Elle Woods

Unless your name is Elle Woods in 'Legally Blonde', landing a graduate position at a top tier firm these days can seem impossible. With a virtually unsustainable number of law students graduating and competing for limited jobs around the country, securing yourself a graduate position has become something of an arms race. So how do you stand out from the crowd when the majority of your peers have graduated with similar grades, experience and qualifications? Read more for four simple but effective strategies.

1. Plan Ahead: How Badly Do You Want It?

There is no getting around the fact that grades play an important role in the graduate selection process. When human resources teams sift through hundreds, if not thousands, of applications similar to yours, one of the first ways they separate the wheat from the chaff is to cull applicants based on how you present on paper. This could be where your Constitutional Law '51 pass mark' comes back to haunt you. Jacqueline, an Associate from the Sydney office of a global law firm, says:

"You don’t need to have a HD average, and of course practical experience will be taken into account, but at the same time a transcript full of low passes probably won’t cut it in todays’ extremely competitive market."

This means that you need to manage your expectations. Enter law school with your eyes wide open and with realistic ideas about achievable career goals. If working at a top tier firm is your ultimate objective, be conscious of the competitive market. Work hard to maintain a reasonably high GPA and give yourself a competitive advantage.

2. Be Strategic In Your Approach: Develop Undergraduate Industry Experience

While good grades are important to get over the first hurdle, they are not everything. Being dux of your graduating class will certainly impress a potential employer - but it does not mean that you have well-developed people skills, can fit with their team environment or are able to provide good client service. This is where practical experience comes in. For top firms, hiring you is a risk. They are outlaying time, training and resources on the promise that you will be a good long-term investment. By building undergraduate industry experience, either through volunteer work or extra curricular activities, you are demonstrating a willingness to invest in yourself. This not only helps to highlight your work ethic, dedication and commitment but also reduces the resources they need to allocate to train you. It could be the difference that nudges you ahead of another applicant.

"For me, practical experience and networking were key to landing the job. I had already worked in a number of legal positions: as a conveyancing clerk for a high street firm and as a volunteer at my University's legal service. I also spent 12 months working in Canada; and worked on a legal project with the Federal Government. I learned more in those roles than I did during my entire degree and the people I met opened doors for me" says Jacqueline.

3. Knowledge Is Power: Experience Can Open Doors You Didn't Expect

There are other reasons it is important to consider pursuing practical legal experience. Unlike State and Federal government departments, many top firms do not run graduate recruitment processes. Instead, graduates are selected from the previous year's pool of summer clerks. Therefore, having a solid foundation of prior experience, such as a summer clerkship, is crucial in developing industry relationships and gaining key insights that may help streamline your path into private practice.

"The recruitment process for summer clerks can be quite competitive and usually consists of several rounds including an information night, first round interview and second round interview. There may also be a “social” round, for example, a cocktail night where HR can see how the potential recruits interact and communicate. Generally, if you successfully secure a summer clerkship and work well during your time with the firm, you are offered a graduate position after graduation. Still, it’s no guarantee" says Jacqueline.

4. First Position: Refining Your Application

To secure that first interview you need a rock solid application. Pay attention to your structure, tone and content. Does it present you in the best possible light? Jacqueline offers a few important tips:

a) "A good covering letter is essential. Make it punchy; b) If you have previous legal experience, great. If not, make sure you highlight any transferable skills you learned in your previous employment. (E.g. ability to manage competing demands and working well under pressure; supervising a team; good customer service etc); c) Proof-read your application a thousand times. Then have someone else proof-read it a thousand times."

In finalising your application, a worthwhile exercise is to try putting yourself in the shoes of the person who will receive it. It is likely they have waded through countless cover letters and CVs using identical templates by the time they read yours. How will you make your application stand out? What would catch your eye? Consider your formatting and use of colour and remember to include a high resolution image of yourself. Most importantly, show your personality! In many cases, your success in landing a big interview, clerkship or graduate position boils down to your ability to market yourself as an attractive product worth the investment.

This week's guest post is by Sarah Lynch. Sarah is a Barrister & Solicitor and founder of Bucket Orange Magazine - a Sydney-based law and life hacks publication inspiring young Australians to live smart. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.