Universities are setting law graduates up for disaster

Universities are setting law graduates up for disaster

18 October 2021 By Stefanie Costi
Universities are setting law graduates up for disaster

Tertiary institutions are the catalyst for law graduates leaving the industry for good, and it’s about time they do something about it, writes Stefanie Costi.

The legal industry is, indeed, ready for a cultural shake-up. Now more than ever.

Last week, I wrote a piece in Lawyers Weekly about the bullying and harassment of law graduates within the legal industry. 

The response I received was staggering.

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I was absolutely floored by the amount of people – junior and senior practitioners alike – who reached out to me to say how much the article resonated with them in some way. It was both humbling and, sadly, quite shocking and eye-opening.

I noticed a common thread throughout the feedback. Nearly every person that reached out to me shared that universities should hold some (not insignificant) amount of blame for the ongoing bullying and harassment that occurs against junior lawyers.

Here’s why.

A vicious cycle

There are two steps to this disastrous cycle in which law graduates unwittingly find themselves. 

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First, universities churn out law graduates at a rapid rate, knowing full well that there are not enough graduate-level opportunities to go around. In doing so, they are effectively “cashing in” on young people’s dreams of polished, wood-panelled courtrooms without consciously considering their future prospects and overall wellbeing.

Then, law graduates get a job. The senior practitioners that they work for – like the institutions they have just graduated from – know full well that the number of new graduates seeking employment compared to the available graduate-level opportunities is hugely tipped out of the graduate’s favour. So, senior practitioners do not care if they bully, harass and mistreat graduates because they know there is a conga line of graduates in their wake who are ready to put their hands up for mistreatment regardless of how much it sucks. At least they have a job in law, right?

And, the vicious cycle continues, over and over, resulting in capable graduates now battered and bruised leaving the law for good.

No young gun should fall victim to the cycle.

But what is even more concerning is that this arrogant and careless cycle stems from a lack of action from our universities to take the measures necessary to ensure it does not begin again in the first place.

University enrolment applications continue to rise (spokespeople for the University of Sydney, the University of New South Wales, and the University of Queensland told The Sydney Morning Herald back in February that they had experienced a lift in domestic applications in 2021) as law schools sell that opportunity of a lifetime in the form of an “accomplished and successful” career in law. But, the reality is that the only souvenirs that some graduates will receive is an overwhelming HECS or FEE-HELP debt and resentment from completing a degree that they will only marginally use.

Reality v the institution

Mission statements published by universities on their websites are (finally) beginning to speak the truth to aspiring lawyers.

The University of Western Australia states that its mission is to “provide a creative and supportive teaching, learning and research environment of legal excellence that fosters critical thought, ethical scholarship and practice, and connects with diverse communities”, while Monash University states, “we guarantee our students a place in the clinical legal education program to build their knowledge, experience, and confidence”.

Bond University crows, “we are a prestigious school of law defining what is best in professional and skills-based legal education, imbued with a spirit to innovate, a commitment to influence, and a dedication to educating and inspiring tomorrow’s global legal professionals through a personalised and transformational student experience”.

And the University of Technology, Sydney, offers “excellence and leadership in legal scholarship and research is integral to our mission”.

None of these mission statements references good employment prospects for graduates.

Whilst I am sure that these institutions and other Australian universities educate their students phenomenally as their missions all contest, I question whether their students had an understanding of how employable they would be when they completed their enrolment applications.

It’s time for change

Perhaps – rather than making it a numbers game – a way institutions could help break the cycle might be by better equipping prospective students with knowledge around job opportunities and the tales of fresh-eyed graduates, so those students can make an informed decision as they look to plan their own, hopefully long and prosperous, futures.

On university open days, law schools could share alumni success stories together with the experiences of distressed and flat broke graduates who have had their hopes for a career in law dashed? Those graduates who proudly held up their law degrees and admission certificates and then proceeded to get knocked back, again and again, only to have to find another form of day job to support themselves.

Prospective young lawyers are keen. They are green. So universities should not be turning a blind eye on everything but the four years these students would be paying their tuition to receive a “skills-based legal education” and receive “creative and supportive teaching”.

I understand that there must be limits to what law schools are ultimately responsible for, as no law school can ever guarantee their students a prosperous future. That is for the students to create for themselves. But should students not be armed with knowledge (and is knowledge not the very foundation on which these institutions are supposedly built?) so that they can make the decisions that are best for them?

The cheapest legal education in Australia is provided by the Legal Profession Admission Board in NSW at a total cost of $19,222 over four years part-time. This is a diploma course, but still allows you to practice as a lawyer. The most expensive law degree in Australia is Bond University’s full-fee undergraduate degree at $140,301, with Monash University’s juris doctor at a cool $132,668 for three years, just pipping the Australian National University’s juris doctor at $131,351.

That is a lot of dollars and cents for students to pay without being given the opportunity to make a fully informed decision based on facts and figures that institutions are simply neglecting to share.

I would be neglectful myself to not share that the 2021 Graduate Outcomes Survey – Longitudinal funded by the Australian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment – found that the short-term and medium-term full-time employment outcomes for law graduates went from 77.1 per cent in 2018 to 92.3 per cent in 2021 (for undergraduates) and 87.2 per cent in 2018 to 93 per cent in 2021 (for postgraduates). The survey, which was conducted in December 2020, surveyed 251 Australian graduate employers and 255 Australian tertiary students who were due to graduate before mid-2021. 

But something still does not smell right. If there are so many roles available, why did my inbox light up with comments last week from aspiring and qualified lawyers who are applying for paralegal roles and still waiting in the job queue?

This is a question that universities may be better positioned to answer.

How can universities do better?

Consider what could happen if universities gave graduates a career service for 12 months post-graduation. Why not help students secure employment far beyond the usual resumé services on offer? After all, putting together a quality resume and cover letter is not exactly something that cannot be learned beyond the four walls of a reputable institution. Monash University is taking the lead at the moment as they provide alumni up to 12 months of career service after course completion. 

But it isn’t enough.

What if universities showcased to students that there are a variety of jobs in the market for lawyers rather than just drip-feeding them support information about commercial clerkships? What if they armed students with information about a range of opportunities in the legal space, like legal technology positions, instead of placing people that might simply be square pegs into round holes? Our future legal professionals have so much to offer in their own, brilliantly unique ways, if just given the opportunity.

But it isn’t just about showing students what job prospects are out there so they can forge a career. It is also about educating students about the reality of poor culture in law firms and companies and equipping them with the tools to rise above misguided, divisive and harmful workspaces.

Rather than setting up law graduates for debt-laden futures of uncertainty and disrespect that simply feed back into a vicious industry cycle, why not help build them up to be empowered, ethically minded and good-hearted graduates? Graduates who are ready to step into a world that they can help make better because they’ve been taught by professionals who are better, in universities that are better.

Why not break the cycle and begin a new one that thrives on mutual respect, possibility and purpose?

That is an industry that I want to be a part of.

Stefanie Costi is a junior lawyer and director of Costi Copywriting.

Universities are setting law graduates up for disaster
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