Traditionally, all a lawyer needed to be considered highly educated was a humble Bachelor of Laws (LLB). There have always been lawyers who went on to study a Master of Laws (LLM), but it was generally out of a personal or academic interest.
The market, however, has changed in recent years. The number of law students has more than doubled, with data from the government’s education and employment departments showing a jump from 6,149 in 2001 to 14,600 in 2014, according to an analysis by The Australian Financial Review. From more experienced lawyers, firms are demanding greater commercial acumen, large networks and sterling credentials.
In this crowded marketplace, is a master’s degree the best way to stand out?
Beyond a bachelor
According to Neville Carter, CEO and principal of the College of Law in Sydney, the legal profession has traditionally not placed much emphasis on ongoing education.
“Historically, the legal profession has been the ‘learned’ profession, past tense – the learning’s over,” Mr Carter says, but also points out that lawyers are much more interested in higher qualifications.
“There’s definitely something happening. The mood of practising lawyers is much more about how they use education strategies – and other strategies – to advance their career than it used to be.”
The importance of higher qualifications is increasing as the economic fortunes of the profession diminish, he adds.
“With the tougher job market, people seek different ways to differentiate themselves – to deepen and broaden their professional skill set,” he says.
Those who might benefit most from undertaking a master’s degree, he believes, are lawyers with a bit of experience under their belt.
“I don’t think newly licensed lawyers really differentiate themselves in the marketplace by a master’s qualification,” he says.
“At that all important stage – two, three, four, five years out – it starts to become an increasingly important instrument of intelligent career planning.”
Dean of UNSW Law School David Dixon agrees. However, he suggests that, in some cases, going right back to school could be better than the alternatives for new graduates.
“Particularly at the minute when times are tough, you’re probably better off spending another year studying than spending a year doing a job that’s not the job you want to do,” Mr Dixon says.
“You’d certainly expect that employers are going to look at someone who has taken the time to spend another year studying over someone who has spent a year just working jobs to pay the rent.”
When the College of Law launched its master’s program, Mr Carter expected the target demographic to be lawyers with four to five years’ PQE. However, the uptake has surprised him.
“Against our expectations, we’ve drawn people from all stages of their career and quite an even mix across newer to more experienced lawyers,” he says.
Louisa Condous, senior consultant at recruitment agency Jacinta Fish Legal, suggests a master’s can help consolidate a lawyer’s reputation in a specific practice area.
“Having a master’s is going to be another sales point,” she says. “The larger firms are going to be more impressed by somebody having a master’s because they want to sell experts. The ability to do that is enhanced by the fact that someone has their master’s in that area.”
As more people pursue higher qualifications, however, a master’s degree might not be worth what it once was. Postgrad degrees have become so common that recruiters are no longer impressed by a string of letters after a name, Ms Condous finds.
“We’ve definitely seen an increase in it, people trying to give themselves a competitive edge,” Ms Condous says.
“It’s more common to see people have their master’s on their CV but I don’t think, as recruiters, we place a lot of weight on it.”
In many cases, employers are often more impressed by an applicant’s hands-on legal experience.
“I must say I do see it more and more on people’s CVs and I suppose I’m a bit blasé about it now. I also don’t think firms look at results in people’s master’s [degrees]; they just look at the fact that you have it.”
The weight that law firms place on employees holding a master’s degree or other higher qualifications varies widely, not just across firms but across disciplines too, according to Mr Carter.
“It’s one thing to […] strengthen your technical skill set and knowledge set just so you can be better at your work. It’s another thing entirely to use these qualifications to position for advancement in your career,” he said.
Ms Condous also suggests a master’s degree might be less valuable for lawyers wanting to work in-house at a corporation.
“For in-house it’s not as important because you’re less of an expert in a particular area – you’re probably wanted for your broader skills, broader commercial skills,” she says.
An element of surprise
If a lawyer wants to pursue a master’s degree, finding a way to put a new spin on it is crucial.
UNSW Law’s Mr Dixon has seen growing demand for broader interdisciplinary degrees, such as Master of Business Law or Master of Environment Law Policy.
As law firms increasingly expect their lawyers to be business savvy, some lawyers are choosing to pursue a Master of Business Administration. However, Mr Dixon recommends finding a degree with a larger law emphasis.
“With the difficulties in the current job market, what people need to develop is a specialist skill that employers are looking for, and having that kind of interdisciplinary knowledge is a really good way of doing that.”
Another way to make your master’s degree stand out is to head overseas.
“There is an increasing internationalisation of the master’s degrees,” Mr Dixon says.
“The students who get first-class honours in their undergraduate very often go and work in a firm for a couple of years, get a bit of training, get a bit of grounding, and then will go off and do additional study overseas, and I encourage them to do that.”
Weighing the commitment
Pursuing a master’s degree is not a decision that should be taken lightly, according to Ms Condous.
“It can be really expensive, so I suppose it depends on how much you want to pursue that area of expertise,” she says.
In some cases, lawyers might be able to rely on support from their firm or organisation – especially from the bigger players.
“If you get to a certain level at the top-tier firms, they’ll sometimes pay for you to do your master’s,” Ms Condous says. “At Allens Linklaters and King & Wood Mallesons, there’ll be lots of people who are at senior associate level doing a master’s paid for by the firm.”
However, not everyone can rely on support – and Allens associate Sophie Matthiesson warned the cost can be prohibitive.
“It’s something to consider carefully because they are expensive – and at American universities they are even more expensive.”
Money aside, the investment of time can also be huge, she emphasises. At some universities, students can be expected to give up outside activities to focus on their degrees.
“At Cambridge, you’re not actually allowed to work, that’s quite a strict rule. Cambridge is a different beast really – you stay in colleges, you’re there every day and it’s a different experience,” she adds.
More broadly, however, Ms Condous suggests universities were increasingly looking to fit study around students’ lives, offering online or part-time courses.
Mr Dixon believes that trend is already underway, with UNSW increasingly offering part-time and flexible studying options in response to demand from students.
“We have to cater for the kind of variety of people who are going to be studying, so the master’s degrees are very flexible,” he says.
Another shift is allowing students to study lowered course loads – for example, one subject a semester – to allow them to work around other commitments.
Mr Carter says that the College of Law started its master’s programs because of the market demand. The College conducted a multi-state survey in 2007, asking legal professionals what was missing from their portfolio of professional development.
The results? Lawyers were looking for formal academic qualifications, but grounded in practical reality.
“We were astonished by that, we did not expect that the legal profession would be interested in the way other professional groups are in higher qualifications.”
Case study: A Cambridge master’s degree
Allens associate Sophie Matthiesson pursued a master’s in competition law. She believes that it has helped her get to where she is and will continue to help her career progression.
Ms Matthiesson completed an arts degree at Melbourne University, and then pursued law at Monash University before completing her master’s at the University of Cambridge in England.
“When I was at Herbert Smiths, I worked as a judicial assistant for the master of the rolls at the Court of Appeal and I think that having the master’s helped to get that job. Then having that job led on to the next one,” she says.
“I’m a big believer in experience, but I think having these qualifications help you get experience and then off you go from there.”
She believes an overseas stint was especially helpful towards her career.
“I would say going to a different university, whether it’s an Australian one or in the UK or elsewhere, is a good idea,” she adds.
“To not just go through your undergraduate and continue into your master’s at the same university, I think getting more different experiences is always positive.”
Ms Matthiesson is considering going to the Bar or working within academia at some stage in her career, and believes it will be vital to have a master’s under her belt if she decides to pursue that.
“It’s definitely important for the Bar because it’s more academic and it seems to be more expected,” she says.
“It’s almost used as a filter to even get in the door now.”