This is a rite of initiation really, or perhaps a recruitment exercise, rather than a job.
Summer clerks (once known affectionately as “Christmas beetles”) are generally taken on by law firms and other legal employers over the long vacation at the end of the penultimate year of their law degrees. There is a complicated system in every state: usually, there is some arrangement designed to prevent firms jumping the gun, so that after applications and rounds of interviews (you can tell the interviewees because they turn up in their interview clobber) and sometimes even a few cocktail parties, there is the magic day when the offers arrive or not, as the case may be.
I applied to 5 employers. I was knocked back by the Commonwealth DPP after an interview, even though I had won the prize for Criminal Law. This was possibly because (embarrassingly) I didn’t know what a voire dire was (it means a trial within a trial to determine the admissibility of evidence, generally conducted, if there is a jury, in the absence of the jury). I still think that was a rather silly question, because it was really just a matter of terminology: of course I knew the concept, but I didn’t know the term because at Sydney we didn’t do evidence as a subject until our final year. One other firm didn’t even interview me, and a third knocked me back.
I was older than your average student, but my academic record was good: it pays to do well at the beginning of your law degree because summer clerks are chosen on the strength of their results before the final two years of their degree, and most summer clerks then get employment offers at the end of the next year. I like to think that the clincher in my favour with one firm was my answer, when asked why I was studying law, that I liked to think of it as the first step in the long road back to West Pymble. I was living in Petersham at the time. In the end I chose that firm, where I knew more people (mostly from debating) and because they seemed more friendly.
That was probably a mistake. The firm I knocked back was a bit higher in the legal pecking order. I wasn’t really aware of the materiality of the distinction at the time, but it came back to bite me in the bum when I started work as a solicitor at the firm where I did my summer clerkship. If I had gone to the other firm, I would probably have received and accepted an offer there. By this time the “recession we had to have” had begun. The firm which I went to lowered the starting salaries of its recruits by $5,000 from the figure previously advised to us. This was the same figure as the other firm had foreshadowed, but the other firm stuck to their word. The deeper reason for this, I now believe, was because the other firm’s client base was just that bit better than that of the firm I went to and their financial position accordingly sounder. The moral? – Just as in real estate, the vital thing about a prospective legal employer is “position position position.”
This was the first time I had come up against serious private sector wealth – the swishness affected by private schools or university colleges was nothing in comparison, and though government departments spend enormous amounts of money, this is generally widely distributed or externally applied, and you don’t get much of an impression of luxury. The office was glamorous. We were wined and dined luxuriously. I was seduced by all this.
As I said, it was a recruitment and familiarisation exercise. We weren’t really capable of and didn’t do much serious work. I had my own brush with legal history when I attended a conference with a director of the by then terminally insolvent Bond Group(Alan Bond had been driven out by then) in relation to the group’s proposed Deed of Company Arrangement. I can’t say I made any particular contributions. All I can remember is that the deed was enormously long and complicated and was drafted in the old style without any commas and with even full stops few and far between other than at the end of paragraphs.
One bit of real work we all had to do was Discovery. Discovery is the process whereby parties to litigation are required to locate documents in their power and possession and disclose them (this is the relevant sense of “discover”) to the other parties, including by providing lists of those documents. The lists so compiled also generally serve as an inventory of the available documentary material for the party giving discovery. This is the bane of junior lawyers’ life. We were all rostered on for stints of a few hours at a time to go to a room where the documents were provided to us. Dictaphone in hand, we would then dictate a description of each document, such as:
“Letter dated [xxx] from [yyy] to enclosing [or attaching]:
(a) copy letter [etc]………”
There was a bit of a scandal associated with this, because an enormous long-distance phone bill was run up from the room and this needed to be accounted for. We all knew one of our number who was mounting a concerted campaign for an associateship at the High Court was responsible, but none of us dobbed him in and I don’t believe he owned up. He went on to get the associateship and is now a high profile opinionator and legal academic. I can’t say he ever seemed a very impressive person when I knew him, and I am afraid this just confirms my reservations about the sorts of people who get ahead in the world and how they get there.
Not everyone aspired to a summer clerkship. Wealthier students were inclined to jet off to Europe for the long vacation. They had cause to regret this later when the employment market tightened in the next year or so with the onset of the recession.
All of my cohort of summer clerks (I think about 15) were offered employment on graduation, and most of them accepted. I think possibly only 1 or 2 of them, at the most, still work at the firm.