Vol 12, Issue 7
Practically every law student in the country knows that the job market for law graduates is more squeezed than it used to be. There are several thousand more law students than a decade ago, despite low growth in the number of practising lawyers. The oversupply is daunting, so it finds itself in all sorts of legal industry discussions. It’s a reason why students should work harder, drop out, diversify and specialise. It sparked a public argument last year between Frank Carrigan, a senior lecturer at Macquarie University, and our very own ex-dean, Carolyn Evans. Carrigan’s outlook was decidedly negative, Evans’ was decidedly positive, and the two reached totally opposite conclusions about the state of Australian law students today.
Overall, the media on law graduates tends to be pessimistic. A small collection of newspaper articles outline the plight of thoroughly competent law students hitting a wall after graduation and finding themselves underemployed, unhappy and stir crazy. These articles focus on individual students to describe the situation for law students in general. But any individual case could simply be attributable to bad luck, couldn’t it? The number of law students experiencing job anxiety might not correspond to law graduate prospects either, because some amount of anxiety in a cohort is probably normal. I have spoken to domestic medical students who, despite having a near-100 percent employment rate after graduation, are still worried about their short-term job prospects. With that in mind, is there any public data that gives a clearer picture of what happens to law students in the job market?
Annual nationwide surveys of student outcomes, conducted by Graduate Careers Australia until 2015 and now run by the Social Research Centre, go some way to assess our chances.
The surveys show that law undergraduates historically had over 90 percent full-time employment within four months of graduating well into the last decade. Then, in 2008–09, the GFC quickly shrank the legal job market — greatly adding to what seems to be a long-term reduction due to structural economic factors. The Commonwealth Government also removed the cap on enrolments for most tertiary degrees as this was happening, which allowed a steeper increase in law students. The most recent statistics, from 2016, show that 73 percent of legal and paralegal undergraduates, and 85 percent of postgraduates, were employed full-time four months after graduating.
However, the nationwide survey figures only assess law graduate employability in a shallow way. From a JD student’s perspective, problems with relying on the surveys include:
In summary, the nationwide surveys describe such a broad class of students that a law student could only gain a hazy understanding of their chances at being employed full-time, let alone their chances of entering their desired area of work.
Better data, at least in my opinion, is available to MLS students through the Employment Outcomes surveys, first released late last year and updated late last month. The survey tracks JD graduate employment outcomes at one point in the year, with the 2015 graduates being assessed 18 months after graduating and mid-year 2014 graduates being assessed closer to 24 months after graduating. In addition to a high response rate (81 percent of 2015 graduates responded, for example), the data is specific to the university and distinguishes between roles that require a law degree, other legal roles, and non-legal roles.
I have been told that the statistics featured prominently in the first-year orientation this year, and I can understand why. Perhaps I was more pessimistic than most, but the employment results are more encouraging than I expected. You can judge for yourself by viewing the report, but to summarise: over the past three years, a majority of graduates — around 60 to 70 percent — are in positions that require a law degree. Another 10 to 20 percent in non-legal graduate roles, and about 5 percent work in non-lawyer legal roles like paralegal or legal research.
The survey results have not been taken positively by everybody. I know a few students who feel that the significant minority of JD law graduates working as paralegals, especially more than a year out of law school, demonstrates that the job market is unhealthy. The proportion of practising MLS graduates broadly aligns with the proportion of law students who want to practise law, but more students may be opting out of practising than previous years to avoid the increased competition. As always, there is room for improvement in the method and amount of data being collected. For example, taking statistics at 18 months after graduating may also obfuscate other trends, namely shifting careers or periods of unemployment. Multiple surveys for each graduate in six- or nine-month increments could remove this doubt, but more surveys might lead to a lower response rate overall.
Law students have had little data to rely on when trying to figure out if studying law is worth the risk. Without clear evidence about graduate outcomes, students, legal professionals and careers services have no option but to rely on speculation and the general sentiment of the industry. The current negative sentiment among law students and journalists recognises how the situation has changed from its previously high employment rate, even if this is at the expense of reflecting the relatively high employment rate of law graduates compared to other university-leavers.
I’d argue that making a single declaration about the legal job market oversimplifies the issue by addressing all law students as though our situations were identical. If law schools and law associations conduct more comprehensive surveys and analysis, then students, universities and employers may better understand how the state of the current legal job market affects them, and what more should be done to reduce oversupply. Accurate and educational data about law graduate outcomes could reduce confusion throughout the whole legal industry.
That said, the job market can be an uncomfortable experience no matter how well informed you are. Graduate outcome surveys can never account for every academic, professional and personal quirk that is unique to each student and affects employability. But, the MLS data shows that some of the gloomy articles around graduate outcomes have probably exaggerated how dire the market really is, at least for JD students at this university. Interpret the statistics for yourself, but I hope that students pursue areas of work they find interesting or exciting without assuming the odds are inevitably stacked against them. One way or another, we tend to land on our feet.
Acknowledgement: Thank you to Justine Block (Graduate Services and Careers Manager) and Madeline Organero (Legal Careers Consultant) at the MLS Careers Service, and Lydia Holt (LSS Committee Member) for helping me with some of the information.
For a more detailed discussion on the oversupply, see Michael Douglas and Nicholas van Hattem, ‘Australia’s Law Graduate Glut’ (2016) 41 Alternative Law Journal 118.
Jeremy Latcham is a third-year JD student
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