There is constant chatter about the changing legal environment, new laws, the growth of in-house legal teams, and the shrinking size of the legal market. While all these factors are influencing Australia’s legal landscape, none of them is causing the biggest disruption to law.
So then, I hear you ask, what is the greatest disruptive force to the legal profession?
It’s the sheer volume of students with a law degree.
According to the Australian Financial Review, the number of law graduates reached a record high in 2015 with 14,600 graduates entering a legal jobs market comprising just 66,000 solicitors. Compare this to 2001, when just 6,150 law graduates entered the market. That’s a 137% increase in just 15 years.
Traditionally, a select number of universities offered law degrees. This meant there was a limited number of qualified lawyers. As numbers were limited, these lawyers had access to a huge array of opportunities, and there was more than enough work available. It was a win-win situation for prospective lawyers and clients alike.
However, over the last 20 years, Australia has seen an explosion of law schools, with more than 19 universities launching brand new law programs, including: James Cook, Canberra, Wollongong, Flinders, La Trobe, Griffith, Southern Cross, Notre Dame, Murdoch, Western Sydney, Edith Cowan, Victoria, RMIT, South Australia, Southern Queensland, Central Queensland, Curtin, Australian Catholic, and Sunshine Coast. Incredibly, there are now more than 40 law schools in Australia.
Not unsurprisingly, there are more aspiring lawyers than ever before, which means more law firms, more solicitors, and more barristers. This is great for clients (who benefit from a diverse range of choices), but it has diluted what was once a tightly held profession.
But it’s not all doom and gloom.
There is, and always will be, a strong need for lawyers and, therefore, law students.
And while the influx of lawyers is hitting the industry at a rate that far outstrips demand, law isn’t subject to the sort of job losses that have plagued so many other industries due to the rise of technology, or during the GFC.
However, with a law degree becoming the new arts degree, perhaps there needs to be tighter controls around university admissions. Perhaps we need a return to a more tightly held profession.