Allens Confidential podcast

What to expect from your clerkship

As summer clerkships kick off, Geneva and Caitlin speak to recent clerks (now paralegals) Tim Tabalujan and Tahlia Rodrigues in this episode of Allens Confidential. Listen in for the ultimate guide on what to expect from your clerkship.

Tim and Tahlia share their advice on getting the most out of your clerkship, navigating office life and the best dad jokes to impress your new colleagues. They dive into why there's no one type of 'right' experience to qualify you for a clerkship; explain how working full-time over the summer can actually be fun – as well as the challenges, and unexpected upsides, of a virtual clerkship; and dish the dirt about their most embarrassing experiences.

What did we talk about?

  • What exactly you're getting yourself into, expectations vs reality 
  • The importance of mindset and stepping outside your comfort zone
  • How to navigate a virtual clerkship 

This episode is part of our 2020 series. 

Listen to the episode

Read the transcript

Caitlin Burke Welcome to another episode of Allens Confidential. Today we have two fabulous paralegals and former clerks here to talk to us about their clerkships. Tahlia Rodrigues did a clerkship in Sydney this summer before the world turned upside down and Tim Tabulajan has just completed a remote winter clerkship in Melbourne. Both Tim and Tahlia are now paralegals and we're very excited to talk to them all about everything clerkship. So as usual guys, we like to kick things off by asking what kind of podcast do you listen to if at all?

Tahlia Rodrigues I don't listen to too many, but I will confess listening to a podcast called 'Stuff you should know'. So it covers a broad variety of topics. It's kind of like a trivia podcast, I'd define it as. Essentially I'm just preparing for if I ever get selected to go on 'Who Wants to be a Millionaire'. I'm just preparing myself for that. But of course, aside from that, Allens Confidential, I find that quite helpful going through the clerkship process to get a bit of a feel for the firm.

Geneva Sekua Tahlia, what's one of the things that you think we should know that you've learnt from the podcast?

Tahlia Rodrigues Ooh that's a good question. There was an episode on the 'Escape from Alcatraz' that I found quite interesting. It definitely teaches you how to be quite resourceful. So give that one a listen.

Geneva Sekua It's a bit of a how to escape from prison if you're on an island somewhere.

Tahlia Rodrigues That's right yeah.

Geneva Sekua It might come in handy. And how about you Tim? What are your podcasts of choice?

Tim Tabulajan Yeah, so I like to listen to one called 'How I built this', which is, I guess, about innovation and entrepreneurship and pretty much just some resilience in general. And I really like it because the host Guy Rouse, he basically interviews a bunch of founders and creators and business people and goes through the stories behind some of the biggest household names that we know of like Wikipedia or Ben & Jerry's or Airbnb. So I think it's just really interesting for anyone who's interested in history and just a good story and entrepreneurship. So you get an insight to some of these really great companies and products, but also go through some of the lucky breaks that they had and catastrophic disasters they had. So yeah, it's just a really good storytelling podcast.

Geneva Sekua It sounds right up my alley. I guess today's episode, we're really going to be digging deeper into what a clerkship actually looks like, because I think when you're a student or when you're applying for clerkships, it's kind of hard to know what you're getting yourself into. So we want to hear from you guys, you know, what your experience was like and what kind of advice you would give to people. But before we get there, let's talk about life before clerkship. So could you give us a little bit of a picture of yourselves before you got to that point. Sort of, what sort of stuff did you do at Uni, or what kind of experiences did you have professionally and how do you feel like you were prepared in that sense for doing a clerkship? Tim do you want to kick it off?

Tim Tabulajan Yeah sure. So my clerkship was unique I guess in the sense that it was virtual, but fortunately it was in the winter. So I think chronologically it was the last of the clerkships that we do here in Melbourne. So in that sense I'd had a bit of experience over the summer, how to do in-person clerkships. And even before that, I was a student at Melbourne Law School and I'd done I guess you could call work experience at a law firm before for about a month. And I also did an internship with a government department up in Darwin which was great and which was also in an office setting. But besides that, I mean I was about as green as you could get coming into clerkships. I guess by the time I got to the winter one, hopefully I had a bit more experience under my belt. But that was kind of me in a nutshell.

Geneva Sekua Cool, and what, and this is totally off topic, what was your favourite law school subject before you got to being at a firm?

Tim Tabulajan Well I did a subject called 'Institutions in International Law' and I think it's one of the law school's flagship subjects. It's pretty much a two-week intensive run out of Geneva in Switzerland. So this was obviously before the world went upside down as you said. And so it was just a group of 25 of us heading over to Geneva and you visit some household names like the WTO, the ICRC and the UN obviously and it's just a lot of fun. It's in the summertime over there in Europe and it was very picturesque and a lot of fun away from the stresses I guess of the law school in Melbourne. So that was definitely I think my favourite.

Geneva Sekua Great name for a city. Great city.

Tim Tabulajan Absolutely.

Geneva Sekua Tahlia how about you?

Tahlia Rodrigues So for me before the clerkship, obviously I was in my penultimate year at the University of Wollongong. I had about 18 months of experience in a small criminal and family law firm back home, which was good because I did have some legal experience, but I think that coming to a commercial firm with a blank canvas kind of worked in my favour, because I had a lot to learn and I didn’t have any, I guess, prior conceptions of how things worked, which was great for me. I think that, to be honest, my retail experience and tutoring experience at uni came quite in handy. Maybe even more so than my legal experience, because I feel personally that having a good emotional intelligence quota and having great communication skills really went a long way when you're in a whole new world and you're learning a lot of different things.

Geneva Sekua Yeah definitely. I think that's something that lots of people really stress about, if they have the right kind of experience. And I think that's such a great point. There's no one experience that's right. It's really when you're thinking about what skills you can take from that experience and how you can build on it in a new environment. So I think that's a good little tip for people who are listening. But so shall we jump into it? I mean how were your clerkships? Obviously it's sort of two very different pictures but, what was it like, what kind of stuff did you do? What was your picture of the firm?

Tahlia Rodrigues I think for me, to put it simply I did not think that fulltime work over summer would be so much fun. Also interesting and challenging but in a positive way. The clerkship for me was just incredibly social. There were always dinners, there were drinks after work. I think I left in February with severe caffeine withdrawals because we were going out for coffee so many times a day. I also took part in clerks sports. So as a firm you compete against all the other different firms. A lot of high tensions when you do that, but I can't stress enough that you do not need to be good at sport to participate in that. That's anecdotal evidence that I'm providing here. I was also a leader in the Charity Committee which was a wonderful experience. We raised a lot of money for the bushfires, because back then in 2020 that was our biggest problem I would say. I probably should discuss some actual work. So my first rotation was through the Intellectual Property team which I loved. I'm hoping to go back there as a grad. And then my second rotation was through M&A which is short for mergers and acquisitions. And I realised very quickly that I prefer litigious work over transactional work. But I'm glad to have discovered that earlier rather than later. But it was definitely still good to get some experience in that area and understand what it's all about.

Tim Tabulajan Yeah, so I guess my experience was very different. It was social but completely run on Microsoft Teams which was different. But in a nutshell, I think it was an overwhelmingly positive experience. I think it's a credit to the Melbourne lawyers. I think they all knew just how strange it was for us to be doing a clerkship virtually, and so they were very proactive in making sure we had group calls and catch up calls and basically as many opportunities to get a sense of the firm as we could without actually being there in person. So I think for anyone who's potentially doing a virtual clerkship, I think the tip I would give is just to be proactive as well, yourself, by reaching out to your buddy, who I think is a great asset and just asking them. You know, you might be in the Disputes team and you might just say, 'look I'm pretty interested in finding out a bit more about banking as well, would you know anyone in that group who you could link me up with?' Because I think it is fair to say that if you're not there in person, it's a bit more difficult just to catch a lift down and say hello to another team. But I think it was a terrific experience. I was in the mergers and acquisitions team. We only do one rotation here in Melbourne and that was a heap of fun. 

Geneva Sekua So you disagree with Tahlia's view on the transactions versus litigious split.

Tim Tabulajan I guess I just don't feel as strongly about it. I think there's probably, I hate to be a middle of the way guy, but I think there's fun stuff to be done in disputes teams and transactional. I mean I don't know about Tahlia but I did a mix of transactional and disputes work and I think that's one way to approach it if you're pretty open minded.

Caitlin Burke It takes all sorts. So guys if you had one piece of advice, actually no not one piece of advice, as many pieces of advice as you want, for anyone that is about to do a clerkship this summer or next winter, virtually or in person, any gems that you could pass on, what would they be? Tahlia we'll start with you.

Tahlia Rodrigues I think for me, your mindset and the way that you frame the process. Whether it's the clerkship itself or it's the application process. That mindset can carry a lot of weight in both your success and how much you enjoy the clerkship. I remember being told in my interview to see it as an opportunity to ask questions. You know the most brilliant legal mind and you're sitting across from them in a room, they usually bill a few thousand dollars an hour, this is your chance to ask them questions and get what you want out of that experience, rather than seeing it as something that's frightening. Another great piece of advice I was given was to say yes to things outside your comfort zone, and make decisions on the person that you want to be and the career that you want to have rather than who you are now. And really challenge yourself and have that future forward looking aspect when you are given a task or when you say yes to something.

Geneva Sekua That's great advice. Tim how about you?

Tim Tabulajan Yeah so I definitely echo what Tahlia just said, that was great. I think mine, I've probably got two which are very nitty gritty, so apologies in advance. I think the first one is really making an effort to tailor your work and the end product to what the instructions were from the lawyer that gave you the task. I think it's really important when you go through a task, understanding who it's going to in the end and what they want. And I think if, in the back of your head, you kind of remember 'what can I do to make this task as ready to go as I can when I send it to the lawyer who gave it me?' that can be helpful. So whether it's an email that goes out to a client which is purely just recommendations without any provisions and clauses etc, or whether it's a table or whether it's a memo, just understanding what the end product is expected to be I think can go a long way. And the second tip I think is just knowing your resources. So I think it's always a tendency for a clerk to just, once they get a task to just want to jump right into it. And I think just stepping back and knowing that you've got some really good resources, for example the library and Knowledge Management, they can really help point you in the right direction and this really helped me out in my clerkship where I'd a very specific ask where I had to deal with things like automated precedents and I had to run compares. And I had no idea how to go about it. And to be honest I think the best thing I did on that task was actually to call a lawyer from Knowledge Management and she really walked me through how to go about it. And they'll never give you the answer because they can't, but I think just knowing that you have these really strong support groups that can point you in the right direction is really helpful.

Geneva Sekua Caitlin I feel like this is advice that I need to be told. So I'm very impressed. I hope you and I are both learning from this because these are very, very good tips.

Caitlin Burke Yeah, no it's a sage reminder and I'm consistently running into this issue still where people are asking me why I've spent like four days printing and informing me that there are like several, like more than three routes through which I can get printing done and it doesn't entail me standing in the printing room swearing at the printer. But like it's great that you guys can identify that now and I think that's a really important shift from university, because really at uni , you have obviously the library and things like that and textbooks, but ultimately you're the one that has to do everything and deliver that product and I think it's great to recognise that early on, you're working in a place  where you have this wealth of knowledge that is there for you but also that you should absolutely use as much as you possibly can. And it's not cheating and it's not you not doing the work, it's getting it done in the most efficient way. So that's great. 

Tahlia Rodrigues I was just going to say, I think on that point, it's so important to, during the clerkship, and in general I guess at a law firm, embrace the fact you're probably not, at least during the clerkship, the smartest person in the room. So take time to ask questions and see everything as a learning experience. I know from, I guess I'm only the smartest person in the room when I'm alone by myself, so this advice wasn't too difficult for me to take on board, but I just remember looking around the room during my clerkship and not seeing everyone as competitors but instead, seeing them as assets and people that I could learn from. And my friends have taught me so much during this experience, both about the law and myself. But yeah, definitely embrace the fact you're not the smartest person in the room and take advantage of what everyone has to teach you and offer you.

Geneva Sekua So the next very crucial and important topic that we need to get onto, is any funny or embarrassing anecdotes that transpired during both of your clerkships because everyone has them and we need to really unpack that here. So Tim, shall we start with you. What was it like doing a virtual clerkship and were there any kind of odd or funny moments that came out of that three weeks that you had?

Tim Tabulajan Yeah, so one of the benefits actually of working from home, was that the MAC team had tried to maintain comradery by having like a weekly MAC team call where everyone would hop on a call for about 30 minutes and what began as a pretty informal call, I think became, you know, pretty much like an episode of Saturday Night Live, to be honest. There's a host, there was a joke of the day, there was an important matter. So every week the team would jump on this call and have a lot of fun interacting with each other. So when we came in for the clerkship, it had been going for a few months, and they tried to get us involved and so another clerk and I were responsible for the joke of the day for one of the calls. That was pretty daunting because if you can imagine, before we came in, there was a lot of roasting going on, but you know, as clerks we figured we probably shouldn't just come in and roast people who we've never met. But at the same time, we obviously wanted to be, you know, hopefully just a bit funny. So anyway we ended up doing a special dad jokes edition of you laugh, you lose, where we scoured the internet for the worst possible dad jokes and we'd take turns saying them to one another. If I laughed, the other clerk would get a point, and vice versa. I think it was pretty funny, it was pretty daunting, because obviously everyone else, 40 other people are just listening to you say these terrible jokes, but there was a lot of encouragement coming in the chat and I think a few of the partners who had their videos on, it was funny they were actually I think, they found those jokes genuinely funny, which is…

Geneva Sekua I'm sure they did. They're dads just outing themselves.

Tim Tabulajan So yeah, that was a real  highlight I think of the clerkship.

Geneva Sekua Come on, what was some of your fave dad jokes.

Tim Tabulajan I thought you'd never ask Geneva. 

Geneva Sekua I'm a sucker for a dad joke.

Tim Tabulajan They are so bad, but we'll give them a go. So, 'what vegetable is the best at Kung Fu?'

Geneva Sekua I don't know what vegetable?

Tim Tabulajan Brock Li.

Geneva Sekua [laughing] That is bleak Tim.

Tahlia Rodrigues I feel my skin crawling, like…

Tim Tabulajan There was genuine laughter on the call, so I think you guys are just a tough audience.

Geneva Sekua I think that says more about the mental state of everyone in Melbourne at the time than it does about the joke, but I'm so proud of you for saying it and I'm really glad it went down well.

Tahlia Rodrigues Isn't that the point of a dad joke, where you tell it and in the end you're like, 'no'.

Geneva Sekua Yeah.

Tahlia Rodrigues That's my response.

Tim Tabulajan No absolutely, I think there was a lot more, I think they were definitely laughing at the two of us, you know, more so than the crux of the joke. But if you can imagine, that went on for a good 10 minutes, so.

Tahlia Rodrigues I love that though. I think that's a great idea.

Caitlin Burke Maybe we should have a podcast edition, just dad jokes.

Geneva Sekua For 30 minutes, that would go down well.

Caitlin Burke It could be a father's day special.

Tim Tabulajan You'd have a lot of partners putting their hand up for that podcast I think.

Geneva Sekua I don't doubt that.

Caitlin Burke Yeah I agree.

Geneva Sekua How about you Tahlia, how have you humiliated yourself during your time with us?

Tahlia Rodrigues Oh where do I start. I think the problem for me with this question is that the whole time Tim was talking, I was trying to narrow down my choices to just one story. So if that's any indication, we're off to a good start. I think the worst one, the one that takes the cake, would have to be, oh my god - I was going to court, it was me, another clerk, a graduate lawyer, I think a senior associate and a partner, and you're aware that you know, when you walk into the court there's that x-ray machine that scans for dangerous items and goods as you enter the court, and I had my handbag with me. As I went through the machine, it started beeping, security came over and they said to me, 'you have a knife in your bag'. I was like, 'oh I don't think I do, like I don't really usually carry knives with me'. They were like, 'no you do, we can see it on the scanner, empty your bag'. At this point obviously I am sweating, I am incredibly nervous, everyone is staring at me. I open my bag, and lo and behold I have a stainless steel cutlery set that I had with me. It's no butter knife, like that is a decent knife…

Geneva Sekua And are we talking like a steak knife? Like how bit is this weapon that you've carried in?

Tahlia Rodrigues I place it between a decent steak knife and butter knife. Like it's a knife for a piece of meat.

Geneva Sekua Like it could do some damage?

Tahlia Rodrigues It could do some damage if you wanted to. I just remember, I'm pretty sure the world did stop spinning at that point, and all I could think was, when I go back to the office and I write my resignation, can I do it in Times New Roman or does it have to be in Arial in accordance with Allens styles, that's all I could think. So future clerks, if you are listening, I implore you to come and find me and share your embarrassing stories with me, so I feel a little bit better about mine and if you have a story that one ups bringing a knife into courts, I need to hear about it.

Geneva Sekua I thought you were going to say, future clerks my advice to you is don't bring weapons to court, but you've just said…

Tahlia Rodrigues That goes without saying.

Geneva Sekua Do better than that, do better and see what you can come up with.

Tahlia Rodrigues Yeah exactly.

Geneva Sekua That's a great story but I'm also going to make you tell your conference story, because when you told me that one the other week, I thought that was very funny, how you sort of recklessly destroyed the kitchen. So please share.

Tahlia Rodrigues This podcast is turning into a self‑sabotage Geneva. So this story, this is pretty good as well. I won't name the clerk that I was with, but she knows who she is very well. She knows what she did. I'm not alone in this, but I won’t drag her down with me. I think this is the second day of the clerkship, or the third day so you're still getting to know each other, you're still getting familiar with the office and you're also too scared to just leave and get coffee outside the firm because as a clerk in the first week, you think that everyone is tracking your every movement even though they couldn't care less and they have their own work to do. Myself and this clerk, we went to make a coffee on the coffee machines at Allens has on every floor and the milk filter needed changing, like a light started blinking saying to change the milk filter. We gave it a good crack. We couldn’t get it to work, so we went to go and get help. We left for a minute and as we came back, there was a gentleman at the coffee machine trying to make a coffee and all of a sudden, he obviously went to add milk to his coffee, and the machine just started spluttering everywhere and there was milk everywhere. It was down his shirt, on his tie. Obviously we did not own up. We looked at each other and did a runner very quickly. So that was some powerful bonding in that moment. Definitely the beginning of a relationship of partners in crime. But yeah, I feel so sorry for him. If you're listening, I'm sorry.

Geneva Sekua Sorry that we ruined your tie.

Tahlia Rodrigues Yes.

Geneva Sekua But I kind of think that's a good point and something to bring up because one of the things that people who are joining the firm or doing a clerkship for the first time, you know, they might not have been a part of office life before, or been in a workplace where there's different hierarchies and different etiquette. So what didn't you know coming into the clerkship that you learnt through it, of your expectations of office life and how to interact with other people. Tim was there anything that surprised you or that you learnt through this process?

Tim Tabulajan Well maybe speaking to the virtual experience specifically, I think that it was a lot more low key than what I expected. So for example, I think, you know, the entire clerk batch rocked up in, smart casual or sorry, business casual on the first day, and then when we joined our teams we very quickly realised that I think the guiding principle was more so just neat and tidy, more so than, you know, business casual. So I think there is, for anyone who's coming into a virtual clerkship, I think just know that the teams have been doing this for months now and so there is, I guess, a more relaxed atmosphere which at least I found can be quite different to the in-person clerkships that I did where you're walking around in a suit in the office setting. So for those of you who are doing a virtual clerkship in Melbourne, there's a lot of solidarity I think, amongst fellow working from home people. So just realise it's pretty laid back and you've still got to be polite and respectful but it is a very understanding environment is what I would say.

Geneva Sekua As you say, I just dialled in from home today and as Tahlia pointed out at the beginning, wearing a Harry Potter sweater. So the standard of formality has definitely dipped as the year's gone on.

Caitlin Burke Yeah that's what we call an understanding office environment. It's a broad church. People really can do what they need to do to get by.

Geneva Sekua Bring your whole self to the Zoom meeting.

Caitlin Burke Yeah. 

Tahlia Rodrigues I think when you're in an actual office in real life, everyone is quite approachable, they're incredibly polite and understanding and they're aware that you may not have the best idea of how the office runs, especially if you've never worked at Allens before. I think the best thing to do is just have really good communication with who you're with. I know I always made an effort to ask if people preferred their office doors open or closed and if I could take a call in the office or if they were going to be on a call at the same time. Little things like that went a long way and I just think helping the office run quite smoothly.

Geneva Sekua Caitlin did you have anything that jumped out at you when you joined as well this year or during your clerkship?

Caitlin Burke I mean it's hard for me to say because I've become, I mean this entire cohort this year is so socially stunted that it's difficult to know where a normal level of social interaction starts and finishes with us, because we're not used to being around other humans. I think it's very telling coming back into the office for a lot of the junior lawyers this year, because they were the first ones back and there's a genuine excitement about being in this space and whether it's just a reminder that you actually, you do have a real life job, like a real life adult which is sometimes easy to forget when you're sitting at home in your pyjamas every day, and just leaning into it and having those conversations with people wherever they arise. Perhaps I leant into that quite intensely upon my return as a product of prolonged isolation, but it definitely did wonders for my sense of confidence and also for the kind of work I was doing because I was chatting to more people and yeah. Just go for it, talk to people, don't be worried about that being strange, everyone's very, very approachable and everyone's excited to see you and meet you.

Geneva Sekua You all have given very good little pieces of advice there which I think everyone listening will very much appreciate. So before we wrap up, Tim and Tahlia, we've got a whole bunch of young and excited students who are about to embark on their own clerkships over the summer and next year. Some of it might be virtual and some of it might be in person, but if you could leave them with your one big tip, the one thing that if they take nothing else from this podcast, what do you think they should just have in the back of their minds as they go forth on this journey and embrace whatever this brings?

Tim Tabulajan My biggest tip I think is just to back yourself. I know that sounds a bit of a throwaway comment, but I think everyone who's clerking at a place like Allens is there for a reason, so you're within striking distance, you're obviously very impressive and I think if you expect challenges, whether it's with the coffee machine or a certain task, that you go in there just knowing that, hey there's a reason I'm here and putting my mind to it and making use of whatever resource I can, I'll definitely be able to show what I can do. I think that's probably a good attitude to have. Just be confident and be positive.

Tahlia Rodrigues I think what Tim said was pretty spot on in backing yourself. But also having a positive mindset and seeing this as a learning experience, you are going to meet and be surrounded by some of the most brilliant people that are going to teach you so much about both life and the law. I think really enjoy it and try to learn as much as you can. Above all, just have fun with it. I had a ball over summer, so really make the most of it.

Geneva Sekua Very good advice. Both thank you so much for joining us today. I think if you cast your mind back, you can remember that feeling of sort of uncertainty and nervousness as you went into this phase, so I think being able to listen to what you both had to say will be really comforting for a lot of people and probably make them really excited to get started on their clerkships. I'm really glad you both had interesting experiences and that you enjoyed your time with us during your clerkships and I hope you also enjoyed your time with us on the podcast today so thank you so much for joining.

Tahlia Rodrigues Thank you so much for having us. You've played a formidable part in the peak of my career. It's been a pleasure. Thank you both so much.

Tim Tabulajan Thanks so much guys. A lot of fun.

About the presenters: Geneva Sekula & Caitlin Burke

Geneva was a Senior Associate in our Disputes and Investigations team and is now working for our alliance partner Linklaters in London. She loves brunch, dogs, Netflix marathons, and giving unsolicited advice. A graduate of the University of Sydney, she clerked at Allens in Sydney in 2015 before joining the firm as a nervous but enthusiastic graduate in 2017.

Caitlin is (allegedly) an Associate at Allens. She joined the firm as a clerk in 2017, before running away to join the circus for a few years and returning like the prodigal son to the Disputes and Investigations team in 2020. Caitlin studied at the ANU and exercises her right to embarrass herself daily; at work, in the streets and on the dance floor - sometimes simultaneously, but always with a smile.

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