Nick Dowse: 6 Tips for Doing Well at Law School

Recently [sic] I was one panelist of five at QUOTALS’s [now defunct?!] “The Panel” event. It was an opportunity for students to speak with and ask questions of people who’ve successfully made it through law school and who had begun their careers.

I got to thinking about how that opportunity had not been available to me when I went through law school and I thought I would try to compile a list of tips for doing well at law school.

Tip 1: Be Committed to the Study of Law

I saw a lot of people drop out of law school or do extremely badly simply because they were not committed to studying law. In some cases they were simply not committed to studying per se.

What I wish someone had told me at the outset is that law school is not easy. An appreciation of that fact before you get too far in is critical.

Other degrees are easier than a Bachelor of Laws. If you want to do well at law school, you’ll probably have to wind back on the uni bar booze sessions and weekend escapades a bit.

Law school requires something more than a cursory application of intellectual effort. If you cannot commit to something more than that, you will probably not do too well at law school.

That means attending lectures, participating in tutorials and actually spending time studying.

Tip 2: Make Friends

When I first started my law degree, I was very shy and did not have any friends. I didn’t make my first real friend until maybe my second year. I realise now that I should have made more of an effort to make friends in my first year. It is so important to be able to talk to friends about law school assessment and issues. I did poorly in my first few assignments because I didn’t talk to other people about what they thought the issues were in the assignment question.

I think it’s very important to have some friends, or study buddies, to bounce ideas off for assessment and to share the trials and tribulations of law school.

The friends I made in law school are my best friends in the world. Make friends early on.

Tip 3: Try Hard, Right from the Start

This links in with tip 1.

No one told me how important a good GPA was to a career in the law. There are many people that will say that your GPA is not everything, and that’s true. But it’s a bloody good starting point.

And the trick to having a good GPA is to try hard right from the start. I don’t know much about maths, but it seems to me that if you start off with good marks its easy to maintain a good GPA. You will do yourself a big favour if you start off your GPA with 6s and 7s.

The question is, then, what do I need to do to try hard? Read on…

Tip 4: Don’t Study Hard, Study Smart

At first blush, this tip seems to conflict with tip 3. But it doesn’t.

What someone did not make clear to me during my studies was that there is a big difference between studying hard and studying smart. It is one thing to read every case cover to cover for every subject and have a superb understanding of the subtleties in each of the judgments. It is quite another to look only at the headnote of a case, an analysis of it in a textbook and a summary of pertinent points someone has written in their notes.

In my experience, I could do as well on an exam as a person who had read the case cover to cover even though I had not done so myself.

To that end, I recommend you start with what someone has done before you.

I do not see any need to reinvent the wheel when you study. If someone before you has been generous enough to give you their notes, my view is that you would be crazy not to utilise them. There is simply not enough time available to you to literally start notes from scratch and read every case and every textbook and every article each semester. For that reason, I suggest that you start with someone else’s notes for the subject.

“Starting with” someone else’s notes is not the same thing as printing them out and relying solely on them to answer exam questions. That’s not studying smart; that’s just stupid – refer to tip 1. Starting with someone else’s notes still requires you to try hard and study smart. So, what then does “starting with” mean?

Tip 5: Update and Consolidate

If you’ve followed tips 1-4 you should have available to you by the end of the semester at least the following:

  • lecture slides
  • notes taken from the lecture
  • study guide
  • textbook
  • tutorial questions and answers
  • someone else’s previous notes

To best prepare for your exam, you need to take the above information and update then consolidate it.

This is the process I followed:

  1. Topic by topic, read through the lecture slides and the notes taken from the lecture
    Have the previous notes with you during this process and make sure the same information is in the notes. If not, add the relevant information to the notes in the appropriate spot. Support the information from the lecture with info from the study guide, textbook and tutorial answers
  2. Check that the topics mentioned for the topic in the study guide were in the lecture and are consequently in the notes. Update the notes where necessary.
  3. For each topic, look through the information in the notes and make sure you understand it. This is the most time consuming part – you actually need to understand what the information is. This may involve reading the relevant section of the textbook, or actually reading the section of the statute or the relevant passage of the case.
  4. Find the tutorial question(s) that applies that particular topic and see how the answer should go
  5. Make sure the notes answer the question in the same way – ie the flow of information in the notes matches the way the tutor answered the question. If they don’t, change them around so that the information appears in the same way the tutorial question was answered.
  6. Rinse and repeat for each topic in the subject.
  7. By now, you should have an updated set of notes.
  8. Go through each of the tutorial questions and answer them using only the notes. No need to write full sentences, just do dot points.
  9. Cross check your answers based solely on the notes with the actual tutorial answer. They should be roughly the same. If not, adjust the notes so that they are.

Following this process should allow you to update an existing set of notes. In the process, you will also consolidate the information from the lectures, tutorials, textbooks and study guide into the notes so that they can be your sole point of reference in the exam.

Tip 6: Learn How to Answer Exam Questions

The correct way to answer exam questions is a skill that you can, and must, learn. It’s like riding a bike: it’s not something you know how to do naturally, but once you pick it up, you’ll always remember.

The essential starting point is to adhere to one of the numerous acronyms that guide you through an answer. ISAAC, IRAC etc etc.

Practice is key. Take the opportunity to do as many practice exam questions as possible. Run your answers past your tutor to make sure you got the right end of the stick (sometimes subjects even make the suggested answers available).

In exams, I never write in full sentences, and I never waste time writing out full citations. Just write enough detail for the examiner to know you know what you’re talking about and the shorthand version of the case authority (no year and citation etc, just party names).

Nick Dowse is a 2010 QUT law graduate. This post originally appeared on Nick Dowse’s blog here. Reproduced with permission. 


Professional Networking for Law Students: Interview with Elizabeth Lee

Law students and graduates are often advised to network in order to get ahead during and after law school. Putting this advice into practice, however, is not as easy. What does networking really involve? Elizabeth Lee, lawyer and academic, kindly gives us real and frank feedback on some common networking questions.

BB: You’ve had a very varied career.  Just to give us a bit of context, do you mind telling us a little about your journey from law school to where you are today?

EL: I was fortunate to work in a personal injury law firm (then Gary Robb & Associates, now Slater & Gordon) from second year of law school which is where I started making legal networks – with solicitors on opposing sides and barristers that we would brief.  Whilst I was at ANU Legal Workshop, I was a Legal Officer with the Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department then a lawyer at the Australian Government Solicitor where I spent a year in their Commercial Disputes Team.  The majority of my legal practice career was as a commercial litigation lawyer with Meyer Vandenberg Lawyers, Canberra’s largest independent law firm.  I moved to academia about 6 years ago, after a year of tutoring casually whilst practising.  In between, I’ve had the privilege of holding the positions of Chair of the ACT Young Lawyers Committee, Chair of the Australian Young Lawyers Committee, Councillor of the ACT Law Society and in September this year, I was elected Vice President of the ACT Law Society.

I have also been heavily involved in politics and stood as a candidate in the 2012 ACT Election (where I unfortunately narrowly missed out on being elected) and in the 2013 Federal Election.

BB: What role has networking played in your career?

EL: A huge role.  I made my first networks as a law student, whilst working part-time at Gary Robb & Associates and those networks have stood me in good stead to this day (the solicitor I worked for then is now a barrister at the ACT Bar).  The job I got as a commercial litigation lawyer at Meyer Vandenberg Lawyers was through an introduction by one of the Partners I met at Gary Robb & Associates who had moved to Meyer Vandenberg Lawyers.  A barrister I briefed while I was a lawyer at Meyer Vandenberg Lawyers, who I stayed in touch with, is now the Chief Magistrate of the ACT.  In a small jurisdiction like Canberra where it seems “everyone knows everyone”, having a good, supportive network is an essential benefit to young professionals embarking on their career.

BB: A common perception of networking is that it means ‘using’ people.  What are your thoughts?

EL: I am not familiar with this perception.  I understand it but it’s not something that I’ve ever had to deal with (either being accused of or me thinking it) and it’s not something I agree with.

True networking is establishing and building a support base of colleagues that mutually respect each other; that share common professional goals and values; and that want to support and build each other up.

You should never network with the motive of only doing so because you think you’re going to get something out of it.  This is not how networking works.  Most people are pretty intuitive and will be able to see through those who are “using” them.  In fact, I would encourage young professionals to think the opposite – instead of thinking what you can get out of the people you’re networking with, what is it you can do for them?

BB: A lot of students and grads feel like they can’t get bridge the gap from meeting someone at an event to getting a job.  How do you suggest people make a good connection beyond the event?

EL: First, stop thinking that everyone you meet is someone you can get a job out of.  If you’re too desperate, you’re not a very attractive person to network with; and this comes across in the way you put yourself out there.

Second, follow up on connections that you make.  If you exchange business cards, send a follow-up email within the first few days with a reference to where and how you met. Make sure to personalise the email – for example, if you spoke about their pet cat or their last holiday to Bali or their plans to go to the US next month, make a reference to it.  Don’t send off a whole bunch of “pro forma” emails – people see through these (no matter how clever you think your automated messages are).

Third, be courteous and polite.  I have had numerous experiences of people contacting me with no introduction (no reference to where they met me or how they got my contact details) and launch straight into “can you give me some advice”; not only is this abrupt and affronting, it also gives me absolutely no context of their background, their desires or ambitions.  I have also had numerous experiences of people who have done this, I’ve taken a lot of time and great care to give them detailed advice and I never hear from them again.  A simple response thanking them for their time is an absolute courteous minimum.

BB: What are some of the networking strategies you’ve used or seen?

EL: There are no “strategies” to networking.  The word “strategies” connotes that networking is only a means to an end and this simply not the right way to look at networking.

What I can give you are some tips on what I have found, in my experience, to be effective ways of networking.

So, first, I repeat – there are no strategies.  You need to be yourself.  I cannot emphasise enough that most people will see through you if you are not being genuine.  You cannot treat people with disrespect and expect them to do you any favours.

Second, genuinely take an interest in the people you are networking with – not as a means to an end but a genuine interest.  If you take the focus away from what you want out of the connection, you will see that most people you meet on a daily basis have fascinating backgrounds and experiences and you can learn a lot from them.

Third, take every opportunity – networking happens anywhere and with anyone.  Don’t “suck up” to the people in positions of power and treat the people who are not, in a way that is any less than respectful and professional.  You don’t know what anyone’s individual journey has been like or will be in the future.

Some of the little tips that seem so obvious but people don’t always follow – be wary of your body language (be open and engaging and make eye contact); try and remember people’s names; ask questions about them and their interests; ask follow-up questions when they’re talking, not just wait for them to finish and launch into a story of your own; don’t interrupt; and be professional.

BB: Is there anything that students wouldn’t expect about networking that you think they should know?

EL: Networking isn’t something that happens naturally to everyone; but it is something that should be organic.  You cannot manufacture genuine interest so it starts with your own attitude.

It is also not about being the most outgoing person in the room.  Networking is most effectively when done when you make a true connection with someone and usually it takes some level of individual attention and communication.

A huge aspect of what I do when I am networking is to help others create networks.  Being able to introduce my colleagues and friends to other members of my network is something that I take a lot of joy in doing.

I was at a function last year where the guest speaker gave us a tip on networking which has stayed with me – he said don’t just find some info about the person you’re networking with but find out what their dreams and ambitions are and think to yourself, what can you do to help them make their dreams come true?  And I don’t mean this in the sense of throwing the question out there with no intention of ever following up; and on the other end of the scale, I don’t mean you drop everything and sacrifice your life to help a random person achieve their dream but if you know someone who is in the industry that they are wanting to pursue – can you do something simple like introduce them?  Sometimes, this is enough.

Strong networks take a long time to build.  One follow-up from first meeting won’t do it. It takes time and effort.  And make the effort and put in the time before you expect it of others.

Want to be a Human Rights and Pro Bono Lawyer? Interview with Emily Christie

Human rights law is a particularly popular area of interest for many law students. Luckily, we were able to chat to Emily Christie, a human rights and pro bono lawyer with DLA Piper who has generously given us some very real insight into the practice of this area in Australia.

Hi Emily. Thank you for doing an interview with us! To start, would you mind telling us a little about yourself. How did you go from your student days to your current role?

To be honest, it took me a while to get around to doing a law degree. My first degree was a Bachelor of Liberal Studies (a combined arts/science degree) at Sydney University which I absolutely loved. I had an interest in health, women’s rights and international development so, after about two years of travelling and working, I enrolled in a Masters of International Public Health. By the time I finished I figured my skills would be better suited to helping women through the legal and policy sphere rather than in health programs and so I started a law degree. Between studying and travelling I didn’t finish university till I was 29.

I started at DLA Piper as a seasonal clerk in 2009. I chose DLA Piper as it was known to have an excellent pro bono practice and a health law practice. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do after law school and a seasonal clerkship seemed like a good way of testing the waters. I enjoyed it thoroughly and from there I worked as a graduate, primarily in the pro bono team. I eventually moved into a full time pro bono role,  working on a variety of matters from human rights, to discrimination law, stolen generations cases and general pro bono management. For just over a year between 2013-2014  I was seconded to the Human Rights Law Centre in Melbourne. Since then I’ve been helping manage the pro bono practice for DLA Piper in the Asia Pacific region and working on any pro bono human rights matters that we take on.

How would you describe the lifestyle of a human rights lawyer compared to other disciplines, such as corporate?

There is no one format for being a human rights lawyer but I can answer for my own lifestyle. Like many lawyers not all my time is spent on human rights, and at least half my time is spent helping managing our pro bono practice in the Asia Pacific region.

When I do work on human rights cases, the differences aren’t as many as people may think. I’m a lawyer, which means my job is to understand, interpret and advise on the law, it’s just that my area of law is human rights. Like all lawyers, I have clients for whom I provide advice or represent before various forums. I take instructions and advise accordingly. It can be long days sitting in front of a computer reading reports and case law.

In Australia we don’t have a Commonwealth Human Rights Act, so protecting people’s human rights either means finding other laws which can achieve the same ends, such as discrimination laws, administrative law and so forth; or it means utilising UN Human Rights treaties and the treaty bodies. It also means that the job market here is small. For most lawyers, if you’re interested in human rights it either forms a small part of your practice or you work overseas.

One major difference would be that when working in human rights you’re often working as part of a larger project to bring about systemic change. This can mean that you may work with clients on not just a particular legal case or advice, but assist with the larger strategies around effecting change, such as media, education and law reform submissions.

What are the most common issues you deal with in your practice?

Our law firm has a focus on indigenous rights, child justice, LGBTI rights and gender based violence. At the UN level we’ve assisted organisations and individuals to advocate for improvements to LGBTI rights, rights for persons with disabilities, issues around religious discrimination and even arbitrary detention for someone facing extradition. A few years ago we assisted with a freedom of political expression case, while last year we were in the High Court helping Norrie who does not identify as male or female. Currently we’re assisting a client with a case under the race discrimination act.

Human rights law is constantly developing , particularly in the areas of sexual orientation and gender identity, or in gender based violence cases. A large area of development is in the business and human rights space – it’s still very new and companies are only just starting to put together human rights policies for their operations, so it will be interesting to see how it develops.

What are some things that students might not expect about human rights practice, that they ought to know?

That on a day -to-day basis what you’re doing is the same as any other form of law. You’re gathering evidence, interpreting laws, sometimes down to arguing the meaning of a word or phrase. It can also be frustrating at times, particularly as UN decisions are non-binding, so a win at the international level is often only the first step in achieving change at the local level.

That being said, it’s also incredibly rewarding and interesting. You’re assisting individuals and organisations trying to change the system for the better, however small or large that change is. Often the issues you look at are fundamental questions around ethics, justice and social policy

From your perspective, what are some of the biggest human rights issues facing Australia?

From a legal perspective I believe one of the main issues is the absence of Constitutional protections of human rights. We are one of the only western countries without some form of human rights legislation. Such protection acts as a check on government power, preventing the legislature and executive from breaching our human rights, either through law or policies. The current debates around meta-data and data retention would be very different if there were a recognised right to privacy; it’s possible that the discussions around marriage equality could be resolved quickly if the constitution protected against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation; a protection of the right to health and freedom from arbitrary detention would assist lawyers working on refugee rights; and constitutional protection against discrimination may affect policies and actions around indigenous incarceration, life expectancy and access to services in remote communities.

Photo by Alex Gulbord.

Then there are those issues that aren’t always identified as  human rights concerns. Domestic violence and mental illness affect a huge proportion of Australians and yet funding and attention to both issues is woefully low. The United Nations calls gender based violence a form of discrimination against women and in Australia it affects one in three women, while individuals with mental health issues can face a plethora of human rights breaches, from arbitrary detention to forced medical treatment.

Lastly, how do students get to where you are?

Good question, and one I get asked a lot. My approach was to take any opportunity that looked interesting, internships, exchange, intriguing electives. Over time I gathered skills and experience in a variety of social justice and legal spheres. The more experiences and opportunities you take, the more will present themselves. That being said, there are a few key tips:

First, don’t listen to anyone who tells you you’re a dreamer, that you won’t get a job or that you’ll change your mind. No one ever succeeded by listening to people who said they couldn’t do something. It sounds corny but we all rely on others as a sounding board and we’re all vulnerable to peer pressure.

Second, work out what you like doing on a day to day basis and then figure out how to use that to help people: maybe you like working with lots of clients, in which case legal aid or a CLC might be for you; perhaps policy and research is your thing, so head in that direction;alternatively, if  you love international law, treaties and submissions, see if you can get a UN internship, or volunteer for a rights-based organisation; finally, you may  like commercial law but also want to do some human rights work, in which case apply for a law firm and put up your hand for pro bono.

Third, all roads lead to Rome – there are so many ways that you can change the world and not all of them are as a human rights lawyer. Legal Aid and Community Legal Centres are on the front lines every day helping thousands upon thousands of individuals in desperate need of assistance. NGOs, charities and peak bodies are often involved in law reform and legal analysis. For the vast majority of people who really need help, a lawyer with knowledge of credit and debt issues, criminal law, family law and housing will be able to help them far more than an intricate knowledge of UN treaties. Both are important in their own way.

Finally, study hard and learn the basics really well. At the heart of it you’re a lawyer and your case can be won or lost on the understanding of civil process or a well-crafted affidavit.

Legal Recruiter: Know How to Pitch Yourself

BB: Hey Rob. It’s good to finally get a chance to ask you about what you do since you’re not really the typical legal recruiter type. To start could you tell us a bit more about your background?

RF: Hey mate. Well I started out in the Australian Army pretty much straight out of school where I ended up working mainly in Training and Logistics. I was promoted to Captain, I got to travel the world, it was great. I was part of some pretty amazing things and did a lot of things not many people do, so all in all it was pretty good.

It was a good place to be as a young person I think, as it teaches you a lot about people and organisations, but after 13 years it was time to move on. So I did a Juris Doctor Law Degree at Bond Uni and went to the Queensland DPP where I worked as a clerk before being a Legal Officer for a short while, before getting into recruiting.

BB: What has been your experience moving into law from the military?

RF: I found there to be a lot of similarities, though this level of familiarity was diminished somewhat by the realisation that I essentially had to start again. My experience has been that my military and work experience pretty much means nothing in the eyes of the law as the system is really geared towards people starting early and staying in it for a long time. That came as a bit of a shock because I thought that my previous work experience might count for something, but it pretty much didn’t! But it’s been useful in terms of understanding organisations and knowing how people work.

There’s not a lot of leadership in the law and junior lawyers are treated pretty badly. When I compare my experience in the Army against my law experience, and the experience of those I see around me, I can definitely say that it was better being a junior officer in the Army than a law grad in today’s market, and that’s saying something!

BB: Are recruiters relevant for new law graduates? When should people start thinking about using a legal recruiter?

RF: I think getting a job is a full time job. Work is so busy that, as is the case in a lot of professions, you need help with things like managing your career and knowing what options are out there. It’s a bit like a major sports player needs a manager or agent. It’s useful for people who want to prosper in their chosen field to get professional advice as to how to go about it.

Not everyone has access to advice on how the law works. Some people have family in the law or they’ve got a big network of like-minded people who can explain the consequences of going into property or corporate, insurance or government. Each of these decisions needs to be done knowing what options might open or close down the line. And we’re free, so getting in touch early and establishing yourself towards a long term, strategic relationship is the way to go, even if it’s just for some advice on resumes or different firms.

BB: With all the graduates these days and so few jobs, how to do you suggest students find jobs in the legal field?

RF: My boss recently wrote an article where she said that it’s the worst time in living history to be a law graduate. She’s spot on. However, graduates shouldn’t get too focused and bogged down about the graduate market at the moment. The fact is that there are jobs out there and firms are always recruiting. There’s always movement in terms of maternity leave, sickness, people coming and going, so the market’s never completely static. One of my biggest pieces of advice is to stay positive. The Law needs good, positive people who are looking to help people, whether those people are billion dollar mining companies or a person selling a house. Good lawyers who can meaningfully engage with people and know the law are always in high demand. That’s my first point! And it also helps to have honours!

Good lawyers who can meaningfully engage with people and know the law are always in high demand.

I would say the best way to find jobs in the current legal market is make a plan for your career and start early. Marks matter. Fails are bad and can stay with you for some time, they should be avoided at all costs. But make your mind up early where you want to be in terms of Property, Commercial Litigation, Defendant or Plaintiff Insurance, Banking and Finance, Trusts, Family, Crime whatever and just go for that.

BB: What are some of the common mistakes that you’ve seen people make in the legal careers?

RF: I’ve got some experience in career suicide in terms of doing things one should not do as a junior person. Interestingly, and contrary to what I was saying before, I actually find the law to be a bit more gentle on mistakes at a junior level. I guess it’s the plus side of no one thinking about you too much, it means no one thinks about you too much. There are limits of course! Criminal acts are best avoided. As well as having a reputation for being hard to work with. Though such things are part and parcel of the wonderful world of work. And from what I see, most people get that.

The most common mistake is that people don’t know how to pitch themselves. Accumulating work or accomplishments to support a prospective role is part of being a professional person and will enable you to move in certain directions in the future. So keep in mind the role you’re doing and the work you’ve done. Use it to support a subsequent move in a certain direction. If you want to go for 1-2 Commercial Litigation role, have some examples of where you’ve done some commercial litigation. Put it in your resume (within confidentiality confinements of course). Know the % of your work so that you can say that you’ve done about 70% Property work, 10% Family, 10% Crime and 10% other things for example. That will point you towards what type of lawyer you are.

..keep in mind the role you’re doing and the work you’ve done. Use it to support a subsequent move in a certain direction.

You can’t be a bit-of-everything lawyer. You need to be a particular type of lawyer – 2 Yr Commercial Litigator – 1 Yr Property – 2 year Banking and Finance (rare as hens teeth!) or at least be able to be that lawyer at a particular time. Have a few versions of your resume, one for property, one for Commercial Litigation, one for Insolvency. Pick and choose from the wide range of work you do at a junior level.

BB: Excellent! Thanks for chatting with us about your work! If people want to get in touch with you, how should they reach out?

Yep, I’m at Naiman Clarke. We’re a specialist legal recruiter based in Sydney. I’m happy for anyone to touch base, get me on rflynn [at] or at 02 9233 7977. Find me on LinkedIn.