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Law Grad Employment: Hard Truths from a Managing Partner

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Every year thousands of Australian law students graduate into a market which cannot absorb more than a fraction of them. Clearly there is a need for structural change and I think the solutions are fairly obvious, but they’re not much comfort to you if you’re already at law school or recently graduated. You need something more immediately practical.

I can give about three of you a job, and for the rest I can only offer some hard truths. The problem you face is not just oversupply; it’s also a contraction in demand. That is not just a temporary economic cycle thing, it’s permanent structural change. So, first hard truth: get used to it. The market isn’t going to improve.

For those already graduated, this is a particularly depressing fact. With so many law students banking up behind you, you will have to face up to the reality that many of you simply aren’t going to be lawyers. While that’s a good thing for society, it’s not exactly a consolation to you. But the brick wall you’ve been beating your head against isn’t going anywhere. It may be time to reconsider your other degree.

For law students, the prospect isn’t pretty either, but you have a bit more time to bring some constructive thought to your own career and get your head out of the still-dominant summer-clerkship-as-the-only-route-to-success paradigm. It isn’t, and it never was.Those who start thinking a bit more laterally than “how many clerkship interviews did you get” will give themselves a far better chance of turning this degree into something useful and rewarding.

Practically, what does that mean? For starters, stop listening to other people and think about your own career from the perspective of what might make you happy and fulfilled. If you still want to be a lawyer, consider all the available meanings of that word. Everything outside of private practice in a commercial firm isn’t an “alternative” career; it’s a career proper. Think about what “success” actually means to you. If it means money and status, then you’re a sociopath and I can’t help you. If you’re normal, however, it should mean something with a bit more substance than just what other people think of you.

If you still decide yes, you want to be a lawyer, fair enough. It’s a great job, I love it. So then how are you going to make yourself employable?

You know that CV you’ve been assiduously building, in accordance with conventional wisdom? D+ average, tick. Extra-curricular activities, tick. Six months on exchange at the University of Bonn; volunteering in Cambodia; Law Society Social Director; community legal centre volunteer, all ticks. Well, it’s true that that may still get you an interview, but in a more deconstructed market, where the opportunities are increasingly niche and specialised, generic CVs just don’t work so well.

If I was a thinking law student (which I wasn’t, and I’m confident I still wouldn’t be), I’d be looking towards the end of my degree and asking myself where the jobs are going to be. If I want to be a lawyer, what kind of lawyer is going to be in demand? I’d be thinking about differentiation and competitive advantage. That’s how new businesses succeed in a crowded market. They identify the gap, and fashion themselves to fit right into it.

So I’m only asking the impossible of you. That is, to step outside the cultural norm of law school which presently dictates how you should be contemplating your future career, and think for yourself. To look at the economy and identify what kind of lawyers it’s going to need. And then to start fashioning your CV in a way that is going to make you an attractive commodity.

Alternatively, you can go to the uni bar and have a whinge over a subsidised beer. Also a completely valid option and probably what I’d choose to do.

Also, keep some perspective. This isn’t Somalia. You’ll be ok.

Michael Bradley is the Managing Partner at Marque Lawyers in Sydney.

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