21 June 2020

For years now debate has raged about the oversupply of law grads from Australian Law Schools and whether our universities should be held to account for creating a glut of early career lawyers when the number of positions being created in the profession falls well short of the annual Law Faculty output.

But for every claim that the tertiary education institutions are failing their students, there are rebuttals by the schools themselves with contradictory assertions about actual student numbers, the intentions of their enrolling students and the diversity of jobs that a law degree equips their alumni to pursue. Not all law students enroll with the intention of joining the legal profession, they say. And to be honest, I sat on the fence and collected the proverbial splinters until I recently placed an advertisement on Seek for a paralegal role.

It wasn’t the most grandiose of jobs if you hold an LLB, but the sheer number of applicants for the “experienced paralegal” role who were graduates, early career solicitors or almost finished their law degree was surprising.

Many were looking for a segue from student to lawyer but others were already qualified and desperately looking to secure a foothold that might establish their place in the profession.

Suffice to say it was a bit of a recurring theme on previous occasions when I’ve posted ads for similar roles where even fully qualified lawyers offered to undertake three months of unpaid work experience if we gave them a shot.

And there was that one uber keen (if not desperate) solicitor applicant who offered to accept a paralegal wage for two years if he was successful in securing the role – just because he had endlessly heard in interviews for law firms that his lack of work experience was the issue!

Now don’t get me wrong; I applaud the determination and sacrifice of those who go to these lengths to get their start, but it got me wondering about the propaganda of the law schools when they publicly declare that “the future looks bright for Australian Law Graduates”.

According to their PR teams, there was an uptick in internships following the banking Royal Commission, and new opportunities for graduates as accounting firms established legal services teams. But if there are so many roles for grads, why did my inbox recently fill up with applications by aspiring and qualified lawyers for a paralegal role?

Every two or three years the Law Society of NSW publishes a report on the “National Profile of Solicitors”. The latest string of reports were in 2011, 2014, 2016 and 2018, and the numbers are instructive.

According to this report (compiled by Urbis), in 2011 there were some 57,577 solicitors in the country. By 2014, that number had swelled to 66,211 and by 2018 it was 76,303. So by the numbers, that’s an increase of 32.5% between 2011 and 2018 when the Australian population only increased by about 12% over the same period. According to my quick internet searches, the corresponding Australian population was:

  • 2011 – 22, 485, 300
  • 2014 – 23, 907, 000
  • 2018 – 25, 200, 000

So by my (inexpert) maths ability, that means in 2011 there was one solicitor for every 390 people.

By 2014, the ability of the legal profession to serve the community had increased to one solicitor for every 354 citizens while in 2018, finding a lawyer was even easier as there was one solicitor for every 330 residents.

It seemed an astounding increase so I asked the clever folks at Vincents to use their actuarial skills to calculate when, at the current rate of growth in lawyer numbers and population, there would be a personal solicitor for everyone in Australia.

And by Mark Thompson and Michael Lee’s calculations, at the current rate of growth, by 2050 there would be 42,543,851 Australians of which 276,035 would be solicitors (that’s one for every 154 people) but by 2232 there would be approximately 850 million Australians of which 425,000,000 would be solicitors and 425,000,000 others. Which means that in 212 years, the profession will be able to offer a personal lawyer to every man, woman and child in the country!

Of course that will never happen but it’s not just the trend that is worrying; it’s the lack of action on the part of our universities to take steps to recognize and address it. Enrolments seemingly continue as they sell the golden ticket to a “fulfilling and prosperous” career in the law when the reality is that most graduates will only end up with a HECS debt they can’t climb over and the frustration of having to take a career detour to find a role in which they can gain marginal benefit from their studies but at least have a meaningful job and a regular pay cheque.

The reality of there being fewer roles in the profession is beginning to be reflected in the mission statements published by law schools on their websites. I noticed that the University of Sydney says it will “provide graduates with the strong analytical skills, critical thinking skills and communication skills required for professional legal practice and applicable to many other career choices.”

North of the border however, at the University of Queensland, the traditionalists still seemingly pitch to those anticipating a career in the profession as in their mission statement they emphasise their student focus is:

“To create an exceptional student learning experience comprised of a high quality, research led legal education distinguished by its rigour, global reach and promotion of the highest standards of ethical conduct, professional responsibility and community service.”

University of Queensland

And I’ve no doubt that these ivy and sandstone institutions do a great job in training their students and providing a high quality of tuition, but did their students have an understanding of the state of the labour market when they submitted their application for enrolment?

Should prospective students perhaps be provided with better intelligence around job opportunities and the experiences of recent graduates?

And on open days and at career fairs, should the universities be required to balance the parade of poster grads who have quickly forged a successful career path with the thousands of dismayed and debt-laden alumni who had long given up on any hope of entering the profession and found another form of day job?

It is said that market forces will ultimately drive decisions around enrolments and that higher number of lawyers in the profession will serve to increase competition and ultimately benefit consumers. But is there not a risk that as lawyers struggle to survive, standards of professionalism might slip as corners are cut and in time, ethics and values could be challenged?

There must be limits to what law schools are ultimately responsible for, but I fear that the longer they milk the LLB cash cow the more they will damage their reputations around student focus and social responsibility. Given the state of the market, are they really now just selling a dream and unfairly peddling the golden ticket?