If Beth Stewart has a philosophy about preparing for a law career, it’s probably around the theme of perseverance and resilience.
From a young age, Beth always wanted to work in a profession that was both personally challenging and professionally helpful.
But growing up in a semi-rural area with no-one in her immediate family having a university education, the opportunity to study law seemed like an impossible dream.
‘I’d never so much as met a lawyer in my life,’ she says. ‘However, in my final years of high school I had a legal studies teacher who believed in me. At the time the university offers came out, I was so sure I wouldn’t get in that I didn’t bother to check my offer!’
Last year, Beth graduated with a combined Bachelor of Laws/Bachelor of Arts (Chinese Language) and is now working as a graduate lawyer with a large commercial law firm.
She says one of the reasons she chose Deakin was its flexible study delivery.
‘I wasn’t in a position to move out of home so I needed a university that offered online learning options. Deakin gave me that flexibility and also provided a supportive and inclusive environment that made me feel that, with enough dedication, all career opportunities were within reach.’
One of Beth’s first tests of perseverance came during her second year of law when she needed to secure an internship.
‘A conundrum many law students face is that you need experience to get experience. After applying to dozens of law firms in Melbourne and facing repeated rejection, I decided to look overseas,’ she explains.
She applied to a commercial law firm in China and after an interview via Skype, landed in Shanghai – with no Chinese language skills – to work on the Shanghai Free Trade Zone and proofread documents for Chinese to English translation.
‘I also liaised with international clients and attended court appearances. The role developed my ability to adapt quickly to an environment completely out of my comfort zone and to overcome language and cultural barriers. It opened my eyes to the importance of language skills in an increasingly globalised world so when I returned to Australia, I extended my degree to include three years of Mandarin studies,’ she says.
Beth then decided to boost her language studies by taking an intensive immersion program offered by Deakin in Nanjing, China.
‘For the first week, I failed every test!’ she says. ‘The teacher taught the class using 90% Mandarin and the class was way too advanced for my beginner level skill but I persisted. Very few people in the city of Nanjing spoke English, so I had to learn quickly.’
After two months, Beth’s language skills improved dramatically and she was able to successfully resume her Mandarin studies, graduating with a distinction.
She also expanded her international horizons by taking part in Deakin’s USA Criminal Justice Study Tour.
‘The teaching style of the US law school was intense and engaging … in North Carolina we had many once-in-a -lifetime experiences including touring a maximum security prison and meeting local judges, prosecutors and authorities. In Washington DC we visited places of legal significance, including the Supreme Court and Congress. The tour was by far the best experience of my degree and opened my eyes to all the opportunities that are open to law graduates,’ she says.
Determined to gain as much practical experience as possible during her studies, Beth volunteered at two community legal centres and also worked part-time paid as a legal secretary to 10 commercial and criminal barristers.
‘It took three years of countless rejections from firms to finally secure my first paid legal job … but I worked in this position for 18 months on a five-day fortnight while juggling full-time university and extra-curricular activities,’ she explains.
In her final year of study, Beth worked three days a week as a law clerk in a dispute resolution team of a prominent law firm.
‘Here, I had the opportunity to assist on a range of litigious matters, including the most high profile defamation case in Australia’s recent history,’ she says.
Beth’s law studies, extracurricular activities and legal experience all proved their value when she received clerkship offers from 14 commercial law firms.
‘It was an incredibly fortunate and unexpected position to be in as it allowed me to experience work at four very different firms and evaluate which would be the best fit for me. From these, I was lucky enough to receive multiple graduate offers, and ultimately accepted my dream graduate position at Lander & Rogers. I have no doubt that without all of the opportunities I was afforded while at Deakin, I would not have had the same success.’