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From the President: Time to expand horizons

Cite as: April 2014 88 (04) LIJ, p.4

There are many paths for law graduates to find success.

By Geoff Bowyer, LIV President

Much has been made in recent months of the so-called oversupply of law graduates. I won’t dispute the figures that have been thrown around. Australia now has around 12,000 graduates annually, with most of the growth coming from post-graduate law courses where student numbers have grown by 330 per cent since 2001.

Undoubtedly, there are more students pursuing both graduate and undergraduate law degrees. And yes, the job market for graduate lawyers has undergone a transformation in recent years as the bigger firms respond to a more challenging market by cutting back on graduate recruitment.

However, I don’t think the numbers on their own tell the whole story.

The biggest increase in student numbers is overwhelmingly to be found in the graduate arena. The University of Melbourne no longer offers an LLB and has instead moved to a postgraduate Juris Doctor (JD) model which offers law to those who already hold a degree in another discipline.

Many of those in the JD course would not be setting out to pursue a career in law, but are instead looking for a legal qualification because of the unique skill set it brings.

In fact, some of you may have seen me quoted in the Australian Financial Review recently, saying that law is increasingly becoming a great generalist degree. I stand by that and I don’t think it diminishes the value of a law degree in any way, but rather shows a wider recognition of the skills that differentiate lawyers.

I also think that a higher proportion of law students who go into other areas besides the law bodes well for our profession. Those students become uniquely placed to understand the value legal professionals can bring to an organisation, and with our profession evolving so rapidly we can only benefit from more advocates in the market.

But what of the large proportion of students who worked hard to get admission to law school and who dream of practising one day. Some of them (not as many as before) will undoubtedly win a place in the competitive traineeships offered by the large commercial law firms.

But since when has a job in the large law firm group been the only option available to new lawyers? It’s not where I started out and I’m sure it’s not where many of you reading this began your careers (or expect to end them).

Instead of telling our future lawyers that they aren’t going to get a job we should be working to educate them about the wealth of opportunity that is out there for young lawyers beyond the big commercial firms.

We’re doing a disservice not only to our younger lawyers but also to our profession if we don’t start working harder to educate graduates about the opportunities in other areas, particularly in small to medium practices in the suburbs or the regions.

There is much to be learned from medical faculties where there is a formal clinical placement program and a pilot cadetship offered in conjunction with Regional Development Victoria. If similar financial incentives were extended to law students (as we have suggested in our Call to Parties document we would see more regional placements for graduates.

We also need to help young lawyers take a more lateral approach to career planning and consider options such as working as a lawyer in other large professional services firms or government jobs, or looking at in-house graduate roles in large corporations.

There is a deeply entrenched notion that big law is somehow better and we need graduates to reevaluate that position. It is going to take a concerted effort from universities, the LIV and our country and suburban associations to recalibrate this way of thinking. They need to work in tandem to show students that there are many paths to finding success as a lawyer.

When you consider how much work there really is out there for young lawyers if they are prepared to expand their horizons beyond the legal powerhouses at the top end of town, you will see that the notion of an oversupply becomes one of context rather than hard fact.


Geoff Bowyer
I absolutely understand it is a very tough job market out there, particularly if you are focussing on a relatively narrow but important band of law. Sometimes we have to take a career move sideways before you can go forwards. I know one recent law graduate who wants to get into environmental law and is currently doing a Masters in environmental law but has accepted a position in a general suburban practice so that she can gain valuable practical and wide experience. At the same time she is cultivating closer connections through LIV and Masters networks, hoping and waiting but being employed as a Lawyer until an opening becomes available.
15/04/2014 10:40:09 AM

Will Rosewarne
I would love to know what professional service firms, large organisations and in-house legal teams would be willing to take on a graduate such as myself. Judging by recent trend by which in-house legal teams are reducing their expenditure on legal costs (or at least keeping them constant), delivering value to their organisations will be their biggest priority. As such, I don't see how a graduate with no experience will fit into that picture in most cases when a lawyer with 3-5++ PQE can quite easily be recruited or headhunted and deliver value instantly without the need for supervision and time away to study, etc for their Practical Legal Training if their placement does not constitute SWT. I personally have had no success in applying for in-house roles myself as they have presumed (quite rightly) that I would like to be admitted and promptly show me the door. That being said, I do have a friend who has secured a legal counsel role with a large organisation very recently after doing a six-week rotation in their legal team as part of their (non-law) grad program, but I imagine it would be enormously difficult for most people to get straight in to an in-house team as a graduate for the reasons I've mentioned above. Luckily for some, a senior academic at UNSW where I completed the Juris Doctor program, Michael Legg, has now been charged with trying to source some of these alternative pathways for students.

The same would seem to apply to professional service firms - largely they seem to be after accounting or tax-orientated law graduates. For those like me who are interested in practicing in corporate, competition and securities law (and deliberately chose electives in these areas as a result) it can be difficult to market yourselves to these roles outside of the legal profession. I speak from personal experience in that regard - I have recently been rejected from four graduate (or graduate-suitable) roles recently for lacking on-the-job experience. One of those graduate roles was legal with a large firm based in Melbourne and the others were non-legal with professional service firms. How one is supposed to apply for graduate roles and succeed when they're being rejected for a lack of experience is beyond me.

The situation with government jobs is the same again in my view. In particular, I know the Victorian Government Service graduate program law stream does not satisfy the requirement for admission as a lawyer and to their credit they specify as such on their website; saying participation in GRADS is viewed favourably if a legal role is sought thereafter. Presumably though it would count for practical experience for College of Law or Leo's if they do the same thing, should a grad look elsewhere after their graduate program. As for federal government programs, ASIC's grad program does not take Juris Doctor graduates from law schools that are not JD-specific (such as Melbourne and RMIT) and even then they have to make 'an exception' for a Juris Doctor graduate to even be eligible to apply. Obviously this is quite frustrating for me as my electives were selected with a ASIC role in mind, yet I am nevertheless shut own from applying. I haven't looked at what the ACCC's prerequisites are for their graduate program yet but they may very well be similar.

In sum, I'm all for a more lateral approach, but the opportunities have to be there and they have to be taken seriously. This certainly doesn't seem to be the case right now.
14/04/2014 1:10:54 PM

Helen McGowan
We help practical Legal training lawyers find placement experience in regional Victorian public legal services. Funded by the Australian Attorney General and provided by the National Association of Community Legal Centres
3/04/2014 7:41:14 AM

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