A recent Australian report has indicated there are too many law students and not near enough jobs available for when they graduate - but does this translate into the New Zealand context? And what's the point of a law degree, anyway?
The article claims law schools throughout Australia have “aggressively” recruited students, despite the fact that there are few jobs for lawyers as it is.
However, academics on both sides of the Tasman argue that law is a “generalist” qualification which sets students up for successful careers in a wide range of industries, as opposed to a highly-specific vocational one.
“Basically, what you learn is a problem-solving methodology that is useful in a range of contexts, not just legal contexts,” John Humphrey, executive dean of the Faculty of Law at QUT in Queensland, tells the AFR.
Professor Mark Henaghan, dean of law at the University of Otago, agrees, telling NZ Lawyer the argument that there are not enough legal jobs to satisfy the needs of new graduates fails to translate into the domestic market.
“This article does not, in our experience, translate into the New Zealand context. A law degree is primarily a practical degree which can be used for a very wide range of occupations,” Henaghan says. “It is great training for problem solving and analytical thinking…We track all our graduates and our records show that all are getting good work both within the legal profession and related industries. They are employed throughout New Zealand, Australia, the United Kingdom and other places.”
Henaghan also provided NZ Lawyer with a pamphlet produced by the University of Otago which outlines potential career options for those with a law degree. Alongside the obvious private practice and in-house roles are suggestions such as journalism, banking and public relations – industries the faculty deems “related” to law.
However, one has to wonder how many students opt to complete a law degree without the sole intention of working in the legal profession. How many students, for instance, would choose to complete such a gruelling qualification, only to end up in journalism (the horror!)?
Simpson Grierson human resources director, Jo Copeland, believes it is, in fact, difficult to view law as a strictly vocational degree.
“It would be a stretch to say it was vocational when people first start their degree, as it is pretty different to anything they will have studied at school,” says Copeland. “So I think most people go into law initially thinking it is a great degree to have, whether they become a lawyer or not. It is only when the students are a couple of years in to their degree that you start to see who has a real passion for the law. That's when you can see the spark light up in those who want to be career lawyers. And for others, there are plenty of corporates hiring people with law degrees into their graduate programmes these days so there is room in the New Zealand market for graduates who opt for either path.”
From her anecdotal experience, however, Copeland says it does seem as though there are more graduates coming out of law schools in New Zealand than there are jobs in the profession.
“Yes, definitely. This has always been the case though. Each year [Simpson Grierson] get around 500 graduates applying for jobs here and we only take around 20.”
She says her firm, much like most other large firms both here and in Australia, have reduced the number of graduates it’s taken on over the past four years.
“We think we've got it about right now. We are always mindful of balancing our social responsibility to train young lawyers with the expectations of our clients and what they are prepared to pay for…If you looked at it from a purely financial perspective, you certainly wouldn't hire graduates as it takes a good couple of years before you get any return on your investment. But when you train and develop a good one, they make superb and loyal brand ambassadors. So training them up is worth it in the long run. It's good for us and for the profession,” she says.
Copeland can offer one piece of advice for any law students reading this article, however: embrace technology.
“The business of law is changing rapidly,” she explains. “You only need to google ‘big law vs new law’ to see what is happening to the legal profession. The students who are likely to succeed in the new law businesses of the future will be those who embrace technology, are exceptionally good at project management and have great social media skills. We need more lawyers who can write in plain English rather than those who can write lengthy essays. And our preference is to hire graduates who have some previous business experience. The mature student graduate is gold.”