Volume 3, Issue 7, (Originally Published on Monday 22nd April)
As the justice system struggles to find and fund enough lawyers to protect those who need it most, law students struggle to find legal jobs. The incongruity of it would be funny, if it wasn’t putting at risk that terribly overused phrase, access to justice, and causing real harm in our society.
Late last year, Victoria Legal Aid announced unprecedented cuts to services, slashing the availability and extent of aid provided across family, criminal and civil matters. Judges Paul Grant, Terry Forrest,
Lex Lasry and Betty King have all publicly criticised the cuts. They have been driven by a shortage of funding at the federal and state level. Jane Lee, writing in The Age yesterday (‘What price justice?’, 21 April 2013), highlighted the problems this is causing both for the court system itself, and for the most vulnerable in our society.
As clerkship and graduate application season approaches, law students are all too aware of the shortage of legal jobs available. Of the 7,000-odd law graduates in Australia each year, some 64% cannot get a position practising law (Graduate Careers Australia survey, 2012). They are instead forced to pay for their own admission courses, or pursue alternate career paths. Student are trapped in a vicious cycle, unable to get a job without legal experience, and unable to get legal experience without a job.
This past March, The New York Times (NYT) profiled the nonprofit law firm set up by Arizona State University as a ‘teaching hospital for law school graduates’ (‘To Place Graduates, Law Schools Are Opening Firms’, Ethan Bronner, NYT, 7 March 2013). The brainchild of Arizona State’s dean, Douglas Sylvester, the program aims to address both the shortage of jobs and training opportunities for new law graduates, and the growing unmet legal needs of the poorest Americans.
The problem of job shortages is real, as is the problem of a shortage of lawyers available. Basic economics would suggest that these two phenomena would result in a growth of low-wage, low-cost private legal services, but this does not appear to be happening. Given the support that students in Australia receive through CSP programs, one suggestion would be to require those students to spend a year working for a legal aid or community legal service in order to be admitted to practice. Similar models are employed by medical schools that need doctors in rural areas. Another idea could be to adapt the recently launched LawPath online legal service.
Whatever the solution, policymakers at the state and federal level, as well as the legal professions and law schools, need to start looking outside the box. A surplus of law graduates and yet a shortage of lawyers, is an absurdity that cannot be allowed to continue.