How can new lawyers start their careers during COVID?
16 September 2020

How can new lawyers start their careers during COVID

Published on 16 September 2020

The virus recession has been billed as one of the toughest and strangest, as the uncertainty of fluctuating lockdown sends ripples across firms and workplaces. While recent unemployment figures are less severe than expected, it is estimated that ‘real unemployment’ is closer to 10 per cent, or approximately 1 million Australians. As the pressure to bring in billables mounts, new lawyers can often be among the most affected by economic downturns. Insights spoke to Linda Kim Le, an AFR Top 100 Future Leader and Monash University law/commerce student who lost her paralegal job during COVID, about how she’s getting involved in volunteer projects, upskilling, and found new work.

 

The COVID lay-offs

Prior to the pandemic, Linda worked as a paralegal in a boutique firm.

“Like many others, the firm had trouble coping with lockdown and the transition to work-from-home was particularly challenging,” said Linda. Having been with the firm for almost two years, Linda was stood down alongside much of the paralegal team early in the pandemic.

“It was definitely a shock! I don’t think anyone in my team envisioned that we would be part of a world pandemic this year, nor did any of us expect to lose our jobs until we did,” said Linda. “I wish I could say that I stoically accepted the news, but the reality is that I cried my way through all of the awkward goodbyes and well-wishes, cried as I packed up my desk for the last time and all the way home.”

She had never expected to leave the firm prior to that moment, and had in fact been considering seeking a graduate position.

“In the moment, it felt like the rug had been pulled out from under me.”

 

Joining TLF Connect

Linda’s experience mirrored many Australians. As the nation entered a period of ‘economic hibernation’ to bend the curve and control the spread of the virus, Linda had an opportunity to reflect.

“I have always thought that there is good to be found in even the worst moments,” said Linda. “Though I did not know it at the time, losing my job was actually one of the best things that has ever happened to me. More than anything, it gave me the time and space that I needed to think, to dream and reflect. It was an opportunity to take a breath and step away from the noise of everyday life and weigh up where I was and where I wanted to be. It set me on a journey that would change my life forever.”

Shortly after losing her job, Linda stumbled upon TLF Connect, an initiative of The Legal Forecast. Setup by law students amidst the pandemic, the virtual mentoring program aimed to connect law students with leaders in legal innovation and technology.

“I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not great with technology,” conceded Linda. “My expertise is limited to turning things off and on again, and if all else fails, praying for a miracle!

“However, despite my limited knowledge, I have always been interested in innovation and technology – I mean, who wouldn’t be interested in something that could transform the way we do law forever for the better? Pre-pandemic, I probably wouldn’t have applied for TLF Connect because I simply did not have time; between uni, work and all of my extracurriculars, I had more than enough to keep me busy. Losing my job freed me to join this program.

“It changed my life, opening my eyes to a new and better way of doing law,” explained Linda. “Under the guidance of my mentor, Wenee Yap, I learnt about what exactly technology in the law looked like, the importance of challenging the status quo and the value of tenacity in the face of conflict. The program reignited my love and excitement for the law, how it was changing and what this meant for me.”

 

Letting go of the rigid five year plan

Linda admits the state of the job market is concerning.

“Early on in the pandemic, I lost a lot of sleep over the prospect of not having a job at the end of my degree,” said Linda. “But if there’s anything that I’ve learnt, it’s that life happens and it sucks, but it is what it is. I’m actually oddly excited. John F. Kennedy is often quoted as saying that when written in Chinese, the word “crisis” is composed of two characters: one represents danger, and the other, opportunity.

“This is actually a mistranslation. While the first character does mean danger, the second character by itself doesn’t actually mean opportunity – it means change. That’s what we’re seeing right now. The world as we know it is changing as a result of this coronavirus crisis that we find ourselves in. Yes, there is danger because the job market right now is terrible, but this crisis is also bringing with it change, and with change comes exciting new opportunities.”

Personally, the pandemic has shifted Linda’s approach to career planning.

“I have actively resisted the temptation of forming a rigid five-year master-plan of what my career must look like,” said Linda. “You have to recognise the uncertainty, and the face that the world around us is rapidly changing. I’m prepared to pivot to meet this change head-on.”

She has spent much time reflecting on her career path, her likes and dislikes, and what she wants and needs from work.

“I have also gotten particularly good at networking via LinkedIn and reaching out to people for virtual coffee catch ups, with the view of learning from them and forming meaningful connections.”

 

Identifying new opportunities in law

For new lawyers like Linda, who are entering the profession through clerkships and paralegal roles, the pandemic presents a chance to take a step back as the economy recovers.

“What we are seeing today is not necessarily a downturn in the whole of the legal market,” explained career expert Lisa Grey, Founding Partner of Tyler Wren. “If you are a new lawyer, it’s best to be flexible to expand your work opportunities and think outside of traditional paths.”

Pushing beyond traditional paths is exactly how Linda has responded to COVID.

“Despite being locked down, I’ve been embracing the upheaval and throwing myself headfirst in the midst of all this change,” explained Linda.

Through TLF Connect, Linda joined ASX-listed tech company thedocyard, which specialises in her favourite area of law, M&A. For a self-professed ‘M&A nerd’, it’s been an opportunity to understand how technology serves the profession.

“I also helped launch Bottled Law,  which was recently named Innovator of the Year Finalist at the Australian Law Awards! We’re a volunteer initiative that aims to connect legal innovators with law students interested in exploring and upskilling in legal technology. Our team comes from all over Australia, and we’re guided by an international advisory board.”

All in all, Linda’s experience reflects the rollercoaster of a strange and turbulent 2020. Her self-reflection and tenacity has unlocked new career paths and opportunities at a time when the legal profession itself is undergoing great change.

Her main lesson from the year of coronavirus?

“Embrace the uncertainty,” said Linda. “We’re experiencing unprecedented turbulence and uncertainty in the midst of the virus recession and digital disruption. Accept it. We can’t change these facts. What we can change is how we respond to it. You can cry and scream and wish it was different. Or, you can see it for the opportunity that it is and make the most of it. Say yes to putting yourself out of your comfort zone. Say yes to reaching out to people on LinkedIn and schedule virtual coffee catch ups. Say yes to new opportunities and challenges. Jump headfirst into the uncertainty, embrace it, and trust that everything will work out for the best.”