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March 22, 2015 The number of law students has doubled in the past decade, with more than 12,000 graduates now entering a job market that comprises about 60,000 solicitors each year.
The startling increase in the number of law graduates has been driven by the popularity of post-graduate law courses, where the number of students completing their courses increased 330 per cent from 1635 in 2001 to 7036 in 2012, The Australian Financial Review analysis of university course data shows.
The number of bachelorâ€™s graduates in law increased by a more modest 26 per cent during the same period, from 4514 in 2001 to 5706 in 2012. Combined, this has meant a jump of students graduating with some form of undergraduate or postgraduate law qualification from 6149 in 2001 to 12,742 in 2012.
There are about 60,000 practising solicitors in Australia, according to an Urbis survey from the national law market.
This oversupply of law graduates has been fed by the 36 university law schools around the country and means fierce competition for entry positions at law firms.
Law students and graduates are now being told to broaden their career prospects beyond becoming lawyers. Carolyn Evans , the dean of Melbourne Universityâ€™s law school, said: â€œWhat I would say is that people should be aware when they go into law school, theyâ€™re going in at a time of rapid change.
â€œThere is structural change in the legal profession and uncertainty in the Australian economy," Professor Evans said. â€œ[Students] canâ€™t assume because they have a law degree, theyâ€™ll have a job as a lawyer."
GOOD â€˜GENERALISTâ€™ QUALIFICATION
The proportion of bachelorâ€™s-degree law graduates who find full-time work has fallen from 96 per cent in 2001 to 83 per cent in 2012, according to Graduate Careers Australia.
Many of these graduates have already accepted they will not work in law, with only 70 per cent of those -surveyed in 2012 working in the legal field. The broader market for lawyers has also contracted, with the number of internet job ads for solicitors falling from a peak of about 6300 a month in mid-2008 to about 1800 a month in mid-2013.
The president of the Law Institute of Victoria, Geoff Bowyer, said law degrees should now be considered a good generalist qualification.
â€œThe law degree is changing from being a career-specific [degree] to a broad degree," he said. â€œLaw degrees are seen in corporate and government as a good base for making good administrative people. Arts used to be seen as that generalist field. In a socÂ¬iety where regulation is increasing, being able to [understand it] is a skill."
The Australian Law Studentsâ€™ Association said students needed to be told about the â€œbroad range of options" a law degree provides.
â€œThere is certainly angst among law students and recent graduates regarding the current state of the legal market and opportunities for employment," said Charlotte Thomas, president of the association and a fourth-year student in law and economics at the University of Adelaide.
TOUGH YEAR FOR â€˜JOBS AT ALL LEVELSâ€™
The legal industry is going through a rapid and painful transition as major firms consolidate and form international partnerships, outsourcing and offshoring of legal work Â¬continues apace, and fierce comp-etition and a weak economy forces firms to cut costs.
Part of the increase in postgraduate law student numbers is a move by some institutions, such as Melbourne University, to set Juris Doctor postgraduate law degrees. Another part is students doing Master of Laws courses and practising lawyers coming back to specialise.
Major firm King & Wood Mallesons said the market for graduates was tough in 2013. â€œAt the graduate level, the intake for summer clerks and graduates declined slightly last year, but it was a tough year for lawyers seeking jobs at all levels," spokeswoman Elle Lowe said.
â€œIt is cyclical and there will always be ebbs and flows between years in line with broader macro-economic trends. Most firms have had to tighten their belts and be conservative, but it looks like there should be an increase in the intake this year so things should stabilise."
In a submission to the federal governmentâ€™s review of demand-driven funding of universities last year, the Law Society of South Australia said the market was now so saturated, â€œthe reality is that even high-achieving students with diverse experience will struggle to find a job in the legal sector".
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