From HR to law?

by 16 Mar 2010

More lawyers are crossing over from alternate careers and taking the option of studying a Juris Doctor to get there, writes Briana Everett, and they're bringing the advantage of experience with them

With the recent introduction of graduate-entry law de grees, notably via the Juris Doctor (JD), the typical law stu dent is changing. So too will the typical lawyer - with the JD attracting students with a vast range of educational and profes sional experience - and a life before the law.

While most law firms now house a range of lawyers who have pur sued other careers prior to them joining the legal profession, the ad vent of the JD in Australia may soon mean it's more than likely such firms will become awash with individuals with alternative degrees, and careers - like engineering, medicine and communications.

Gone are the days when lawyers went straight from law school into practice and did nothing else. Now, a steady stream of lawyers with extensive qualifications in other fields and with years of work experi ence in completely different areas are entering the legal profession as JD graduates.

Associate Dean of Melbourne Law School (MLS), Pip Nicholson, says their new JD program - introduced in 2008 - aims to attract post- graduate students as well as those who've made big career changes.

And Nicholson believes the three-year, full-time program is trans forming legal education, attracting a diverse cohort that is different ly motivated to study law and discrediting the myths about what con stitutes a typical law student.

"What is truly transforming is the students' commitment, passion and focus for the study of law," Nicholson says.

The selection criteria for students studying the JD at MLS includes tertiary results and requires applicants to complete an 850 word personal statement asking why the applicant really wants to do law. Nicholson says the personal statement asks prospective lawyers to say who they are, what animates them and what the catalyst is for them applying to the program. "They're fabulous and surprisingly revealing," she says.

The graduate-entry degrees and other op tions available to fast-track entry into the pro fession, are attracting prospective lawyers who have made an informed decision to study law, having had time to explore other options and interests in other careers.

Freehills learning and development man ager, Georgina Brown, describes how the skills and experience obtained by graduate lawyers from outside the legal discipline bring a dif ferent style of thinking and "really round them out".

"We've certainly had some vacation clerks last year, a number of them who've done a JD … we're getting lots of applications in Perth from people doing JDs."

Janet Hansen, a lawyer at Herbert Geer, provides an example of just what the initial streams of graduating JDs might bring to the profession. While Hansen studied an LLB, she began her legal studies in her late thirties and brings a depth of work experience and ma turity that a typical graduate lawyer might lack.

Hansen found the transition into law, as a mature-age student, relatively easy. "I got on very well with the group I did articles with, so I didn't have any issues with the age dif ference at all. I'm still good friends with a num ber of them," she says.

Although her resume doesn't show years of legal experience, Hansen says she has plen ty to offer,

"Junior lawyers have done all this extra curricular stuff … but we don't have time. There are other things I can bring," Hansen says.

Prior to her legal studies, Hansen com pleted a bachelor of social science and a bachelor of arts in history, while also working in the insurance industry in medical mal practice and professional indemnity teams.

It was dealing with lawyers at a large insurance company that caused Hansen to say to herself: "I reckon I could do that".

So began her distance education at Deakin University, where she obtained her law degree while juggling full-time work and hav ing a family.

Starting at Herbert Geer in 2007, in the firm's workplace and in surance services team, Hansen says her previous work experience has "definitely helped" her to be a better lawyer.

Working on the client-side in insurance, and having dealt with many lawyers over the years, Hansen says she knows how frustrating it is when a lawyer doesn't stay in contact with a client. "That was always foremost in my mind. I always try to keep clients involved because I know that's really frustrating."

There were some challenges associated with switching to law at a later stage, according to Hansen, who explains how some people forget she's had a life before law and assume she's "starting out new". But Hansen says "once they get to know you that falls away".

Despite the challenges, Hansen doesn't regret taking the path she did and says, although she wishes she'd started earlier, "it's just sort of how life takes you".

Former Freehills lawyer, Nicole Stransky, also had a career before becoming a lawyer, entering the profession in her 40s.

Speaking to Lawyers Weekly about her fight against Freehills re garding claims of age-discrimination, Stransky, now 50, has a differ ent perspective to Hansen on entering the law later in life.

Stransky trained as a psychologist and forged a career in organi sational development and human resources, working with many na tional and international firms, before deciding to change careers and begin her legal studies in her 40s.

Achieving all her professional goals in the HR arena, Stransky says her desire for change instigated her move into the law. "I wanted a change. I had always been very interested in the law."

Starting her studies at Monash University after a successful ca reer in HR, Stransky "loved it" and "took to it like a duck to water", ending up with a Masters degree.

"I just adored [studying law]. It was very exciting."

And, like Hansen, Stransky believes her previous work experience was valuable and beneficial to her as a lawyer. "I had worked at ex ecutive level, which meant that I had worked with the board of a pub licly listed company," she says.

"That interaction with boards, and directors and senior members of organisations was very valuable," Stransky explains.

Stransky's difficulties and experiences as a mature-age lawyer will be examined in her battle against Freehills, due to be heard in the Vic torian Civil and Administrative Tribunal this June.

While the impact and value of the JD program for the legal profes sion is yet to fully be seen, the legal profession will become more diverse with more lawyers coming to the profession with significant experi ence in other fields, potentially adding more value than a traditional grad uate.

But, as Stransky's experience shows, not all lawyers who cross from alternate careers will have a positive experience.