Supply of law school grads ‘far exceeds demand’
One of New Zealand’s most senior Queen’s Counsel is calling for law school prospectuses to carry clear warnings about the grim job market for newly minted lawyers.
Jim Farmer QC says the supply of graduates far exceeds demand and increasing numbers are chasing an ever-decreasing number of law firm jobs.
The warning, he says, should happen immediately and include an assessment of current and probable future situations in the legal job market. “I would also go further and argue strongly against an increase in student numbers in the law schools,” he says. “Any other view is simply irresponsible.”
Farmer first raised the issue in 2016, when the Vice Chancellor of Auckland University proposed increasing entry numbers from 330 to 500 for the highly-contested second-year (part II) places, when the study of law begins in earnest.
“That proposal not only runs against the market tide but, if adopted, would constitute a fraud on incoming students wishing to study law unless the dismal facts as to the job prospects for the majority of them are disclosed to them at the outset,” he says.
“The fact is that supply now far exceeds demand and unless a graduate has a straight-A honours degree, the prospects of finding a job in a law firm, large or medium-sized or small, or in a set of barristers’ chambers, are not good.
“Personally, I have found it depressing and concerning to see so many young lawyers, who have devoted five years of their lives to full-time study with the expectation of being able to practise law once they have achieved a law degree, disappointed and disillusioned that the opportunities for fulfilling their dreams are so limited.
“No doubt in most cases they also have student loans to repay and, ultimately, they will be faced with having to take unskilled employment just to deal with that problem.”
Farmer says the situation is not confined to New Zealand, with the US and Australia also experiencing an over-supply of law graduates.
Quoting from a story which appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald, he cites claims by the Australian Minister of Education that vice-chancellors had told him privately they use courses such as law, which have high fees but are popular and relatively cheap to teach, as profit centres for their universities.
“Profits from these degrees, it was said, are used to subsidise research or to teach more expensive courses in other disciplines.”
Not surprisingly, Farmer’s views are being challenged in academic circles.
Professor Penelope Mathew, the dean of the University of Auckland’s Law School, is quick to defend student numbers and the policy behind them.
Mathew says the increase in part II students from 330 to 500 is a phased growth taking place over 10 years with incremental increases of 30 students every two years.
“This is a tiny increase comparative to the demand for conjoint law degrees.”
She says the open entry system operating at the Auckland Law School for part 1 sees 1,000 or more students enrolling in the first year, some of whom take the ‘law and society’ course as general education. Most do not progress to part II of the LLB.
“This no doubt reflects the interest in the careers that a conjoint law degree will open up and the high employment statistics for law graduates which, it should be noted, compare very favourably with statistics for other graduates.
“The University of Auckland’s Graduate Destination Survey showed an employment rate of 98.5% with respect to those graduating with the undergraduate LLB (from a response rate of 19.7%).”
But many will not ultimately practise law.
A survey of 515 law students undertaken by the College of Law New Zealand in 2017 revealed 83% planned on becoming a practising lawyer, Mathew says.
But only 64% said they intended to complete their pre-admission studies, with 28% being unsure and 8% saying they did not intend to do so.
Further, 45% said the legal career path they wanted to follow was “government agency, ministry or local government”.
More recently, the New Zealand Law Society’s Snapshot of the Legal Profession in March 2019 concluded only about 57% of New Zealand law graduates are admitted as barristers and solicitors.
Mathew says it’s understandable many law graduates end up in other careers such as business, policy-making and advocacy.
“A law degree develops some highly desirable skills - advocacy, clear and critical thinking, for example - that are valuable in a variety of careers.
“Someone who ends up in business or as an entrepreneur might draw on their legal knowledge to help them make prudent decisions.
“Those working in policy or advocacy might be addressing issues such as climate change (to mention one topical example) and the law will be one area of knowledge relevant to their work, but obviously not the only one.”
Mathew says graduates featured in the Auckland Law School’s alumni publication demonstrate the wide array of career paths taken by former students.
They include people who have pursued highly successful careers in central and local government, music and journalism.
Even fast food chain McDonalds has benefitted from having a law graduate as one of its New Zealand franchisees.
After completing a degree in law, commerce and management at Otago University, Lauren McAuslin took over the management of her parents’ Blenheim franchise at the age of 22.
Today the now 34-year-old is New Zealand’s youngest franchisee, owning the New Plymouth franchise which rakes in about $10 million a year and is one of the top five revenue earners in Australasia.
“I remember being at friends’ birthday parties and people from law school would ask ‘which firm do you work for?’ she told Stuff late last year.
“I’d say, ‘I’m working at McDonalds.’ They’d say ‘really?’ But I choose what I do and I have control over my work life.
“There’s nothing like working on a Friday night when you’re really busy. It’s backs to the wall but you’re just going for it. That’s much more fun than sitting at a desk all day.”
High quality degree
Auckland lawyer Kiri Harkess, a partner at McElroys, is another who believes a law degree can be useful in many careers.
“I am not concerned about the number of law graduates who do not enter the profession, nor whether that is because they can’t find positions or because they chose not to practise law.
“These graduates will apply their skills and knowledge in other areas which is a benefit to us all.
“I think it is important to have people with legal knowledge, critical thinking and analytical skills working in all sectors of our society, not just law and similarly high income professions such as banking and finance.”
However, Harkess told LawNews “if what the legal profession wants and needs is only the best and brightest thinkers to study law and become (and remain) lawyers, we have too many law school places to achieve that.”
“But I suspect that fewer of the ‘best and brightest’ thinkers now choose to enter or stay in the legal profession than in the past. As a profession, we are simply not innovative enough.
“But I am wary of restricting entry to law school so that fewer people study law and have the opportunity to enter the legal profession.”
Harkess says a challenge to the profession is its lack of diversity, which begins at law school and narrows very quickly in the workforce.
“The academic system in our schools and universities already strongly favours students from advantaged backgrounds. Further restricting law school admission will exacerbate that.
“Increasing diversity in the profession will improve access to justice and enable us as a profession to better serve all users of the legal system. This is the outcome that I prefer for our profession.”
Like many law graduates, Harkess has had a number of twists and turns in her journey to become a lawyer.
At university in Wellington she studied for conjoint degrees in law and history but halfway through the course decided she would never practise law, even though she had wanted to be a lawyer since primary school.
“I didn’t enjoy law school - I was more interested in the history papers. I was also very interested in policy and government and I was considering a career in that area.
“After transferring to Auckland for my final year of law and graduating, I took another detour and spent a few years working in bars and restaurants and then commenced my legal career in my late 20s, purely for financial reasons.
“To my surprise I enjoyed the practice of law much more than its study.”
Harkess believes the funding model on which New Zealand’s tertiary institutions operate has many flaws and results in many “low quality tertiary qualifications on offer”.
“In my view these are the qualifications which offer false hope and promises to students, most of whom go into significant debt for qualifications that have limited career prospects or for which their earning capacity does not justify the debt.”
However, she says a law degree remains a high quality degree with most graduates earning a relatively high income, so the investment is worthwhile.
“It is not surprising to me that in this tertiary environment law is a popular course and the universities capitalise on this.
“If I was a university student now I would choose to spend my money and time on the highest quality degree course to which I could gain entry.”
Harkess also agrees with Jim Farmer’s contention that the growing number of law graduates means many will have difficulty finding employment as lawyers.
“In my view this is partly because with the large numbers of law graduates the ‘screening of applicants’ is done by law firms as employers.”
Graduates also face difficulties because law firms now need fewer employees to do the same work. This is the case for all legal workers but particularly for graduate lawyers.
“Technology has almost fully automated many of the tasks historically done by graduate lawyers - discovery and document management, for example.
“The prevalence of legal tech means it is even more important that law graduates hone their critical thinking and analytical skills. As lawyers we all have access to the same legal information: it’s what we do with that information that differentiates us.”
Meanwhile Jim Farmer remains convinced that law schools like Auckland are accepting too many students and rejects some of the reasons being cited for the increase in their numbers.
“In my view it is no defence to the large number of law students currently studying in the law schools to claim, if it be so claimed, that a law degree is a form of liberal arts study that is justified for that reason alone.
“If that is put forward as a justification for increasing law student numbers, then I would disagree.
“Of course there are some aspects of legal study that engender debate on the big issues in society that transcend rules of law. Jurisprudence is the most obvious and perhaps constitutional law.
“Nevertheless, there is no escaping the technical nature of law which is, in essence, a rule-based system. All the core courses that make up a law degree and involve the teaching and learning of law are heavily textually and precedentially based.
“Liberal thinking plays little part in that, no matter what may be claimed to the contrary.”
Farmer says there may or may not be a case for having a Bachelor of Legal Studies comprised of law and society-type courses as an alternative or supplement to a Bachelor of Arts .
But he says it “would not be a law degree that would be accepted as equipping a graduate to apply for admission as a barrister and solicitor”.