Issue 12, Semester 2, 2019
And there I was, staring down the Dark Lord himself. Well, the interviewers for a graduate role at a large international firm. One partner was staring out the window, another screwing their face as my jokes flew over their head, and the HR lead was grinning as if I were the first customer in an American Apple store. The whole experience was a little creepy. I really wanted this graduate job, so I put on my best corporate face, answered their hypotheticals while channelling my inner-Elon Musk, and identified major problems in their workflows and client acquisitions that, honestly, they should have paid me for. Everything was going grand. Now, on my CV I have a cute little note about my mountaineering trips I took in my gap year. A solo glacial ascent of Norestliche Hängegletscher, Watzmann-Ostwand, summits of Steinernes Meer plateau, Mitterhorn, and a near death experience on Großvenediger. The partner who had been staring out the window suddenly got interested at this, telling me that her husband always climbs hills too, but she didn’t understand why. Apparently, it’s just too much effort for so little reward. She returned to her window.
When Sir Edmund Hillary first spoke to the press on his ascent of Everest, he said he climbed the peak not for fame, and not for challenge, but because it was there. Now, I don’t believe that Hillary was merely bored when he walked through Nepal. ‘It was there’ carries incredible meaning. It is hard to describe, but it is a demand. A challenge from a world that is always in focus a day from now. There is no way you can turn away once you feel the scale of this immense creature. The challenge was there, and I dared not ignore it.
After I finished my undergrad, I went on a Europe trip with two friends. It was a trip like any other. Amsterdam, Prague, Munich, Berlin — all the great pub capitals. We were on a train from Berlin to some city in Italy. Out the window I spotted the Alps for the first time and felt my heart sink. There they stood, eternal, alone, while dancing with the blackened clouds. I remember feeling fear and hearing a music. I stood at the doors of the train in awe, as my friends planned our next city. The train slowed. In seconds — in the greatest moment of my life — I grabbed my bag, jumped off the train, and waved goodbye as my friends were carried away with horror on their faces. I hitchhiked my way to Berchtesgaden on the Austrian–German border, and saw, for the first time, the full scale of what my heart drew me to. I dare not describe the majesty of that mountain, but in that moment, I realised how fortunate I was to be alive in this place. I was young, strong, and unburdened. I knew that life was fleeting, and I’d rather risk death than dare not live. Right then I felt an energy, an excitement, and an obligation to climb. I didn’t have the right to walk away from the wonders of that place. I was shaking in fear for what my heart wanted me to do. I didn’t want to just climb the range before me, I wanted to trek the world until it stopped me. I wasn’t worried about getting lost because I had no idea where I was going in the first place. As long as I headed vaguely south, I would end up in Italy eventually. I spent what little money I had on a harness, ropes, ice-pick, tent, and whiskey. Only the necessities. Food would have to be improvised.
I took a ferry across the Königssee (and bartered for the only one-way ticket they had sold) and stood at the foot of Watzmann Massif. The first few days of ascent were the hardest (as I soon discovered the intoxicating and dangerous glory of altitude sickness). A lack of oxygen does strange things to your mind, and my journal at that time reads like Hans Christian Anderson on acid. There were no trails from the approach fate chose for me, so I walked with the sunrise to my left and picked a distant mountain peak to walk towards. The next month was the greatest time of my life, as I stood atop peaks that had never been named, explored glacial caves that had never existed before that winter, and wrote stories in absolute isolation from any other mind. I almost died three times, and each taught me a little more about myself. Once to a crevasse near Italy, once to a lightning storm in Austria, and once when taking a shortcut down a waterfall.
I get pulled back into the real world by the chastising comment of the window lady. ‘What made you take such a silly gamble with your life?’ I forgot that I was in an interview, as the partners looked in horror at this clean-shaved, suited kid, regaling how you stop yourself falling down a 40m drop in a snow bridge.
It was in that moment that I realised I wouldn’t fit in at the firm. Every comment they had made about the legal industry leading up to this point became all too apparent to me. They were risk averse. They were comfortable. And they were seeking the same safe type of people that they had hired for decades. I kept my critical thoughts about their slow acclimatisation to the Australian market to myself at this point. They did get me thinking though, why did I want to work at this firm? The short answer: I didn’t. The long answer: it was easy. It was easy in that the path ahead was certain. Three four-month graduate rotations, junior lawyer, associate, senior associate, partner, cocktails, retirement, Caymans. As long as you keep your head down and be a good little discovery monkey, the first few years are an academic breeze. After that, to be a successful corporate lawyer, it all comes down to your ability to acquire clients, market yourself, and build a successful team and network (skills that, I believe, can’t exactly be learned through a graduate program). Also frankly, I have too much self-respect and appreciation for commerciality to work under a billable-hour system. And with that in mind, in the middle of that interview, I was determined to find another path to ‘success’. Just like my little walk in the Alps, it wouldn’t be ‘easy’, but I guess that is half the joy. I started studying law with the goal of running my own firm and hiring my own brilliant team. I lost track of that goal throughout the storm of this degree. Working in the trenches for fifteen years is not a road towards my goal of independence.
So, where does that leave me? I love the law, I love problem solving, I love adventure, and I need to work in a meritocracy. In-house roles, board advisory, or my own practice are my current dreams, and perhaps one day the Bar. I want to work in a small legal team where everyone generates brilliant legal solutions, and we’re not hampered by archaic commercial practises. But for now, I will gig paralegal work while I complete my PLT. It leaves me on an uncertain path where I have the freedom to work independently, the freedom to travel the world for more than two weeks a year, and it gives me a life away from a statistically guaranteed career path of depression. Certainty is a gilded cage. I wish the best of luck to those who are taking the corporate firm career path. I hope you successfully create movement in these legal behemoths to help them enter the 21st century. I hope you find the work stimulating and worthy of your efforts. I’m just too impatient for change. I respect your choices and ambitions, and, in all likelihood, I’ll be seeking out your brilliant minds as counsel when my company’s Irish tax schemes come crashing down.
To those with graduate positions at these firms next year, I beg you to remember the changes you so desire when one day you control these firms. To those who are unsure what the future brings, know that sometimes the thing that scares us most is a life worth living. Opportunities will arise where we have to make a leap into the unknown, but trust me when I say, falling is where the fun is. You’re the youngest you’ll ever be, you’re the bravest you’ll ever be, and you’re the strongest you’ll ever be. Not losing the best years of your life 50 meters high in Collins Street isn’t the worst thing that can happen to you.
Live long and prosper JD.
Johnny is a Third Year JD Student.