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Caralee Fontenele: What I look for when hiring new staff

Caralee is a Family Lawyer and the Director of Collective Family Law Group on the Gold Coast. Caralee had a career before becoming a Lawyer, working with her previous two Husbands to establish and grow their businesses in Optometry and Law. Caralee realised that she wanted to build her own business and have her own career and so she became a Lawyer while managing work and being a Mother of two. Caralee shares what she looks for when she is hiring new staff (hint, it isn’t their GPA) and her advice for anyone who is contacting a firm that they want to work for – what to do and what not to do.

running your own law firm

Over the past eight years, Caralee has built Collective Family Law Group from a one lawyer practice to a seven lawyer practice. Prior to running her own law firm, Caralee had worked in business since she was 20 years old and became a lawyer later when she was in her 30’s. Caralee’s journey was a little bit different to the traditional path of leaving high school and going to university to study law. From Caralee’s experience working in and running businesses before she started studying law, she has approached her law firm in a different way and has taken all of her prior experience and used that to shape the firm. Caralee is a perfect example of how life experience and other experience working outside of the law can help you to be a better lawyer and to run a successful firm – so don’t ever think it is too late to study or that your prior life experience won’t help you in your legal career!

as a woman or mother – don’t forget to look after your own career

Caralee is an entrepreneurial lawyer and was an entrepreneur before she became a lawyer. Caralee left school when she was 16 and there wasn’t very high expectations for Caralee from her family – her Father just told her to not get pregnant or become a checkout girl. Caralee floated from job to job until she got married when she was 20. Caralee’s first Husband was an Optometrist and together they created some very large Optometry practices in New Zealand. Caralee loved and was very good at marketing and getting clients in the door which was one of the reasons the practices were so successful. Caralee and her Husband later divorced when Caralee was 27. Upon reflection after her divorce, Caralee realised that she had focused on helping her Husband grow his career and she hadn’t made time to look after her own career. So, Caralee then started her own business which was helping small businesses with their marketing. One of Caralee’s marketing clients was a law firm owner, who she later married. Caralee started to think that she was making the same mistake that she had made earlier of looking after and helping someone else’s business to grow. The law firm had a PLT Student undertaking their placement who Caralee noticed was struggling to talk to and communicate with clients. Caralee knew she could communicate and serve her clients. This led Caralee to the realisation that she had to become a lawyer so that she could work in the business as well as help the business to grow. Caralee is grateful that she decided to put her career first and study law because her second marriage didn’t work out and if she hadn’t of done that for herself she would have been back in the same position that she was in when she was 27. Caralee’s advice for any female early career lawyers is when you reach the age where you decide you want to have a family – don’t give up your career for too long. There are employers out there who will offer you part-time work so that you can keep your career going. Caralee explains that it is very important to look after your career because you’ve worked really hard for it and because it can be helpful to have your career to lean on if you end up separated or for when situations like Covid come along and your partner loses their job and you become the main breadwinner. 

caralee’s experience studying law

Caralee was working, got married and had her second child while she was completing her law degree. Caralee remembers failing Property Law B after she failed her law exam and didn’t have the energy because she was so exhausted having a new born to re-sit the exam. Caralee was working in her second Husband’s law firm at the time and the practice wasn’t going too well. Caralee knew how to improve the law firm from her previous experience but because she wasn’t the Director of the firm, she wasn’t in control of making those decisions. Caralee’s then Husband had worked at firms which had gone bankrupt and he was using his experience from those firms in the current firm and it just wasn’t working. Caralee explains that the way we are practising law has changed a lot, even since she first started working in the firm in 2008 – they are now paperless, using technology like Zoom for staff meetings, etc. Caralee explains that what is so great about this for us new lawyers coming through is that we have the opportunity to create our own pathways and space in law – we no longer have to try to fit round pegs into square holes anymore.

what caralee looks for when hiring new staff

First of all, Caralee does not look at their GPAs. Caralee explains she could not care less (which is not what all firms are like but that is Caralee’s opinion). Instead, Caralee looks for a passion for family law. Caralee believes that if you have a passion for the area of law, you will be a more dedicated employee. Caralee asks questions like, “is this person dedicated to finding a home for their career?” rather than just a short term placement. Caralee explains that when you are a junior lawyer you are an investment – you’re not making the firm any money initially and there is so much to learn and so much for them to teach you. Caralee explains that this is why it is important to show your worth through your dedication, which doesn’t mean that you have to work until 9pm at night, but that you come to work on time and you don’t pick up your phone while you’re meant to be working. Caralee explains that if you want to set yourself apart – you have to do these things because there will always be others out there willing to do it, so because you’re an investment you need to show that you have something more to give. In Caralee’s law firm, a lot of her lawyers have started working at the firm in other roles before they finished their law degree and have been admitted. This may be as a university placement, work experience or administration roles. Caralee’s advice for any law students is to go and get yourself a job, placement or work experience in a law firm that you want to work in and show them your value. Caralee’s example of this is someone who came to her about 12 months ago and asked her for a work experience placement while she was at university and she came to the firm every Friday for four weeks. She showed Caralee initiative and despite not having huge expectations for work experience students (as Caralee says they are there to help them see how a firm works and not necessarily complete tasks) she was great at completing tasks. Caralee says that she emailed them repeatedly (probably about 8 times or so) about if there was a job coming up that she would love to be considered – she knew that one of the administration girls was going on maternity leave in the future. A position came up in reception, and so Caralee offered her this role knowing that if she was prepared to take the role which she may think was below her (as she was going to be admitted in the next 12 months) then the job was hers. Caralee says that she had been persistent and had really demonstrated that she wanted to work for the firm and this was what set her apart. She took the reception job and Caralee says she is excellent at it and when she is admitted next March, if there is a junior lawyer role in the firm (which Caralee doesn’t know if that role will exist or not) – she will get that role because of her initiative and her attitude. Caralee explains that this is a long game. For anyone who is already admitted and doesn’t have the time to play a long game – Caralee’s advice is to work out who you want to serve and the area of law you want to work in. Caralee acknowledges that this can be difficult to work out. When Caralee was going through university, she knew that she wanted to practice Family Law and she hasn’t considered another area of law – but knows that this is not the case for a lot of law students.

work out who you want to serve

Caralee says to try and narrow down the area of law that you want to work in – that way you can look for employers/firms in that area of law and you can explain that you have a passion for that area of law. Caralee says that if you don’t know what area of law you want to work in then think about your values and work out who you want to serve – people in business, mums and dads, do you want to attend Court or write contracts? Caralee explains that if you can work that out then you may be able to work out the areas of law which best suit you. For example, if you are interested in commercial law then think about the kind of client you want to work for and then look for the firms serving those kinds of clients. That way, you can reach out to those firms and show them your value by explaining your interest in that area and why. Caralee says that even if you don’t know the area of law that you want to practise in, her advice is to make sure that you personalise your resume and cover letter anyway. Caralee explains that making sure you have taken the time to learn about the firm and address your interest in working for that firm and working in that area of law is the simplest way you can make sure that you stand out. Caralee doesn’t even consider blanket resumes that are sent to her which say that they are interested in multiple areas of law – as she has a family law firm, she is only looking for people who are passionate about working in family law. So, make sure you are setting yourself apart from everyone else by putting it out into the world what you want – Caralee likens this to online dating (which made me laugh!).

make sure to stand out

Caralee says that the people who reach out to her for job opportunities that stand out are the ones that stand out for the simple reasons. For example, their email/resume/cover letter is very easy to read, Caralee is busy and she doesn’t have time to read pages and pages of a resume – so make sure you keep it in your mind that the Principal of the firm that you are contacting is likely to be very busy and make your correspondence concise. Caralee says that if you have done your research – you know the firm and its values then you can show that you are interested in working for the firm. Caralee explains that it is important to tailor your email or LinkedIn message to the person you are sending it – make sure you know their name and their direct email address – don’t just email and say “Dear Sir”. Caralee says that if you are going to just put out ‘blanket resumes’ make sure that you are at least doing a video resume to show initiative, so that they can get an idea of how you sound, present yourself and your energy. Caralee says that if you take the time to work out the area of law you want to work in and look for firms whose values match your own – you are more likely to end up having a positive experience. Caralee says that very few of the people who contact her for work at her firm have done any research – so if you do, and you know the firm and its values, you have a much better chance of standing out from the rest. Caralee says that you can find out more about the firm by looking at their website (and the website of the Principal if they have one) and their social media accounts (Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn).  

make sure you can add value

Caralee explains that if you can add value to a firm by offering skills outside of those of a lawyer – for example social media or marketing – that will help you to secure a role. Caralee says that if you love creating content, maybe you can help with doing that. Caralee says there is much more to practising law then just knowing the law – you have to serve your clients and the firm you work for. So, if the Principal of the firm is struggling with their social media, it’s something they know they need but they don’t know where to start or have the time, then maybe you can add value by doing this. Often in law, writing social media posts or creating content is best to be done by a junior lawyer because they have the legal knowledge and fresh eyes to write about things that clients may not understand – but some junior lawyers don’t want to do this. So, if you do – make sure you talk about these skills in your resume and show how you can add value to the firm outside of your legal skills (which you still need to develop). Caralee explains that you are an investment – so you need to think about why you’re worth the investment and explain that to a prospective employer. I can absolutely back this up – my new role is one where I am doing legal work but also content creation, marketing, networking and bringing in work to the firm. These other skills that I have mean that I am worth the investment because even though my legal skills are something that I have to work on and that I require support with, I have other skills that can add value to the firm. As a junior lawyer, graduate or law student – you have fresh eyes which means that you may be able to identify areas of the law that clients may not understand and tailor the content to them. In contrast, for a lawyer who has been practising for many years, everything can become second nature to them and they can find it difficult to write content that can be understood by their clients.

build your personal brand

What Caralee wishes she had of started earlier in her legal career is building her personal brand. Caralee explains that when you create your own personal brand early on, there is value in that for an employer because with a personal brand, business follows. As young lawyers, your brand is your business – so work on that! Caralee says that is something that you have control of, you can take with you no matter where you go and it is going to help your career – you are going to be able to create a better income when you have a personal brand. Caralee understands that when you are early in your career (or a student) you will feel inexperienced and perhaps even intimidated by the senior lawyers that surround you – but you don’t need to feel like that as you are running your own race and the reality is that once you have been practising for 10 years, you are going to be working beside those senior lawyers. So Caralee says, don’t feel like you don’t have the right to build a personal brand because you aren’t experienced. I can say that when I started out my podcast and personal brand, I felt like tht as I hadn’t worked in a law firm, I didn’t know anything and so I thought how can I help anyone else or have any sort of authority? As Caralee explained to me a while ago, no matter what stage of your career you are in – you know more than the people who are less experienced than you and you can help them. So, if you’re a third year law student – you know more than first and second year students and so there will be something that you can teach them. Caralee explains that if you’re a junior lawyer – you have already travelled a journey to get to where you are and you can create your personal brand based on that experience – it is never too early to start!

be persistent

Caralee knows it is difficult but she says that being persistent pays off. Keep going, there will be a place for you and there will be a place that aligns with who you are and your values. We all live in a time now where we can choose our own adventure – there are so many options with how you can practise law these days.

caralee’s awesome tips

If you want to have children or get married don’t forget to look after and maintain your own career!

Work out what area of law you are passionate about – consider your values and the kind of client that you want to serve!

Make sure that you are personalising your email/resume/cover letter for the person and the firm you are contacting about a role – you are more likely to be successful!

If you have time to play the long game – try and get a role in the firm in reception or work experience/PLT placement!

Make sure that you stand out – you can do this by learning about the firm, its Principal, its values and give a video resume a try so that you can show initiative and give a prospective employer an idea of how you sound, present yourself and your energy!

You are an investment – so prove that you can add value – you can do this by having other skills that you can offer outside of your legal skills, such as content creation, social media management or marketing!

Start building your personal brand ASAP – this will help you build your career and is something that you can take with you no matter where you go!

Be persistent – there is a place for you that aligns with who you are and your values (you just have to find them)!

Caralee is happy for you to reach out to her on LinkedIn or Instagram if you have any questions –

Caralee’s LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/caralee-fontenele-346b86a/

Caralee’s Instagram: @caralee.fontenele