Dr Melville, a senior lecturer at the Flinders University law school, has called for the profession to find innovative solutions to difficult market conditions that still allow young lawyers to gain a foothold in the profession, in a recent paper published in UK journal The Law Teacher.
"It seems that a better response to the current decline in demand for legal services is for lawyers to be innovative and responsive, rather than to close off access to the profession to young lawyers that are likely to bring new ideas," she said.
The sociologist added that many graduates were destined for careers outside of private legal practice and urged them to consider work in areas of the community in need or regional areas.
"The current cohort of graduates is likely to continue into a professional occupation, although not necessarily in private legal practice, and there is a lack of lawyers working in disadvantaged communities," she said.
Nonetheless, Dr Melville emphasised that graduates faced highly challenging market conditions.
"While the reduction of opportunities in corporate and commercial law firms appears to be the main issue facing new graduates, there is also evidence that some of the bread and butter work performed by the legal profession has also declined," Dr Melville said.
"Changes to civil litigation legislation have drastically reduced the availability of personal injury work, non-lawyers now dominate the conveyancing market in South Australia, and there have been drastic cuts to legal aid. Finally, Australian lawyers are working later in life which could also reduce the employment opportunities for younger lawyers."
In this environment, Dr Melville's analysis found young lawyers may struggle to secure a graduate role within the legal sector.
"While law graduates may not necessarily be facing a crisis, opportunities within the legal profession have become more limited. These concerns not only reflect the impact of the global economic downturn on the Australian economy, but also reflect the deeper structural changes that have radically reshaped the legal profession," Dr Melville said.
This trend is borne out by less than rosy statistics, reflected in a number of surveys of the profession that address trends in recruitment, salaries and promotion.
Dr Melville’s paper underscores the 2013 Graduate Outlook Survey that reveals 21 per cent of legal recruiters did not recruit any graduates in the past 12 months – a jump of 6.9 per cent extra recruiters out of the grad-hiring game since 2011.
"While there has been some recovery in the legal services market since, salaries increases have continued to slow down, the number of equity partners has dropped in an effort to improve partner profitability, and non-partners are working in much leaner teams," Dr Melville said.
The paper also examines two recent reviews that suggest there is no evidence of a "crisis", finding that their conclusions are too optimistic.
Referring to the Productivity Commission’s Access to Justice Arrangements report published in 2014, in addition to findings made by a Law Society of NSW working group, which addresses the notion of a law graduate surplus between 2006-2013, Dr Melville said: "The Working Group concluded that overall law graduates, including graduates from JD programmes, do not outnumber new entrants to the profession in NSW.
Likewise, The Productivity Commission concluded that [while] it is clear that graduate numbers are increasing, this [does not] justify any constraint on student numbers for law degrees […] these conclusions may be somewhat optimistic."
The paper by Dr Melville seeks to evaluate the popular catchcry that "law schools are churning out more lawyers than there are jobs" by reviewing the historical and statistical evidence.
It traces the various market forces that have shaped the legal landscape into what it is today. Among the factors influencing availability of jobs in law, the paper reviews the increasing retirement age among lawyers, new models for the provision of legal services and transformative policies in the higher education sector.
According to Dr Melville, the 1980s forecast for a career in law was especially promising.
"At the end of the 1980s, career opportunities for law students looked positive. The Graduate Careers Council of Australia found that from 1983-1987, over 96 per cent of law graduates had found full-time employment soon after graduation. The Council also reported that in 1989, [NSW] law graduates enjoyed the highest growth rate in starting salaries relative to other degrees," Dr Melville said.
Dr Melville is a sociologist and senior lecturer at the Flinders University Law School in South Australia.
It is the worst time in living history to be a law graduate: or is it? Does Australia have too many law graduates? was published earlier this year in The Law Teacher journal.