Your editor Hamish Williamson discusses the pitfalls of limiting your career horizons.
Occasionally—amidst the panoply of firm-sponsored talks, information sessions on clerkships, mock interviews, and other such events designed to sculpt eager MLS students into eager lawyers, ready to eat paperwork and shit billable hours—a lecturer will say something along the lines of:
‘Whether you go into legal practice, or some other field…’
The nature and scope of these other fields is seldom defined. Nor is it explained why graduates might end up in said fields. After all, given that the J.D. is an intensive program focusing on the minutiae of contemporary Australian law, it seems at best a little misdirected to endure three years of such study, only to end up in a field other than legal practice. At worst, it could be construed an admission of failure.
But a law degree is good for much more than practicing law. As the university itself says on its website:
‘It is important to note that employers of our law graduates are not just law firms – they are also management consulting companies, financial institutions, NGOs, aid organisations and government departments such as the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, to name just a few’.
Moreover, even though legal practice is the most direct route for law graduates, it may not be the most enjoyable for many, or even the most secure. Indeed, irrespective of their present intentions, many current MLS students won’t be lawyers in a decade’s time. Some will have entered the degree with no intention to practice law; some will decide not to practice part-way through their degree; some will make that decision after spending years in the industry.
Nothing in this article is intended to disparage the career path which many of you will doubtless take, or to dissuade anyone from legal practice. Becoming a solicitor or barrister is, after all, the most straightforward application of your degree.
And, if you’re the kind of person who feels a frisson bordering on the sexual at the prospect of negotiating contracts or speaking to the High Court, then you should definitely throw your energies into legal practice.
This article is aimed at students equivocal about the prospect of being a lawyer, especially those who feel as though aiming for a graduate position in a law firm or legal department is something they should do, rather than something they want to do.
My points are threefold: (1) you don’t have to want to practice law; (2) legal practice is not prima facie the best career path; and (3) your degree is valuable in many fields beyond legal practice.
1. You don’t have to enjoy studying law
Towards the end of my first semester of law school, while writing up notes for my exams, I reached the nadir of my degree. After poring over my textbook for ‘Obligations’ for the umpteenth fruitless hour, I decided that the reason I wasn’t enjoying myself was that I hadn’t yet become fully immersed in the law.
I threw down my textbook, hopped on a tram to campus, and borrowed a biography of Owen Dixon, famed High Court justice. Maybe, I thought, if I learned more about the history of Australian law, then I’d feel inspired by revision instead of dreading it.
Needless to say, it didn’t help. Reading the book only made me feel worse. Here was Dixon, a monumental intellect who ‘never forgot a case once he read it’, breezing through his studies, shining as a young barrister, and defining the whole tenor of modern Australian jurisprudence.
And here I was, sitting on a milk crate because I couldn’t afford a desk chair,(2) grinding through dozens of pages of extracts from Commonwealth v Verwayen and desperately trying to understand what the fuck the justices were talking about—let alone comprehend the respective merits of their views on estoppel. Even worse, my case notes were still unfinished.
It wasn’t until some time later that I realised that trying to force myself to enjoy business law was a Sisyphean task. Ultimately, I could take little more than an academic interest in contracts…my career at Freehills was over before it began. Luckily, I found more interest in public law, so I didn’t quit altogether.
To move from the anecdotal to the general: if you’re not genuinely interested in the material you’re studying, don’t worry. Keep exploring your textbooks and subjects until you find something which doesn’t make you miserable. You are not obliged to find everything engaging.
In the meantime, treat your studies like a game, and simply aim for the high score without worrying too much what it all means. If you find that you’re uninterested in the totality of law…that’s when you should consider quitting.
Even this is a perfectly valid choice. After all, legal practice is a narrow (albeit taxing) application of one’s mind. Some people will find the kind of tasks with which they are presented in law school—scrutinising case law and statutes, and forming legal arguments—to be inexpressibly dry and dull. After all, questions of legality are just one facet of any given issue.
(2) Being a lawyer is not necessarily a pragmatic option
Some of you may have more pragmatic reasons for deciding on legal practice. Even if you don’t find much interest in law, you’ll stick it out in order to get that well-paid graduate job. You can work hard for a few years, earn a tonne of money, and segue into something more interesting later. Right?
Well, here’s a bit of context. The job market for law graduates is bad. Really, really bad. A singularly depressing Sydney Morning Herald article from late last year(4) highlights the central problem: there are far more graduates than there are jobs. The figure the article quoted was 12,000 law graduates per year, versus just 60,000 working lawyers in the entire country.
Even accounting for those graduates who don’t wish to study law, these are alarming numbers. The article goes on to quote our dean, Carolyn Evans, in describing 2013 as the ‘worst year’ she’d ever seen, before segueing into the anxiety and depression experienced by many in the profession. Hardly heartening.
It seems likely that the effects of the weak job market are exacerbated by the way in which many students narrow their career ambitions. The prominence of corporate firms on campus is apt to mislead students into thinking that they form the majority, or even a significant proportion, of the job opportunities for graduates.
This is untrue: the firms are so visible because they want to get ‘first dibs’ on the best graduates. They aren’t much interested in the remainder. So, unless you’re sublimely confident in your CV, it’d be prudent to have some back-up options.
It’s worth mentioning, too, that in such a grossly over-supplied market, you may find that, even if you get a job, your value (not to mention your remuneration) is not as high as you expected. If you can’t hack 14 hour days, there’ll be no shortage of grads to replace you. All the more reason to keep your options open.
(3) What are some alternatives to legal practice?
So, for everyone except those few who have both the aptitude and the passion to get positions at legal firms upon graduating, a bit of horizon-broadening is in order.
So, consider your educational and employment history: what other skills do you have, and how can your law degree augment them? You’ve already got a first degree under your belt, so start there.
At the very least, it’s worth exploring opportunities for legal practice beyond the major firms. In-house legal departments, both in the corporate and government sectors, are always on the hunt for good graduates, even in lean times. So too are judges, small firms and solicitors offices.
Beyond legal practice, the opportunities are limitless. In a nation as thoroughly legalised as Australia, every business and organisation deals with legislation, regulation or statute on a regular basis. Few of these interactions are mediated by law firms or even in-house counsel, for reasons of cost and convenience. Thus, being able to confidently deal with such material is a tremendously valuable skill.
Moreover, the ‘generic’ skills which a JD degree demonstrates are pretty impressive. You’re obviously clever. You’ve worked your arse off for three years. You’ve managed to take comprehensible notes for the duration of a two-hour lecture on promissory estoppel, at 9 a.m. on a Monday morning, all with a head-splitting hangover.
So, if you’re feeling anxious about whether you should become a lawyer, or indeed whether you can become a lawyer, try to maintain some perspective. There are many jobs out there, any many ways to use your degree. And if worst comes to worst, you can always be a teacher.
Hamish Williamson is a 2nd year JD Student and Chief Editor of De Minimis
(1) Melbourne Law School, ‘Career Destinations’, <http://www.law.unimelb.edu.au/jd/becoming-a-lawyer/career-destinations>.
(2) Phillip Ayres, Owen Dixon, Miegunyah Press, 2003.
(3) This, regrettably, is true.
(4) Neil McMahon, ‘Law of the jungle’, The Age, 11 October 2014, <http://www.smh.com.au/national/newscustom/law-of-the-jungle-lawyers-now-an-endangered-species-20141011-114u91.html.>.