front of a magistrate.

 How to demonstrate

Experience in relevant competitions (like witness exam, moots or debating) is one obvious way of demonstrating your oral communication skills. You might also draw on presentations you have given in the academic or work context, and experience you have had in discussing topical professional issues in the context of paid work, volunteering or internships. Compulsory assessments, like the oral presentation in PPL and the moot in Constitutional Law, are also a great starting point.

How to Develop

  • Participating in MULSS or external mooting, witness exam or negotiation competitions;
  • Applying for a role as a student tutor as part of the MULSS Student Tutorial Service
  • Participating in activities run by the Careers Development Service, such as careers consultations and mock interview sessions;
  • Volunteering for forums and initiatives where student speakers are needed (for e.g. JD Orientation or Open Day);
  • Getting involved in debating (Melbourne Uni Debating link here)
  • Practicing behavioural questions for job interviews

Further information

 

Written Communication Skills

Like oral communication skills, written communication skills are likely to be very important for almost all jobs for which you will apply. This is because professionals are required to communicate effectively with diverse people and in different modes. This will likely encompass being able to synthesize and summarise facts, articulate complex legal concepts in a different ways, and using correct grammar, spelling, referencing and citation.

How to Demonstrate

Mooting competitions (in particular the written submissions element) and your course assignments are, again, an obvious way of highlighting your written skills. Any office, paralegal or journal work is another great starting point. You may also draw on your essay-writing experience in your undergraduate degree.

How to Develop

Further Information

 

Professional Collaboration

The ability to collaborate professionally (essentially, to work well as a part of a team) is something employers commonly look for in prospective employees, particularly at the junior or graduate level. A person who works well as a part of a team will be able to develop and maintain productive professional relationships, and will have good interpersonal and communication skills.

How to Demonstrate

The syndicate tasks that comprise a part of assessment in Principles of Public Law, Constitutional Law, and Criminal Law and Procedure, and the paired assessment in Obligations are all examples of collaborative work in an academic context. More generally you may draw on employment (e.g. hospitality, retail or professional experience) or extra-curricular (e.g. student organisations or sporting clubs) experiences where you worked in a team to achieve common objectives.

How to Develop

  • Joining an extra curricular organisation (for e.g. the MULSS; the GLSA; the Later Law Student Network; De Minimis or Law Students for Refugees)
  • Organising your own independent study group with fellow students;
  • Participating in MULSS or external competitions that require you to work in pairs or groups (e.g. mooting, witness examination, negotiation)

Further Information

 

Leadership Skills

In many instances, prospective employers may want you to be able demonstrate that you have leadership skills, potential or aspirations. This may be the case even if you are not interested in pursuing a leadership role and the position you are applying for does not directly require it. Leading by example, demonstrating personal integrity and professionalism no matter what your role, are all desirable traits in the professional context, and can all be characterized as leadership skills. It should be noted, however, that unless you are applying for a leadership role, it is advisable to make sure you are not emphasizing your leadership skills at the expense of your ability to work well as part of a team and take direction as required.

 How to Demonstrate

Any team leader roles you have held (for e.g. captain of a sporting team; or supervisor in part-time employment) or groups you have helped organise are great examples of leadership.

How to Develop

 

Critical Thinking, Interpretation, Analytical and Problem Solving Skills [?]

As a legal professional, you will be required to analyse and interpret a host of primary and secondary sources including legislation and explanatory materials, case law, academic literature and policy documents. Familiarity with these sources, and an appreciation of their historical, political and conceptual contexts is therefore an important asset to have as a law student.

How to Demonstrate

Draw on ways in which you have been required to interpret, analyse and comment on different primary and secondary sources in your compulsory and elective units (in both the JD and undergrad)

How to Develop

  • Participating in the negotiation or mooting competitions run by the MULSS
  • Undertaking the elective units Jessup Moot or WTO Moot.

 

 Additional Links

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