Mitchell Cleaver, Shire Christian School 2010 graduate, was recently awarded the Justice Peter Hely Scholarship from Sydney Law School and will now undertake postgraduate study at Oxford University. Careers advisor Robyn Buchanan recently spoke to Mitchell about his journey after school.
What subjects did you take at Shire Christian?
I took seven subjects: Advanced English, Extension English, Modern History, Ancient History, Extension History, Drama and German.
How did you decide what to do after Year 12?
I was quite unsure of what to do after school. I was initially interested in journalism, so did my Year 10 work experience at SBS. But I had always loved English and History. I had been lucky to have some very inspirational teachers in those subjects, like Mrs Natalie Bluhdorn, Mrs Kathryn Breen, Mr Jono Nicholls, Mr Geoffrey Schneider, and Mrs Lynda Scott. So I was also interested in teaching.
It can be very difficult finishing school, because until Year 12 there’s a clear path – after that, you need to find your own. The best advice I received was to speak to as many people as you can: your teachers, your friends’ parents, friends-of-friends – basically, anyone and everyone. Every perspective helps. Doing so led me to speak to a few people who had chosen to study law. It sounded challenging, but very interesting. To keep my options open, I applied for the combined degree programme at the University of Sydney. That meant I could study general humanities subjects (History, English and German) as well as something more specific, like law. After the first semester, I was pretty certain law was the right choice. Luckily, I’ve been able to take up teaching part-time too.
Was uni what you were expecting? Did you have any setbacks?
I’m not quite sure what I expected! But I certainly felt like my world had opened up. There were so many opportunities and it wasn’t hard to find other people with similar interests. The university had a very active campus life, with a huge range of language, sporting, academic, and social clubs and societies to join. The trouble, really, was just trying to fit everything in each week. The academic workload could be demanding. But it was also fascinating, and I was well-supported by the faculty.
After university, was the workplace different to what you expected?
During high school and university it often feels like there is no end to study. You can always slip in an extra hour here or there, so it can be difficult to ‘switch off’ (and that extra hour can easily become two or three). Working at a law firm is different. There are certainly long hours and occasionally weekend work. But things are much more collaborative: you’re part of a team and you’re working to solve a problem – often one that hasn’t ever been considered before by a court and that wasn’t necessarily foreseen by the Parliament when drafting the legislation. So not only is it intellectually stimulating, but there’s also a general recognition by everyone that things aren’t straightforward and that to really solve a problem you’re going to need to get insights from other people and other teams.
What do you enjoy most about your work? What are the most challenging parts?
I do both litigious (ie, court-based) and transactional (ie, deal-based) legal work. I tend to enjoy the research-based aspects of each the most, but I also enjoy getting to know our clients and their business. Commercial litigation is particularly interesting, and very fast-paced at a firm like Allens. We get to work on some of the most controversial issues and disputes, and they're ones that are usually all over the papers in some form or another. The most challenging aspect of working in law is probably the deadlines. Things often need to be done yesterday. But I’ve been lucky to work at a firm that’s really taken the lead in helping lawyers balance their different work/life priorities. I’ve been able to lecture part-time at the University of Sydney and the University of New South Wales while working at Allens, and the firm’s been tremendously supportive.
How had your study or work expanded your horizons?
My degrees at Sydney opened a lot of opportunities. I was able to do a six month language exchange to Germany, and through its ‘Pathways’ programme was able to start a masters degree at Cambridge before I had finished my first law degree. I’ve been very fortunate to work at a place like Allens: the training is exceptional. The skills are also transferable. Many colleagues have gone on to work in government, as in-house legal counsel, or else moved into other areas like business, consulting or academia.
What advice would you give to Year 11 and Year 12 students considering their future?
It’s absolutely okay to have no idea what you want to do after school. It takes time, and sometimes you might start something and realise it’s not right for you. One approach is to play to your strengths: if they lie in maths and science, for example, pursue that. But remember that there are so many interesting careers and opportunities out there. These will not always be obvious or easy to spot while still at school. So speak to as many people as possible, and really do your research. In the meantime, even if you’re not sure what you’ll be doing after school, work hard: that way you’ll be prepared when you eventually do find the path that’s right for you.
- 2010: Graduated Shire Christian School
- 2011-2016: Studied Bachelor of Arts (History) and Bachelor of Laws at the University of Sydney.
- 2016: Graduated from the University of Cambridge in 2016 with a Master of Law (First Class Honours). Placed 4th in the cohort overall and received the Glanville Williams Prize for Law, the Sir Peter Gadsen Prize for Law, and a Scholarship in Law.
- Started lecturing part-time in Equity & Trusts at the Sydney Law School (2016-2019).
- 2017: Tipstaff (Researcher) to the Hon. Justice Julie Ward, the Chief Judge in Equity of the Supreme Court of New South Wales.
- 2018: Joined the law firm Allens as a junior solicitor. Had a broad litigious and transactional practice, working in government, class actions, tax, and funds management. Currently an Associate. Particularly interested in helping build a more diverse profession - involved in mentoring programs such as LEAPS for secondary students and Diverse Women in Law for women from under-represented backgrounds.
- 2019: Started lecturing part-time in Equity & Trusts at the University of New South Wales as a Teaching Fellow (2019-present).
- 2020: Commencing a Doctor of Philosophy (DPhil) in Law at the University of Oxford (Magdalen College, Oxford). Received the Justice Peter Hely Scholarship from the University of Sydney.
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