Challenging times for law (and other) graduates

Hey crew, what a stupidly hot day that then went really dark and stormy and emo on us.

I spent a little bit of time on the internet today – big surprise! In my view, the best internet forum site IN THE WORLD is Australian site Whirlpool. It was originally set up to compare broadband services when ADSL was first taking off in this country, but it has since expanded to cover just about any topic you might be interested in. It is certainly more readable and usable than Reddit, it’s local, and it is my go-to source for being social when I don’t actually want to physically interact with anyone in person.

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Anyway, one thread I always keep a bit of an eye on is the one titled ‘How to Improve Prospects For Law Grads‘, which as of the date of this post (14 January 2016) has 4 parts, with around 90 pages per part, and say 30 posts per page. That’s a lot of posting about the prospects for law graduates (maths time: 30 * 90 * 4 = ___ )

I also keep an eye on the thread about the original ‘Predator’ movie (see bottom right of above picture – come join the debate!), to keep things in perspective. Both threads contain very strong opinions on their respective subjects.

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Surprisingly, the general tone of the posts in the law grad thread, which almost all seem to be from final year law students (what a surprise…), isn’t anger at an inability for new law graduates to get roles with firms.

Sure, there are a few of those types of posts, and there are a few people that can’t help but respond along the lines of: ‘You’re all not trying hard enough or aren’t smart enough’.

Disregard these, and you find that the general view of posters is that the recruitment process is really hard to understand, particularly when there are a huge number of posts containing anecdotal evidence from those claiming to have lots of job experience and who say they still cannot get a graduate role. ‘It’s not just about marks’ they cry.

Similar posts come from those that are top at their university and still can’t get a role, and from those that seem to think they’re awesome just because they are a law student and cannot understand why this alone doesn’t guarantee them a job at a top tier firm.

As I love maths, I am keen to look into what, objectively and statistically, the results for law graduates actually are.

Are they really finding it hard to get a job? Is it harder for law graduates than other graduates?

The statistics are all a bit over the place, sorry. The set of statistics I trust the most are those that come from the AFR Partnership Survey, which are updated semi-annually in July and January, so we have January 2016 figures that have just come out.

The results of the survey of 41 firms (a few like Allen & Overy and Minter Ellison didn’t report figures) show that in January 2016, those firms had 9,356 non-partner fee earning lawyers, compared 9,889 in July 2015.

The true numbers are probably closer to 11,000 in each reported period, once you count the fee earners at the firms that don’t report to the AFR, but I don’t feel that the fact some firms don’t report to the AFR affects the trends the survey shows to any great extent.

So based on these results, there has been a clear reduction in the number of fee earners who are not partners, and maybe some of this decline feeds down to the graduate level and means less graduate positions are available.

What I want to know, then, is whether this decline is the result of less graduates being employed (and perhaps even some being let go), or less senior lawyers and senior associates (again, some might be fired but generally this group tend to move on to jobs outside of law firms given their experience and client contacts).

If the graduate intake numbers stay the same for the two reported periods, then the difficulties faced by law graduates in getting their first role probably then comes from the number graduating each year – the issue might be that there is more competition for the same number of roles. That’s a hard one to fix. Try telling your mates studying law to quit so that you have a better chance of a job.

Statistics on where the decline in fee earner numbers comes from in firms (graduates or senior lawyers) are a little hard to come by, and when you do get them they come from different sources, using different data points at different times. The result is that we are not really comparing lawyer apples with other lawyer apples (that was not meant to sound dirty, you just made it that way in your head).

We can turn to the AFR again, who said in October 2015 that ‘The number of law graduates has reached a record high with 14,600 graduates entering a legal jobs market comprising just 66,000 solicitors.’ Woah. That’s a lot of graduates.

Graduate Careers Australia’s GradStats report for 2015 then reports that 25.9% of law graduates are looking for jobs, versus the national average for graduates across all degrees at 31.2%. Hey, that’s not so bad! Law graduates actually have better chances of getting a job than the average university graduate. However I think these averages are skewed somewhat by the fact that some degrees have a very, very high proportion of graduates looking for work. Law graduates should be grateful they are not in the performing arts, where graduates in that area have an unemployment rate of 53.1% post graduation (but are properly happier and more free in their lives than law graduates).

I can’t find any meaningful statistics on senior lawyer and senior associate movements, but if we use the movements in partners at law firms from the AFR statistics mentioned above, it would appear that senior associates are moving from top tier to mid tier firms rather than out of the law entirely, so the overall numbers of lawyers at the top of the law firm pyramid across all major and medium firms probably isn’t changing so much.

The results for law graduates are very close to those for accountants, economists, and other financial and professional based services, so I suspect that what our mates on Whirlpool are complaining about is part of a broader change in the job prospects for graduates with degrees that have traditionally resulted in graduate roles at professional service firms like law firms, banks and accounting firms.

What does this all mean? I’m glad I’m not in my final year of law school and looking to get a job. I definitely don’t tick any of the boxes that my friends on the Whirlpool graduate lawyer thread see as important for getting a job. My grade average? A solid ‘Credit’ in most subjects. Job experience before getting a job as a lawyer? None to speak of, I wasn’t a clerk or paralegal. I just kind of walked into a role as a graduate lawyer. Different times my friends.

I am not sure what to make of all this. I can’t really offer any advice to current law students trying to get jobs as I don’t work for a big firm any more, or even a cute little one. I kinda just run my own thing.

I also need to think some more about what the statistics mean. The economist in me says there is definitely a supply issue – lots of graduates, not enough roles – but then doesn’t this represent an opportunity for employers other than law firms to grab some great graduates with business and legal skills, that they might not have been able to get in the past?  Or do all law graduates just want to work for a law firm and that’s that? Hmm… brain faltering in heat. Will come up with an uninformed view once things here cool down.

If any law students or graduates want to chat, I’m more than happy to share my experiences and give my thoughts. Best of luck to y’all.





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