Tomorrow night I’ll be attending the 20th reunion of my law professionals class. In June 1992, I was one of 40 law graduates admitted to the bar in the Christchurch High Court and let loose as newly qualified lawyers. Our first goal was to nail down a job – at the start of our 13 week course only one of us was employed. We sent our CVs to every law firm and recruiter we could find in the country. Eventually most of us got our first jobs and we were on our way.
Law graduates in 2012 face a similarly difficult challenge. After a real boom for lawyers over the past 15 years, the market for law graduates is again going through a tough time. In the 90’s and noughties every young lawyer I knew headed overseas for their OE after a couple of years working here. As an employer, it was a nightmare to attract and keep the best graduates. As the boom intensified, overseas firms were even employing graduates with no experience. Starting salaries with six figures in $US or $AU were possible for the brightest.
So why is it so hard for new law graduates to get a job now? I think that there has been a perfect storm of factors:
- Large scale M&A activity has dried up (partly driven by the lack of capital and the diminished appetite for risk during the GFC and also by the fact that big companies in NZ are subsidiaries of multi-nationals headquartered off-shore – so the work gets done there). This means that the large firms need to employ fewer graduates.
- There are too many law schools and law graduates for NZ to absorb (demand for law degrees is driven by students attracted to the rewards that a legal career can offer and supply of those degrees is easy to meet because lawyers are relatively cheap to train compared to doctors or engineers).
- The leakage of lawyers into other careers, particularly in business and banking, which created gaps for new lawyers to fill has also been slowed by the GFC.
- Law firms also have their own problems employing new lawyers. Clients are increasingly unwilling to pay $200-$300/hour for a junior associate to learn on the job, partners are unwilling to forego their high incomes to train new lawyers and graduates just aren’t profitable in their first couple of years of practice as they get to grips with the practice of law.
So what’s my advice to new graduates? First – get a job – any job – and work your way up from there. I found my first job in a small law firm in Hastings and I loved it. I know lawyers who have started their own companies, got jobs as contract managers, gone into policy jobs in government, worked for an MP, a union and the IRD. Except for the graduate mentioned in the first paragraph (who started as a law clerk and is now a partner at Bell Gully), for most of us the first job was just that. Get some experience and see where it leads.
Completing a law degree doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to be, or are suited for a career as, a lawyer. But after 20 years of practice, I am still learning new things every day. And that’s what will keep me excited about being a lawyer for many years to come.