At a Board meeting I attended recently, while discussing the replacement of a professional position, a fellow Board member offered his views: “It needs to be a full time replacement. None of this part-time business which is completely inefficient.” After expressing how antiquated his views were, I reflected on how prevalent they still are and how little progress there has been over the last 20 years. The Board member was also a retired lawyer.
I graduated from law school 25 years ago. Back then you opted to study at either Monash University or the University of Melbourne. In Victoria, there are now six universities offering a law degree with a seventh on the cards. NSW has ten accredited law schools. Put bluntly you’re no longer unique or considered particularly intelligent if you have a law degree.
Australia is producing roughly 12,000 law graduates a year. There are only 60,000 working lawyers throughout Australia. In 2014, of graduates wanting a full-time job in law, 25% of them could not find one within four months of graduating. While research shows only half of law graduates actually want to enter the profession that still leaves a whole lot of unemployed lawyers.
And it’s not enough to have excelled academically. The Australian Financial Review recently reported about the competitive legal job market (AFR article). Apart from outstanding results, you also need to have diverse interests including having “an entrepreneurial and innovative mindset”. Partners at law firms cited graduates with startups and having their own designed websites and apps as employees they would find appealing. They don’t just want the typical Grade A student who focused exclusively on academic achievement.
There’s some irony that these very same firms require 12 hour days and unachievable billable hours from their employees, ensuring there’s scant time for any external interests.
I am hard pressed to think of a lawyer still practicing from my peers. And the lawyers I do know employed at a law firm are not jumping out of bed gleefully to start their working week. Indeed the only somewhat satisfied lawyers I know are barristers and they’re happy because they run their own business and can dictate the terms of their working hours. The problem with the Bar though is that it’s usually either feast or famine in terms of work and both are extremely stressful.
Law firms are great talkers about offering flexibility. It usually means paying you part time but you still need to bill almost a full time week. You’re likely to receive a different quality of work than your fulltime peers as the focus is still on the time you’re in the office and not on the quality of what you do achieve in your working week.
A female colleague of mine who is a general counsel at a large firm recently confided that there is in fact a change in the attitude of major law firms- they now will support a woman to attain partnership (previously it was an uphill battle) as long as you are prepared to work the required minimum 60 hour week. In other words, you need to fit into their paradigm of a successful partner and if you do they will support you. Interestingly it’s the same firm where I completed a summer clerkship, where on our first day the managing partner informed us proudly that it wasn’t unusual to find lawyers asleep under their desks having worked three days straight on a deal.
Which brings me to the question at issue – is obtaining a law degree worth it nowadays? Obtaining a law degree has become like an arts degree of old – a good grounding from which other opportunities will hopefully follow. But unlike an arts degree, entry for a law degree means you’ve graduated at the top of the state and it will take you a minimum of five years to obtain your degree. In all likelihood you won’t obtain articles (work experience within a law firm) so you will pay for the privilege of obtaining practical training and then face the reality of likely unemployment. A good grounding with 12,000 other graduates or a waste of time?
So as a parent of three children, what advice do I give them about what to study and what profession will offer them prospects and satisfaction? I’m getting little guidance from their schools as they keep telling me you cannot imagine what field your child will enter into because it’s likely the field hasn’t been created yet!
I’m not suggesting the law may not be a worthwhile career choice for some. You are trained to research and analyse thoroughly and articulate your position clearly. But understand the reality out there that you sacrifice an awful lot to gain skills many others are obtaining too at varying degrees of proficiency. And jobs are scarce and you probably won’t be satisfied even if you have one given the inflexible conditions and constant pressure.
As a parent I am concerned because the future is so uncertain. The saving grace for our kids is that they are imbued with confidence and optimism, qualities which may in the end see them through the vortex.
A version of this article first appeared on Women’s Agenda in July 2015