The options for postgraduate study have dramatically expanded over the years as more and more lawyers seek to specialise to get ahead. Briana Everett finds out why lawyers are taking the postgraduate path.
|LEADING THE PACK: Lawyers are increasingly looking to postgraduate study to get ahead|
And with competition on the rise as the Australian legal market goes global, the days when bachelor degree qualifications were sufficient are gone.
In 2011, lawyers are increasingly opting to undertake postgraduate study in niche areas in recognition of the need to improve their skills, differentiate themselves and advance their careers.
According to a UK study by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI), while some employees believe their lack of career progression is a result of being overlooked for a promotion or pay-rise because of a lack of available funds (22 per cent), others admit they need to get more experience (13 per cent) and 6 per cent admit they don't have the right training or qualifications to advance.
Recognising the need to do more to get ahead in their careers, 45 per cent of employees surveyed identified the need to do some study in their spare time.
"It's too easy to blame others for your own lack of progress, but in a time of tighter budgets and increasing competitiveness in the job market, those people that are prepared to make an effort to improve their skills will be the ones that employers turn to first," said CMI's Narinder Uppal.
Specialising for success
Putting in the time and effort to improve skills and demonstrate a commitment to a particular area of law has become a much more important focus for lawyers over the last decade, according to the University of Sydney's Law School dean, Gillian Triggs.
"Historically, most lawyers in the practising profession and indeed lawyers who went into government work or corporate work were never expected to have Masters and certainly not PhDs," she says. "In the last 10 years and increasingly so, the major firms and government departments are looking for that extra commitment to particular areas of specialisation ... the sort of motivation and commitment to taking themselves to the next level."
"Postgraduate study helps [lawyers] develop an understanding of particular areas of law in-depth after they've had a chance to develop some practice experience ... you certainly look at the subject in a new light"
Carolyn Evans, dean, Melbourne Law School
The College of Law's director of applied law programs, Angie Zandstra, has also observed the trend towards specialisation and the growing demand for postgraduate qualifications as an important indicator to potential employers.
"Every year we see more and more students coming into the program, so that would suggest that there is more demand and that [postgraduate study] is becoming more of the norm," says Zandstra.
"What it does for people is show their commitment to a particular area of law and a commitment to their career. In that sense, as more people do it, it becomes obvious if there are two candidates and one hasn't and one has [completed postgraduate study]."
As a result of this increasing desire amongst lawyers to develop specialist expertise, universities and colleges throughout Australia have experienced a surge in interest in their specialist postgraduate law programs and have had to continually update their offerings to keep pace with the demands of a rapidly changing profession.
"Lawyers need to develop their skills and be prepared for what is an increasingly complex and cross-disciplinary area of law," says Triggs. "We've just developed a new course on energy resources law and the tax aspects of energy resources, as well as the global and environmental aspects. These are subjects I couldn't possibly have introduced 10 years ago."
Establishing global credibility
Aside from the obvious benefits of postgraduate study, including the greater depth of understanding gained in a particular area and the ability to contribute to a business in a more specialised way, it can also provide lawyers with a more international focus - a particularly good move as the legal industry globalises.
"To make a huge generalisation, anything with the word 'international' attached, you get double your enrolments," says Triggs.
"International commercial arbitration is another subject which has attracted enormous interest, because it's outside the traditional bar/bench kind of route and it gets lawyers out into the region - particularly China, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam - doing international commercial litigation work but litigation within the international commercial arbitration realm. That's one of the hotspots at the moment."
Adding to the benefits of developing specialist expertise and an international perspective, forming industry networks is another key advantage to be gained from postgraduate study according to Melbourne University's Law School dean Carolyn Evans.
"Postgraduate study helps [lawyers] develop an understanding of particular areas of law in-depth after they've had a chance to develop some practice experience ... you certainly look at the subject in a new light," she says, adding that overseas employers increasingly expect people with postgraduate qualifications.
"Another thing that students tell us is that it helps them create a network with other people working in the area - it might be other people in law firms, governments or non-government agencies, or management consultants."
"We've just developed a new course on energy resources law and the tax aspects of energy resources, as well as the global and environmental aspects. These are subjects I couldn't possibly have introduced 10 years ago"
Gillian Triggs, dean, Sydney Law School
As to whether it's best for lawyers to do their study locally or overseas, Allens Arthur Robinson's head of resourcing and development Kathryn Whyte-Southcombe says there are advantages to both.
"There's obviously great value that comes with studying at institutions like Cambridge, Harvard and Oxford. What comes with that is the opportunity to really focus solely on your subject matter expertise and really invest time in building that. And, on top of that, you're also building an international way of thinking and really impressive networks," says Whyte-Southcombe.
"People who decide to pursue postgraduate study locally are getting the benefit of being able to apply that learning to their work immediately. So while they're not making the deep investment of taking time off to focus solely on study, they're putting it into practice every day."
Keeping a foot in the door
While the need for postgraduate qualifications is growing, so is the demand for flexibility when it comes to managing further study with work commitments. As a result, universities and colleges are increasingly offering new ways of providing education, including shorter, intensive formats to accommodate the demands of working lawyers.
"People who decide to pursue postgraduate study locally are getting the benefit of being able to apply that learning to their work immediately. So while they're not making the deep investment of taking time off to focus solely on study, they're putting it into practice every day"
Kathryn Whyte-Southcombe, head of resourcing and development, Allens Arthur Robinson
"The old days when you'd sign up for a Masters and you'd doggedly go to lectures every week - those are gone," says Triggs. "For our domestic market, our so-called 'intensives' are enormously popular ... Flexibility is the name of the game and [lawyers] do it almost invariably part-time, whereas 20 years ago, people would take a year off and do it. Now that almost never happens."
Aside from wanting to get things done quickly, another reason lawyers are increasingly attracted to the more intensive courses, according to Triggs, is because of their reluctance to miss out on career-advancing experience and opportunities.
"People can't afford to and they don't want to get off the career opportunity experience. If they've got a good job, they never want to leave," she says. "Employers seem amazingly open-minded about this ... They end up with a motivated person who can see a career opportunity with the organisation."
According to new research conducted by Graduate Careers Australia (GCA), postgraduate degrees pay dividends in an uncertain market.
In an effort to improve the management expertise and commerciality of their lawyers, some international firms, such as Eversheds and Debevoise & Plimpton, have introduced their own version of an MBA.