With Australian law schools turning out law graduates at record rates, the number of graduate positions is falling year by year. More applicants, less jobs. It doesn’t sound overly promising for those who have worked hard to get their law degree. However, perhaps the law graduates have something to offer that we are overlooking. Perhaps they have skills that we don’t even know exist in the ever changing and evolving world. The legal landscape is changing, and if we don’t find a way to do law differently, all generations of lawyers, young and old, are going to be left behind.
When I was admitted in 2003, I made a fairly smooth transition from law clerk to qualified lawyer. I don’t recall doing anything particularly spectacular or outstanding. I was simply a hardworking clerk, put in long hours and was therefore ‘moved’ into a legal officer role. So after my admission ceremony, I went back to the State Law Building, packed up my things from my clerk workstation and moved into my grander legal officer workstation. Well admittedly, the two were pretty much identical, only the latter had a whole lot more files I was suddenly legally responsible for! After speaking with law students and law graduates nearly 15 years later, I think I took the relative ease of that transition for granted. Maybe lawyers my generation and above had an easier path? There were definitely less of us. Therefore, possibly more jobs around for us to transition into?
Now I don’t want to downplay the work we (slightly older) lawyers did to make it through. Just for perspective, the Internet came into being in my second year of Uni, online legal databases were very new, incomplete and incredibly slow, and legal research was very labour intensive. We spent countless hours in the law library reading law reports that made us sneeze and then preceded to feed countless 20-cent pieces into the photocopiers to copy those cases we so desperately needed to complete our assignments. My first year uni assignments, for heavens sake, were either handwritten, or done on an old work-processor (read, slight fancy typewriter)! But the challenges we faced back then, were very different to the challenges law graduates face now.
In 2015, the Law Society of NSW released findings on the somewhat decreasing employment prospects for law graduates in NSW. In 2005, 88.4% of law graduates were successful in finding full time work. In 2015, that number had dropped to 74.1%. You could probably expect those statistics to be similar in other states, and possibly other western countries.
So more than a ¼ of law graduates in NSW will not find full time work as practicing lawyers after they complete their law degree and professional legal training. That must be completely devastating for some law graduates who had put their heart and soul into getting a law degree. Not to mention the associated costs and/or debts.
You can also look at the incredible effort law graduates now need to put into actually finding work. For every hundred law grads looking, applying and interviewing only 74 will come out with a full time job. The competition, and associated stress and anxiety, must be overwhelming. Not to mention the lack of money coming in. As a law clerk in 2001, I think I got paid around $360 clear a week, and when I made the jump to legal officer I got a massive $630 clear a week, or thereabouts. I was rich! Well, I could afford to buy another 2 suits anyway and pay off a small amount of my HECS debt. Not a huge amount, but it was something. Most importantly, I was building on my experience and I was being paid for it. That experience, in hindsight, was priceless. Compare that to a law firm in Adelaide that was offering jobs to law graduates for the price of $22,000 up front. Paying for a job! That is outrageous, and surely not a solution to the problem.
So while we can’t change the high number of law graduates coming out, we can perhaps look a things a bit differently. The vast majority of law firms that are hiring law graduates are very traditional institutions, billing units of their time and practicing in a similar way they did 10, 15, 20 or more years ago. But haven’t things changed since then? Hasn’t time moved on? We are living through a digital revolution. On the whole, the legal profession just isn’t keeping up. Serious innovation is required!
Terri Mottershead is one such legal disruptor. She is living proof and evidence that change to the legal profession really is coming. The College of Law has recently established the Centre for Legal Innovation, with Terri at the helm as Director. Terri recently gave an interview to LawFuel NZ and gave us this little gem:
“Lawyers need to embrace, lead and manage change; be resilient; collaborate; work with different people in different ways – embrace diversity and the new and emerging specialisms in law in things like data analytics, cryptocurrencies, cybersecurity; adapt and be flexible; demonstrate an ongoing personal curiosity and commitment to continuous improvement.
These are the capabilities that legal education needs to focus on.”
I’m going to hazard a guess and say that the majority of law firm owners, partners or directors in this country have no idea what some of these concepts are, let alone wanting to embrace them and implement the change required in their law practice. And that’s where, my friends, the law grad comes in!
Law Graduates, whether we like it or not, have an abundance of digital, technological and business skills that we don’t even know exist yet. Rather than shaping our law graduates into our perception of what a newly qualified lawyer should be, perhaps we should be embracing their capacity to do law differently. Implement change, be innovative, acquire knowledge and potentially increase a firms client base. Because it is their peers who will be looking to spend money on legal services in the coming years, and I can guarantee they won’t go looking for a lawyer in the yellow pages!
So what can newly qualified law graduates can offer? Their digital and social media marketing skills. Their ability to code. The ability to perhaps solve IT problems without the expense of ongoing IT support. Not to mention their wizard-like ways of legal research. (I simply cannot keep up with the speed at which young lawyers can obtain information and conduct research!) There will be other countless examples law graduates as future legal innovators will come up with. Not only will these concepts be effective, but mean that these forward thinkers will become valuable assets to their firms and workplaces.
For the law graduates out there who are feeling disillusioned about being part of the 25% who will find it harder to get a job, I urge you to think and do law differently. Draw on the skills that more senior lawyers don’t have, and probably won’t ever have. For instance and one very simple example, on your CV does it say that you have the ability to set up, run and market the firm through social media? Because you already have that skill, and it is an extremely valuable skill that will draw clients to an employers firm. Make them aware of your talents. Get ahead and be part of that employed 74.1%.
So all this talk has got me thinking. Rather than just saying things have to change, I want to be part of that change. It’s time to give a bit of airtime to law graduates and help them on their way with practical, innovative and relevant skills for the future. Watch this space, the Law Grad GURU is coming soon.