There is significant public good in having people with legal training working across all sectors of our economy. A law degree comes with analytical, reasoning, research and communication skills.
Recent media discussion about the value of a law degree in preparing graduates for a broad range of careers deserves closer examination.
While others have already eloquently argued that a law degree sets graduates up for a career both within and outside the law, the benefits to community from the public good of a law degree warrant further consideration.
One claim that is made regularly is that our universities are graduating too many law students. Data from the Australian Council of Law Deans shows that in 2015 the total number of law graduates was 7,583 – far less than the 15,000 that is often quoted. Careers data also suggests that law graduates do well compared to many other disciplines when it comes to graduate outcomes.
The most recent Graduate Outcomes Survey found that nationally 74.8% of law graduates found full time employment after four months, which is higher than the national average for graduate employment of 71.8%.
Our own Melbourne Law School data on employment outcomes for the class of 2015 reveals a 96% employment rate among the 80% who answered the survey. While over two thirds of those surveyed have taken on graduate legal positions, a further 10% are employed in graduate programs with government, business and management consultancies, and another 17% in legal and general roles that are not part of a formal program.
This brings me to our Prime Minister’s comments that students should only study law if they want a career as a lawyer.
There is enormous public benefit to be derived from having people with legal training playing active roles across all sectors of our economy and public life.
A law degree ought to teach graduates to: think analytically, including how to evaluate empirical and logical claims; to marshal arguments; and to succinctly communicate. These are generic skills, imparted through the study of law, which are of as much value in a government policy unit, a business strategy team or a board room, as they are inside a law firm, an in-house counsel office or a barrister or judge’s chambers.
If you add to this a profound understanding of government (including our constitutional and administrative law systems); sustained insight in the ways in which states regulate society; and a deep knowledge of the law and how it is developed, including international and comparative laws and institutions, a graduate can be of great utility whether working as a lawyer or not.
While it is true that many students choose to study law because they wish to pursue a career in the legal profession; others are looking for the analytical, reasoning, research and communication skills taught by a law degree, alongside learning about what law is and how it is made. This degree provides a solid foundation for careers in business, government and the community sector, locally and internationally.
The pace of socio-economic change today, both within the legal profession and other sectors, means that law graduates need to be prepared to work in sectors navigating globalisation, innovation and technology-based change.
A rigorous legal education today equips graduates to analyse changes arising from these influences and contribute to the challenges of regulation, whether as a lawyer with clients, or working in a sector impacted by these developments.
The benefits of those who are legally trained working in a range of sectors, should not be confused with discussion about the merits of existing legal education. That is another debate and law schools, working with the profession and those employing our graduates generally, need to be in dialogue to ensure curriculum is relevant and challenging.
As someone who has been involved in legal education for over 20 years, I have seen many students I have taught go on to make a significant contribution across a variety of sectors.
Law graduates can be found working in sport, the arts, finance, government, the not for profit sector, the military, media and innovative start-ups.
Indeed, many of the country’s highest-ranking politicians, business and community leaders have a degree in law. The Prime Minister himself has a law degree, as do 10 other members of his 23-person cabinet. Of the shadow cabinet, 11 out of 21 have a law degree.
To say that a law degree sets you up for only a career in the law insufficiently considers the public benefit of a legal education.
While legal education began as a technical qualification, it has also been a generalist degree for more than half a century. We need to be mindful of the public good derived from legal education and avoid calls to reduce it to a technical qualification.
If the Prime Minister’s comments lead to more transparent and robust data concerning law schools’ employment outcomes, students and employers alike will be better off.
Professor Pip Nicholson is Dean of Melbourne Law School. This article was originally published in The University of Melbourne’s Pursuit.