What's your name and job title? What did you study? When did you graduate?
I’m Amber Hu, a solicitor at King & Wood Mallesons. I graduated with a Juris Doctor (JD) degree from UNSW in 2016. I also hold undergraduate degrees in commerce and arts from the University of Sydney.
Where did you grow up? What were some important stages in your life?
I was born in Shanghai and moved to Australia when I was 10, calling Sydney home ever since. I went to school in North Sydney, then went to the University of Sydney. During my undergraduate degree, I interned in Shanghai and Paris (while packing some travels in between internships). After graduation, I joined Unilever as an HR graduate. The highlight of my HR career was being the HR business partner to the Streets Ice Cream factory (fresh Golden Gaytimes are incredible!). After a couple of years in HR, I still couldn’t shake the feeling that what I really wanted to do was law, so I enrolled in a JD degree at UNSW. It turned out to be the best decision I have ever made.
How did you get to your current job position? For how long have you had it?
A large number of law firms hire through the annual clerkship process. During the penultimate year of our law degree, we apply for clerkship positions (a summer clerkship is an internship that runs for about two months in the summer holidays). Generally speaking, if you get a clerkship position, you will also be offered a graduate position with that firm when you graduate. Another bonus of doing a clerkship with King & Wood Mallesons (KWM) is that we are offered the option of casually law-clerking a couple of days a week throughout our final year of study. I started my summer clerkship with KWM at the end of 2015, and casually law clerked throughout 2016 while I finished my JD degree. I started with the firm full time in February 2017.
How did you choose your specialisation? Were you weighing up any other alternatives before choosing this specialisation?
Before starting JD, I thought I’d practice criminal or family law. I never really considered commercial law because I didn’t know what it involved – no TV show had ever been made about doing due diligence as far as I know! The clerkship process is what led me to seriously consider my future. During the process, I did a lot of research into the various paths a law graduate could take, and I was attracted to commercial law because as it turns out, there is a surprising amount of interesting fields under the umbrella of ‘commercial law’: from energy law to competition law, from large transactions to dispute resolution. Working at a large commercial firm also means that you will receive high quality, structured training and have lots of specialisations to choose from when it comes to making a decision about graduate rotations.
What was your interview process like? What kind of questions were you asked?
The clerkship process can be gruelling and time-consuming. Most of the firms follow the process of online application (sometimes a follow up by psychometric tests), first interview, second interview, offer. Dotted in between these steps are information sessions and cocktail evenings which you are invited to attend in order to find out more about each firm. Depending on how many firms you apply to, it can be quite a challenge to balance the clerkship process with university work, part-time employment and other life commitments.
My experience of interviews has been positive. Generally, the firms are interested in finding out who you are as a person, and whether you would be a good fit for their organisation. There were no trick questions, but you should be prepared to talk about everything you have put down on your CV, including any extra-curricular activities, work experience and hobbies. A couple of the firms will ask behaviour-type questions (tell me about a time you did ‘x’), but most firms didn’t. Most of my interviews were conversational and less formal than I had expected. I saw the interviews as an opportunity to showcase my personality and experiences to prospective employers because I wanted to work at a firm where I could be who I am.
Suppose a student was considering your career. What would you advise them to study? Are there any soft skills it would beneficial for them to develop? Should they pursue any sort of work experience?
A law degree is necessary if you want to become a lawyer, but here are my two cents on what to pair with your law degree: do something you actually enjoy! For example, if you are tossing up between a finance major only because you think it might help you get a job at a commercial law firm, and a history major because you are truly passionate about history, pick history. Whether you study arts, science, commerce or anything else, [it] will not make a difference as to whether you get a clerkship, because the firms expect you to learn everything on the job anyway. You are not expected to know commerce just because you want to work at a commercial law firm.
If you choose something you love, not only will you have a better time at university, you are also likely to get better marks – which does matter if you’re considering applying for JD. Plus, you’ll have something that genuinely interests you to talk about during clerkship interviews.
In terms of soft skills, communication and interpersonal skills are crucial if you want to be a good lawyer, given law is essentially a relationship-based service profession. These are also traits [that] law firms will be looking for during interviews.
Work experience certainly gives you an edge when it comes to applying for jobs, however, it doesn’t necessarily need to be in the legal industry when you’re looking for graduate-level positions. KWM has always highlighted that it is not the content of the job, but the soft skills you develop during the job, that is important. Also, never underestimate the value of volunteer work, for example, at community legal centres.
What does your employer do?
KWM is recognised as one of the world’s most innovative law firms, offering a different perspective to commercial thinking and the client experience. As a leading international law firm headquartered in Asia, KWM helps clients to open doors and unlock opportunities as they look to Asian markets to unleash their full potential. KWM has a team of over 2000 lawyers in 27 locations around the world and works with clients to help them understand local challenges, navigate through regional complexity, and to find commercial solutions that deliver a competitive advantage.
What are your areas of responsibility?
Depending on which part of the firm you work for, a junior solicitor’s role can be quite varied. Our projects team straddles across advisory and transactional functions, so the experiences you will get as a junior solicitor will be broad and interesting. There is a strong work share culture within the team so that junior solicitors have the opportunity to work with a wide variety of clients on different matters, thus developing a broad set of skills. During my time with the projects team, I attended meetings with clients, responded to client enquiries on legislative requirements, drafted memos and advice, and undertook the inescapable due diligence tasks that are due of junior lawyers. Outside billable work, the partners were supportive of my working on a wide variety of pro bono matters. One of my favourite on-going pro bono tasks is attending the Downing Centre as a duty solicitor.
Can you describe a typical workday?
A solicitor usually works on several matters simultaneously, with each matter stretching on for months (and sometimes years) – this is particularly true for large commercial law firms, though sometimes a discreet piece of work does come our way. Even though the matters may stretch on for long periods of time, we typically work under very tight deadlines for individual tasks. A typical workday, therefore, is usually very full (and long), spent jumping back and forth between the matters you are working on. You would almost never work exclusively on one task per day.
However, that doesn’t mean we are chained to our desks. I like to go to the gym when I have a quiet period during the day, and every team I have worked with have been supportive of wellbeing initiatives such as this. Also, I find KWM to be results-oriented: as long as the tasks are getting done when they are supposed to be done, I have not experienced any micromanaging when it comes to how I arrange my day. Other activities which take up my time apart from billable work include working on pro bono matters, attending training seminars, team meetings and catching up with colleagues over coffee.
What sort of person succeeds in your career?
A resilient person. Many people will tell you that law is a high-stress, demanding profession that encourages perfectionism and rewards pessimism. If you go into commercial law, you will be working very long hours and dealing with highly sophisticated clients. Other areas of law have their own challenges, such as the emotional toll one could imagine befalling a family lawyer. If you’re a litigator, you need to come to terms with the fact that the dice won’t always be loaded in your favour, and if you’re a transactional lawyer, you will likely have to operate on less-than-enough sleep the few nights around the time deals close. Developing the skills to deal with stress and bounce back from setbacks is crucial to succeeding in law.
What are the career prospects with your job? Where could you or others in your position go from here?
Law has a structured career path if you choose to stay at a law firm. You go from solicitor to senior associate, then either become partner or a special counsel. Many solicitors choose to join an in-house legal team after a few years at a law firm or to become a barrister. Some lawyers choose to undertake further studies and go into academia. Of course, some people move away from the law altogether, into fields such as banking, consulting, human resources, education and more.
Could someone with a different background do your job?
Absolutely, as long as they are proficient in the language in which they practice.
What do you love the most about your job? Which kind of task do you enjoy the most?
The best thing about my job is working in a challenging but supportive environment where we are afforded great learning opportunities, both formally and informally. From a formal perspective, KWM has a structured graduate training programme, and provides high quality continuing legal education. From an informal perspective, the people I work with are at the top of their fields, so there is a lot to be gained from observation and receiving feedback for my work. I feel challenged every day and there are many occasions where I have felt completely out of my depth, but my colleagues are incredibly approachable and supportive, and the feeling of getting something challenging done is highly rewarding.
What’s the biggest limitation of your job? Do you bear a lot of responsibility? Do you have to work on weekends? Are stress levels high?
The biggest limitation of a job in commercial law is how difficult it is to have control over our time, especially during the week. I very rarely make social plans on weeknights because there is no telling how my day will look. Lawyers in commercial law firms don’t have a lot of control over their workload as it is completely client-dependant. Sometimes your day could look manageable and you’re hoping to go home at a decent hour, but one email can change that. I haven’t had to work many weekends yet, but I know of many senior lawyers who do on a regular basis. Having said that, when I have made plans for special occasions, the teams I have worked with have been understanding and supportive – it’s just that you can’t expect to have your weeknights to yourself on a regular basis.
As a junior lawyer, you could argue that we don’t bear a lot of responsibility because if a team gives sub-par advice, it is the partners who bear the heat. However, as a junior, you never want to let your team or your partner down. It is our responsibility to ensure that those tasks which senior lawyers will not be doing (such as discovery, due diligence and legal research) are done properly, as these tasks are the foundations of a matter. Also, you will only be given more responsibility and more challenging tasks if you are able to demonstrate an ability to do entry-level tasks well.
Stress levels in law are high, though the legal community is taking action to raise awareness and ameliorate that. Still, due to the nature of our work, it is crucial to develop ways of functioning well in a high-pressure environment if you want to have a long career in law.
Which three pieces of advice would you give to a current university student?