We asked Dean of Melbourne Law School, Professor Carolyn Evans, for her thoughts on career prospects for the current generation of law students.
Over the last year or two there have been regular newspaper articles about the over-supply of law graduates and the shrinking number of jobs for them. With the hysteria in the media, students are sometimes given the impression that gaining a job as a trainee lawyer is all but impossible and I have heard parents suggest that it would be better to direct their children away from studying law because they are worried about their career prospects.
All of this concern could do with a bit of context. One of the inconvenient facts that is often overlooked in this debate is that law graduates are highly employable compared to graduates in most other degrees. Melbourne Law School graduates do particularly well but law graduates generally are still out-performing most graduates when it comes to obtaining full time work according to the Australian government's survey of graduates.
The government statistics that show employment levels are still comparatively strong should be a source of comfort to law graduates and those thinking about studying law. However, all they show is whether someone is employed or not – they do not tell us whether the person is in quality employment that requires a graduate degree.
So last summer we undertook a survey of students who had just graduated from Melbourne Law School and those who had graduated the year before. Our aim was to see whether the high employment rates of our graduates were associated with high quality jobs or not. The answer was that, for the overwhelming majority, they were. Law firms jobs were thinner on the ground for those who started in 2014 as compared to 2013 but other graduate roles (with employers such as government, banks, management consultancies and not-for-profits) expanded to take up some of the slack. There was a relatively small group who were still looking for a job (and we extended an offer of on-going assistance to them from our Careers Development Service) and there was a small group who had jobs in law but not graduate jobs (for example, working as a paralegal). However, within a year of graduating the vast majority of students were in good quality graduate employment. The list of employers for both law traineeships and other graduate places was very impressive and we have made it available to all our current students to help them with their thinking about possible employers.
Furthermore, if my experience with our alumni community is anything to go by, many recent graduates will also take opportunities and chances over the next few years that will lead to roles that they might not even have thought about yet (that might not even exist yet) and turn them into interesting careers. Some of the skills that it is hard to evaluate in law school assessment such as inter-personal skills, resilience, leadership and a capacity to innovate mean that people who were not academic stars at law school go on to do exceptional things later in life. We bring a wide range of alumni speakers into the law school to show our students just how many different pathways there are to success for people who are hard-working, bright and who have a rigorous legal education. As many of you reading this know, our alumni group is very diverse and includes excellent lawyers but also people who work in almost every sector both in Australia and overseas. There are more opportunities out there than people sometimes realise and the first job out of law school can just be a stepping stone to an interesting career.
So why is there so much angst about these issues at present?
First, it is true that there are many more law graduates than there have been in the past. Law schools continue to open in Australia and some law schools are increasingly student numbers considerably. (At Melbourne, we decreased our number of graduates when we shifted to the JD in recognition of the need to keep student numbers at a reasonable level for careers outcomes and to ensure quality.) This trend does create more pressure on the legal profession and other employers of graduates to consider closely the quality of graduates from different institutions and not to simply assume that all law degrees have equal value. This is already the case in other countries where there is a spread of law schools and the market is adjusting to the new reality here.
Second, the last couple of years have been something of a perfect storm for Australian law firms. The global financial crisis that had already played havoc overseas started to bite here leading to a cyclical downturn of the type that (we should remember) we see periodically in law. At the same time, many of the firms were working through the consequences of various merges and partnerships at global and national level.
Finally, the law was adjusting to the structural changes that many other employers have already experienced or are going through at present. There are now technological/digital developments that can be used in place of some of the routine work that junior lawyers used to undertake. Some firms have outsourced elements of their work off-shore or focused more on the use of paralegals. Pressure from clients around billing practices and an unwillingness by some clients to pay for junior lawyers with 'training wheels' on have all put pressure on some firms to reduce their graduate intakes.
So when you hear that the number of law graduates is increasing and that the number of traditional places in law firms as trainees is reducing it is true to a point. But it fails to note that some law firms are growing and expanding the number of trainees that they are taking on and that many other employers are still keen to hire law graduates who can demonstrate their skills and quality. Melbourne law graduates are still very competitive for jobs even in a difficult climate.
It is important to remember that these changes are not restricted to the legal profession. Industries and professions around the country are facing all sorts of pressures from the economy and digital innovations are disrupting many well established jobs. Young graduates today can expect to still be working in 2060. Over the next four decades it is likely that all workplaces will transform in ways that we cannot even imagine now. Much as we might all wish for a safe harbour for ourselves or our children, the reality is likely to be that graduates will have to be resilient and adaptable when confronted by the difficult and fast moving employment environment.
It will come as no surprise when I say that I am a believer that a high quality graduate degree from Melbourne Law School is still a very good investment of time and money for students. It does not provide a guarantee of a particular employment outcome – that is just not the world in which we live anymore – but our graduates have both a breadth and depth of understanding and skills that will stand them in good stead in years to come.
Our legal education is rigorous, demanding and intellectually challenging even for the very bright students that we have here. As a consequence, they develop their abilities in ways that will still be of benefit to them for many years to come.
At our end, we understand that we have to work ever harder and more closely with potential employers to assist our students to have the best chance possible of finding high quality employment. I am constantly grateful for our alumni who act as mentors, provide internships, share their experience, attend our employment fairs, sit on our advisory boards and (of course) employ our students once they have graduated. Our partnership with you is one of the most valuable offerings that we have at the Law School and I know how much our students appreciate it. Life is not easy for the modern law student, but neither is it as impossible as some in the media would have you believe. Working together, the Law School and our alumni can continue to create real and rewarding career opportunities for our graduates.
Banner image: Professor Carolyn Evans
Photographer: Peter Casamento