There was a time when a law degree was considered a passport to a career in that very arena – the law.
But with thousands of students a year graduating from Australia’s 41 law schools, and with technology bringing more efficiencies to the legal profession – such as online legal services – the traditional notion of what lawyers do is rapidly evolving.
There’s increasing recognition that a law degree sets you up for a range of career options – often as part of a broader education.
Statistics from the Law Council of Australia show there are 65,000 Australian lawyers registered with bar associations and law societies. And although there are more than 7,000 law graduates each year, job prospects for people with a law degree are strong. The Australian Department of Education’s 2016 Graduate Outcomes Survey shows 73 per cent of undergraduate and 85 per cent of postgraduate law and paralegal students gained full-time employment within 12 months, with starting salaries some of the highest for all study areas.
One of the reasons for the high employment rate is that a growing number of students are combining law with a range of other degrees, applying those skills in a diverse range of careers.
ABC Canberra Press Gallery political reporter Matthew Doran is fascinated by how the law impacts almost every facet of public life, whether it’s law and order, consumer rights and protections, business deals or the operation of government.
“I combined law with journalism because my real desire was always to become a journalist and I was just lucky that UniSA opened its Law School when I was in Year 12 offering the only opportunity in Adelaide to study a double degree in Law and Journalism,” Doran says.
“Studying law gives you an analytical edge that I’ve found has helped me to quickly process large volumes of information and distil it into a package the general public can easily digest.
“In television news, it’s rare to be given more than two minutes to explain what can be complex government policies. In radio news, there’s even less time. And when it comes to an online audience, you still have to make an issue interesting to hold on to an audience.
“In the same way a journalist has to pick the strongest angle for their story, lawyers and barristers have to pick the strongest arguments for their client’s case.
“I think there can be a blinkered view of where a law degree can take you – solicitor, barrister, judge’s associate – and while they are incredibly important and admirable professions, a law degree opens up so many more avenues and puts you in good position to perform well in an increasingly competitive job market.”
Centre for Workplace Excellence Research Professor Carol Kulik says employers are looking for candidates who have skills that go far beyond their qualifications and experience – something that legal studies provides.
“To be successful in any industry we need a set of ‘transferable skills’ – skills that are not specific to one particular career path but are generic across all employment sectors,” Professor Kulik says.
“This means that the specialist, technical skills associated with different roles may be less important than the skills that can be transferred between different jobs and different employment sectors.
“Organisations are characterised by constant change. It’s very difficult to identify today the exact skills that will be needed tomorrow (or next week) and as a result, it has become more important to hire people who are resilient and adaptable – who can ride change effectively and steer change at an organisational level.”
While most students still choose a degree based on interests and aptitude, rather than picking a course for potential future income or its use in a different sector, recruiters agree that adding law as part of a double degree gives graduates a significant advantage.
Executive recruiter and director of Axia People, Matt Hobby, says people are the most important assets of every business or organisation and the bar has been well and truly lifted when it comes to the range of transferable skills and knowledge candidates need to have to land the jobs they want.
“I call transferable skills ‘employability skills’ because after learning them in one aspect of study, work or life you are able to transfer them to another and successfully navigate the complexities of a range of professions,” Hobby says.
“Writing concisely, comparing theories and arguments and reaching a conclusion based on evidence are some of the most highly valued of these skills and candidates with degrees partnered with law have them in spades.
“Candidates can’t just complete a single degree these days and expect to have a job for life, they need to appreciate that to stand out from the crowd a double degree with law is far more valuable and prestigious because of the rigor required to achieve the qualification.
“There are many different sectors that value the skills of law graduates. More and more we find that if people don’t do a double degree straight up, then they often need to go on to do postgraduate study.”
Graduate Careers Australia research fellow Bruce Guthrie says that while a lot of graduates will go on to practise law, it opens up many other possibilities.
“You generally have to be a higher calibre of student to get into a law or double degree, so it already marks you out as a good prospect for recruiters,” Guthrie says.
“Our last survey showed that the full-time employment rate for double degree graduates was 74 per cent, compared with 68 per cent for single degree graduates.
“Whether they work as a lawyer or not, the skills law graduates develop in their studies are never wasted because they graduate with a wide range of transferable skills and are highly employable.”
Head of the University of South Australia’s School of Law, Professor Wendy Lacey, says the design of UniSA’s Law School, which is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, was driven by a desire to deliver a contemporary, relevant and practical curriculum that prepares graduates for a range of professional roles.
“About 60 per cent of our students study a double degree and all will graduate with, not just the legal knowledge that equips them to be good lawyers or work in the legal sector, but also with practical skills in communication, research, negotiation and dispute resolution. That means they have both the skills and the knowledge to compete for a wide range of graduate positions from the outset,” Prof Lacey says.
“Studying a double degree with say commerce, journalism, international relations or science enhances their ability to get a job and we know through our Law Alumni Surveys that we have the best graduate outcomes in South Australia so these multi-disciplinary qualifications are serving our students well.
“Whether a single or double degree is undertaken, there is enormous value in the skills law students acquire in critical reasoning and thinking, in being able to solve complex problems and then being able to communicate them to different audiences from clients to parliamentarians, to ministers, to a volunteer working to support a community group.”
UniSA Professor of Law and media law specialist Rick Sarre is a big fan of the double law degree, encouraging both of his children to study law with another discipline.
“If you’re doing a journalism degree, a psychological sciences degree or an engineering degree, studying law as well just gives you that edge to ask ‘what are the legal consequences if this story goes to air in this way?’; or ‘what is my legal duty of care to this client?’; or ‘how does intellectual property law allow me to get the best out of my innovative engineering process?’
“The ability to research what you need to know and discard irrelevant information is so important in many careers and a large part of a law degree is learning the art of distilling information and then effectively communicating the key points,” Prof Sarre says.
Reporter Matthew Doran says his double degree gave him a distinct advantage.
“Throughout my career as a journalist, I’ve found my in-depth understanding of the legal system has helped me succeed in a wide range of situations, like early on when I was singled out as someone who could regularly cover the local courts round in both Adelaide and Canberra without needing any hand holding,” Doran says.
“I was also given the opportunity to cover the incredibly complex Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption, securing a number of exclusives which gave me a competitive edge when I threw my hat into the ring for a full-time job with our federal politics team in Parliament House.”
In the same way journalism is a public service, a law degree offers a myriad of opportunities for graduates to make a real difference in government or financial services where employees are expected to understand relationship management processes, networking and business development.
Investment analyst with Australia’s Future Fund, Rishi Dua, completed a UniSA law and commerce degree in 2013, combining his passion for corporate finance with the practical intention of broadening his career opportunities. His understanding of law has played a critical role in each of his jobs.
“I realised pretty early on in my studies that a traditional legal career wasn’t for me but my double degree gave me options, opening up a lot of doors including to my first job – a graduate role in one of the big four Australian accounting firms,” Dua says.
“I am now working for the Future Fund – Australia’s sovereign wealth fund – helping the team invest millions of dollars for the benefit of future generations of Australians.
“The skills I learnt studying law have been highly transferable and it isn’t just me, I know law graduates who have become bankers, management consultants, political advisors and investors, just to name a few.
“Being able to work with our legal advisers and understand the key legal issues during the due diligence process of a transaction is critical in ensuring a successful outcome, as well as ensuring our rights are protected.
“Lawyers continue to play an essential role in nearly every aspect of society, because every profession and person is affected by the law. Studying law, particularly in a double degree, gives graduates a competitive edge and a host of professional choices."