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Bridging the information gap

Bridging the information gap

By Barry Yau and David Catanzariti

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Undergraduate recruiting processes and activities need to increase focus on the diversity of opportunities within the legal profession.

Snapshot

  • The “information gap” describes the paucity of information for law students about the broad opportunities available in the legal careers market.
  • The pervasiveness of the information gap can adversely shape a student’s perception of the pinnacle of law career success.
  • The wider legal community can play a key role in bridging the information gap, beyond the traditional marketing that students are exposed to in law school.

The Australian National University has been conducting ongoing research1 which originally sought to analyse the attitudes of a cross section of undergraduate law and Juris Doctor students, practical legal training (PLT) students, and early career commercial lawyers, towards the study and practice of commercial law, and the role of legal ethics in its teaching and practice. The qualitative research has, among other things, identified what one participant pointedly described as “the information gap”. This phrase describes the paucity of information within law student circles about the breadth of available opportunities in the legal career market. This information gap appears to have the effect of limiting some students’ understanding of future law career success, coupled with the perception that the sole epitome of professional accomplishment is being recruited by the top tier of commercial legal practice.

This article considers our research findings on the information gap and its influence on the community of law students and lawyers. The findings are largely in a commercial context as we, the researchers, have a commercial legal practice background and commercial law is the most common area of law practised by entry-level lawyers2 and, inter alia, we are interested in understanding the factors which motivate law graduates to pursue careers in commercial law. Nevertheless, the findings are applicable across the legal practice and law school communities.

Participants in the research were invited to respond to questions about their experiences in the study or practice of commercial law, their understanding of the role of legal ethics in commercial law, anticipated career goals, career reflections, and work life and wellness perspectives. Key information we sought to elicit included identifying the range of attitudes towards commercial law, how those attitudes are formed and affect their career path, and perceptions of legal ethics in the context of commercial law. However, as the analysis of the data from the focus groups and individual participant interviews progressed, it became evident that one of the distinctive, passionate and consistent themes arising across the participants was the “information gap” in law school and the impact and effect it can have on law students as they progress to their PLT and on to their legal career.

“I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger”

This line3 was one of the discussion points posed to our focus groups of early career commercial lawyers and generated much reflection among the participants about the lack of awareness in law school of the broad opportunities available in commercial law practice and throughout the legal profession generally.

One participant lawyer admitted to previously believing success as a commercial lawyer meant working in “one of the big six firms”. Another was led to believe that “going into one of the big top firms was the best option you could go for, the best thing you could do”. The impressions of the research participants transformed once they entered commercial practice, with one lawyer realising “there’s a lot more to commercial law than working in a top tier firm”, and another recognising that landing a top tier job is “not really cracked up to what it appears to be when you’re a student”. A lawyer acknowledged you can still have a “very fruitful career that just doesn’t involve working in a big commercial firm”. On the other hand, some participant lawyers were effusive in their admiration for colleagues in top tier and global firms, with one expressing much respect for them. Another lawyer enjoyed watching and emulating top tier firm partners for their professionalism. Several LLB student participants were resolute in their goal to work at the top tier level. One saw top tiers as a place where you work with “very, very smart people with very intense workloads”.

However, one of the predominant themes arising from the research was that many early career commercial lawyers would have benefitted professionally and even personally, if in law school they were made aware of the wide range of options throughout the legal profession. The research findings stress the importance of law students having exposure to a variety of legal practices such as mid-tier firms, government practices, corporate in-house, boutique firms, sole practitioners, and NGOs. This indicates the need for these organisations to amplify their recruitment outreach to students. One LLB student participant believed that many students lacked “the broader understanding that there may be broader opportunities elsewhere”. Another LLB student participant lamented in regard to other career pathways that “there are so many other good options that we don’t get exposed to”. (We surmise this general lack of awareness in the law school community about broader law career opportunities may have its genesis in the demise of the articles training system, an issue which probably requires further investigation.)

The research also highlights the challenges faced by these wide categories of law practices in not only gaining a prominent presence in the law school environment, but also promoting their value in the collective consciousness of students. Many of these students are in a formative stage of their careers and lives, with some facing pressure to reach the pinnacle of success often shaped by the competitive marketing environment they are exposed to in the law school community.

A revealing and poignant dialogue between two commercial lawyer participants in a focus group drew attention to the lingering effect of the law school information gap:

Lawyer 1: “There’s only so many roles in top tiers and you don’t want to feel like, if you don’t get that, you somehow haven’t . . .”

Lawyer 2: “Had to take the next drop.”

Lawyer 1: “Somehow it’s a compromised position or . . . you failed.”

Moderator: “Failed because you couldn’t get a job in a top tier firm?”

Lawyer 2: “Yes.”

Both of these lawyers practised as government in-house lawyers and their very frank exchange illuminated their struggles and insecurities arising from their perception that their commercial law careers were deemed to be unsuccessful, possibly in their eyes and maybe in comparison to lawyers working in top tier firms.

The research indicates it is reasonable to posit that attitudes to career success are for some related to the information gap. The findings point to law schools being significant crucibles of identity formation largely emanating from themes and messages arising from most law careers fairs and recruitment evenings. This is consistent with the research on law student wellbeing pointing to law school potentially affecting a student’s personal identity and values.4

Two LLB student participants confirmed the challenges their peers encountered in overcoming the information gap. Both were members of the law students’ society (LSS) committee, with one acknowledging the unfortunate and conspicuous absence of medium firms or government practices, for instance, from the slate of premium sponsors. A PLT student participant and a lawyer participant also recalled a similar absence of such firms from these high profile recruitment events. However, we recognise this is most likely due to the more limited resources of mid tiers and government practices for graduate intakes compared with the top tier firms. Some students may well be satisfied with the available options presented at these events, which was reflected by some law students in our research unequivocally setting their sights on a career with a top tier or global law firm.

We are not suggesting firms such as medium tiers or government practices lack any presence in the law school environment. Nor do we submit these practices are deliberately excluded from the opportunity to market themselves to law students at clerkship evenings and law careers fairs which feature prominently on the LSS calendar. Rather, firms that traditionally have a long-standing presence at such LSS events, much to their credit, possess the human, marketing and financial resources and experience to implement a rolling, infectiously enthusiastic and sweeping high-profile recruitment program targeting as many students as possible relative to a small number of clerkships. This is despite a significant segment of the law student population who would appreciate and benefit from a greater awareness of the numerous career path opportunities across the legal profession and even outside the profession. The fact that our student and lawyer participants constantly referred to the disproportionate influence and dominance of law careers fairs and clerkship evenings suggests alternative avenues for recruitment by a wider spectrum of organisations would go some way to closing the information gap to increase the knowledge of opportunities for the benefit of the law student community.

We cannot underestimate the major influence of the information gap in a very competitive environment, with bright and determined students driven to “get a guernsey to even apply for a job with a big firm”.5 One of our LLB student participants noted students, especially those in the fifth year of undergraduate study, are “depressed and worried about their future”. A student’s depression may be caused by a range of factors which is beyond the scope of this article. However, the information gap in a challenging and demanding environment could perpetuate the perception of the narrow options available and has a significant influence in defining “success” in the commercial law practice sphere by virtue of the underlying messages in the prominent marketing and recruitment strategies conspicuous in careers fairs and clerkship evenings.

Some of the LLB participants suggested it is unfair for the LSS to have sole responsibility for closing the information gap. Perhaps the wider legal community needs to consider facilitating a more vibrant movement among law practices and other organisations to better inform students about the diversity within the legal profession, with each career option as equally valuable as the other. Even where resources are limited, creative methods such as recruitment through social media apps and websites may effectively narrow the information gap. Law academics can also play a key role in informing students of the numerous paths available in legal practice. There is room for optimism through the efforts of some LSS committees making a concerted effort to broaden the composition of their careers fairs, and not unintentionally being condescending by pigeon-holing different career paths as “alternative careers”.

We are not suggesting the whole undergraduate legal career recruitment process is flawed. However, the conclusion from our research is the importance of raising awareness of the information gap and challenging legal and other organisations which are under-represented in law undergraduate recruiting activities to critically examine their marketing and recruitment activities. Hopefully, an impetus for change will succeed in narrowing the information gap beyond the current paradigm.

 

Barry Yau is a lecturer at the ANU School of Legal Practice and teaches and researches in the area of commercial law.

David Catanzariti is a lecturer at the ANU School of Legal Practice and has previously convened the commercial law practice subject.

 

1. The Australian National University’s Human Research Ethics Committee granted ethics approval on 24 December 2013. The research project is formally titled “Attitudes of students and lawyers to the study of commercial law, and the role of legal ethics in the teaching and practice of commercial law” and is ongoing. The authors are conducting the research project through the ANU School of Legal Practice. The legal ethical findings of the project have been published in “Perceived Ethical Duties of Corporate and In-House Lawyers” in The Australian Corporate Lawyer (2018), 29:8.

2. Maxine Evers, Bronwyn Olliffe & Robyn Pettit (2002), “Looking to the past to plan for the future: A decade of practical legal training”, The Law Teacher, 45:27.

3. From the 1973 rock ballad Ooh La La, written by Ronnie Lane and Ronnie Wood, performed by The Faces.

4. Kath Hall, Molly Townes O’Brien, Stephen Tang, “Developing a professional identity in law school: A view from Australia” (2010) Phoenix Law Review, 4:33.

5. Robert Fisher, 6 October 2015, “The legal community’s struggle with mental health”, The Law Report, Radio National.


Disclaimer: Views expressed by commentators are not necessarily endorsed by the Law Institute of Victoria Ltd (LIV). No responsibility is accepted by the LIV for the accuracy of information contained in the comments and the LIV expressly disclaims any liability for, with respect to or arising from any such views.

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