24 May 2016

“Yeah, I’m doing the JD at Melbourne Law School.”

“Oh wow, you must be super smart. You’re going to make a lot of money. Just like Harvey Specter, eh?”

We’ve all had this conversation.

Often with a stranger at a party while you’re in the line for the toilet or speaking to an old family friend at your cousin’s birthday. It’s validating, to say the least. The eyebrows raised in deference, the assumption of intellect and future material wealth, the fact that you get to talk about yourself and not your annoying cousin who won’t shut up about turning nine.

Now that I’m nearing the merciful end of the JD, however, I’ve started reflecting on how my reaction to this generic response has changed and how the assumptions underlying it have long since departed from reality.

In first year, I remember reacting with a modest smile: “Thanks,” I’d manage, trying to repress my dormant egotism that had never been nurtured as an Arts student (more like, “Oh wow, you must be super good at making lattes.” AMIRITE?!).

In second year, I was more reserved.

“Well, I’m told that the market out there is pretty tough. But the Melbourne name goes a long way,” I’d say, unable to repress a smile but feeling noticeably less secure than I did in the heady days of Obligations.

At the outset of third year? My response is a little more jaded:

“Actually, Steve, the JD as a graduate degree isn’t nearly as valuable as some would have you believe. Whilst the alumni and facilities of Melbourne Law School (MLS) speak for themselves, and Melbourne is consistently ranked as the best law school in the country, the massive over-supply of law graduates and a contracting legal market puts myself and my peers in a precarious position – notwithstanding that our position relative to other law schools is favourable.

There are a variety of stakeholders to blame for this state of affairs, Steve, but I’ll give you a brief rundown on the main culprits.

First and foremost are the universities themselves, more and more of whom now offer law degrees. The variables underlying this increase are complex, but – at risk of oversimplifying the matter – there are two interrelated rationales that keep this jurisprudential train on track.

First of all, legal education is remarkably cheap to provide relative to other masters degrees and given that post-graduate qualifications are uncapped, universities (including MLS) can charge up to three times as much as a Bachelor of Laws degree costs at a comparable university – though in fairness MLS’ own mini-campus does make up for some of the added cost. At the same time, universities offering law courses are invariably perceived to be more prestigious. Furthermore, with the added cash, they can increase their research output. This places them in a better rankings position, giving them something to market the flip out of, thus generating more enrolments (and more, and more, and more. See: Deakin University).

The best part? The excess money that doesn’t go into marketing goes to subsidise more resource-intensive faculties – like Medicine — whilst our support services, like the late Student Centre at MLS (and most of its employees), are stripped down and sold for parts. In 2014, there were 12,000 law graduates for only 60,000 lawyer roles in the entire market – that’s a 100 per cent increase in law grads since 2001! That’s right, Steve, the entire legal profession would need to retire in the next five years to absorb my compatriots and me. So I’m not so much concerned about being a rich and successful lawyer as much as I am about being a lawyer of any kind at all.

The proliferation of law schools isn’t as much to blame as the way they conduct themselves. For example, MLS, no doubt at the behest of Glyn Davis and the all-powerful marketing department, has consistently refused to publish statistics of its graduate outcomes, impeding incoming students from making an informed decision about whether they should undertake a $115,000 investment. Equally, the fact that law schools do not sell law degrees as ‘generalist’ qualifications almost certainty discourages students from exploring alternate career paths until they absolutely have to (that is, after being rejected for a multitude of graduate jobs and fast approaching the $12,000 Practical Legal Training course). Most importantly, a consistent admission that many, perhaps a majority of law students will not acquire graduate jobs straight out of the gate, would combat the toxicity that descends on students in their second year, when many students’ entire identities are defined by clerkship outcomes.

Now to your point about Harvey Specter. The institutional push to herd students towards jobs in commercial law – expedited by the infiltration of law schools by large law firms through sponsorship arrangements, such as those which gave Melbourne University Law Students’ Society (MULSS) over $150,000 last year – explains why I didn’t correct you in first and second year. The reality is, however, that law firms offering clerkships will employ only seven per cent of all law students, and grad intakes have largely remained modest since the Global Financial Crisis. If you do the maths, you’ll see that the chances of becoming a name partner at a big firm are about the same as winning the heavyweight championship of the UFC.

Sure, maybe this consideration could be taken more seriously by our elected student representatives. That’s not to say they don’t facilitate inroads into other legal areas. However, I can’t help but feel that, given the context I’ve just described, it’s skewed pretty heavily towards an unrepresentative class of  (law student) consumers, with little net return for the broader student body.

Before I finish I’ll make a few honourable mentions and then you can finally use the toilet or attend to your screaming child. First up is neoliberalism, which has shifted the paradigm of education from a universal right under Whitlam to a market commodity under Keating. It was this school of thought that turned Vice Chancellors into CEOs and students into dollar signs – and is largely responsible for the less than favourable circumstances faced by law students. I’ll also throw a cheeky shout out to John Dawkins, the Labor Minister who oversaw this transition is the ’80s and ’90s, and just between you and me, Steve, Glyn Davis for his stellar job of evoking fear in his tireless and talented employees and despondency in the students he’s supposed to be educating. Of course, I could also blame popular culture for creating archetypes like Mr Specter to begin with but considering how much Rake and Crownies I watch, and the fact that respect from strangers is about the only return some students receive from investing in a law degree, I’m going to leave that one alone.

Steve, it’s been great chatting but I better get out of here. I think I’ve gone so far as to show that my decision to do the JD might actually be evidence of my lack of intelligence. It will certainly undermine my ability to accrue material wealth in the short term and, for the reasons outlined above, I’m perhaps as likely to end up as a defendant in court than an advocate.”

This piece was originally published in De Minimis, the (unofficial) official newspaper of the Melbourne Law Students’ Society.


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