Does the Law School Experience Adequately Prepare Young Lawyers for Collaborative Workplace Culture?

Every year, Australian law schools produce from anywhere between 7,500 to 15,000 law graduates depending on who you ask. This is an extraordinary figure as the total number of practicing solicitors in Australia (as of 2016) is around 71,509. So, at the very best there, law graduates entering the workforce are one-tenth the number of practicing solicitors. These are bleak numbers any way you put it. Obviously, the numbers alone should not deter the young and ambitious law student. However, this author believes that legal education continuously fails to prepare law students for legal practice.

The System Works

An argument can be made that law schools are by their very definition, ‘schools’, and should focus primarily on the academic side of the law. Additionally, the ‘practice’ side of the law is an area that is already adequately catered for by compulsory graduate legal practice courses that law graduates must go through before being admitted to practice.

It Doesn’t Really Work

Any way you look at these figures and arguments, the sober fact that the legal industry is as competitive as ever is hard to deny. Law firms are tightening their belts and not hiring as much as they did in the past. Contrast this with the unstoppable force that is the flood of law graduates from law schools that sell the idea of an illustrious and well-compensated career in the law, you end up with a massive conundrum. How do these students find work when supply for jobs is at an all-time low?

The fallout from the Global Financial Crisis and the gradual (but inevitable) disruption of the legal industry will present a challenge law schools did not anticipate needing to address – how to teach our graduates to be employable. Currently, law schools paw off these issues to their respective universities’ student employment and jobs centres, washing their hands off the impossible task of helping a seemingly infinite supply of graduates find work in a despairingly finite graduate job market.  But this is not enough. General advice on how to be more employable will not help law students defy the odds and secure a graduate job in the law. Rather, law students must be provided specific support and guidance in order to more effectively compete against their peers for coveted graduate positions.

In this climate, standing out against the grain is a tall order. One that law schools MUST address.

Law Schools have a Duty of Care

Numerous articles have been written about graduate employability but this article specifically seeks to ask whether law schools do enough to prepare law graduates for the realities of the workplace, chiefly the shift in mentality and temperament from a self-centred perspective on the law to a collaborative approach to work.  

Workplaces in today’s economy put collaborative skills at the top of their wish list for young recruits. The traditional idea of a legal education is that law graduates are adequately armed with technical research skills to add value to firms or organisations. However, I argue that a legal education does not adequately provide the right temperament for law graduates to succeed as young lawyers.

There exist a large body of evidence to suggest that the key to career success lies with interpersonal and soft skills rather than the cold, hard technical abilities that law degrees impart. This applies most pertinently to lawyers as the core underpinning operational concept of a law firm is one of a business. Lawyers must find, satisfy and keep clients. Lawyers must be able to cultivate a strong and resilient professional network in order to sustain and grow the business of their respective firms. Lawyers must work well with their colleagues and maintain strong relationships with those also in the profession – despite the fact that legal practice is adversarial and fosters intense competition. This author would argue that the lawyers must be taught early on how to balance intense completion between peers and building strong relationships with those same peers.

At the end of the day, a lawyer is more likely to need to know how to work well in a team and build a robust business than legal theories and idea – not to discount their importance. The University of Sydney lists communication, teamwork, problem-solving, initiative and enterprise, and technology skills as part of their ‘list of eight desirable employability traits’. These five traits have more to do with interpersonal skills than what the current system of individualised academic benchmarking offers. The simple fact is that academia does not a good legal professional make.

Law schools make law students work as individual silos for good reason. There is an overarching focus on the academic side of the law for legal education; a disposition towards pitting law students against each other; of prioritising academic achievement above all else. This is a false idol that law schools must dispose of in order to truly produce employable and robust law graduates.   

Law Schools can Meet this Duty of Care

This author believes the answer lies with a reimagining of the law school experience and value proposition. Law schools should move away from the traditional idea of their role as academic institutions and be more prepared to train students in the various aspects of legal practice. Law schools should also shun the contemporary Australian higher education trend of seeing themselves as mere content providers rather than educators. No, law schools are more than able to and should conscionably shoulder this burden.

Law schools should move towards offering more practice-based units, more group work assessments and a stronger emphasis on the practical elements of legal practice – firm management, firm reporting etc… The legal profession in Australia had practical origins where legal education was taught according to an apprenticeship model. The emphasis back then was on the practical side of lawyering. Over time, legal education in Australia shifted further towards the theoretical aspect until it tipped over. This author argues that law schools should move the needle back towards practical legal education in order to produce law students that are competitive and job ready.

The obvious caveat is that in pursuing this practice-centric approach, law schools must be careful that they don’t alienate and ostracise the more academically-inclined students who are looking towards academia as their primary career path.

As with all things, the deciding factor is balance.

Better Alternatives

Not getting a graduate job in the law is not the end of the world. I know this segment screams counter-intuition as the vast majority of what was written before this was about securing a place in a law firm’s hallowed halls. However, a law degree is a wonderfully versatile qualification which offers its holders the ability to segway into a multitude of industries.

Beyond Law has a wonderfully presented diagram of potential industries and professions for lawyers to consider outside the law. Beyond that list, a law degree will arm graduates with the tenacity and grit to handle hard work that is the key to success.

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At the end of the day, a degree is what you make of it. The most important thing that law graduates must be able to do (at least according to this author) is to sell yourself – your unique skills and cultural fit with an organisation. Nail that and the world is your oyster.

Bernard Goh will be in his penultimate year of a Bachelor of Laws degree at the University of Tasmania in 2019. He is currently working as a research and project intern for the Australia Institute and is an incoming summer intern at the McKell Institute. Additionally, he is running a student-led consulting group based in Tasmania, ‘Stratagem Policy Consulting’, with the help of like-minded peers. You can connect with Bernard on LinkedIn.