1×01: Mr Trumble goes to Washington

In this episode of Hearsay, I’ll take a look at the international legal dispute that led to our Prime Minister being dubbed “Mr Trumble”. I’ll also talk about some of the other controversies surrounding Donald Trump’s fledgling presidency, and explain how they have parallels with issues in Australia’s legal system. Continue reading “1×01: Mr Trumble goes to Washington”

Annual debate about law graduate career prospects begins

As students begin their course selections for next year, the debate over the employment prospects of law graduates has resurfaced. With 19 universities opening new law schools over the last twenty-five years, the question of whether there are too many graduates for the available jobs has been an ongoing issue.

This year’s round of the debate was opened by Frank Carrigan, a senior lecturer at Macquarie University, who complained that “Law student numbers are out of hand”, and it is leading to an oversupply of graduates who can’t find work. “Thousands of students are undertaking a degree that will result in broken dreams.”

In a column for the Australian Financial Review, he wrote: “Nearly 15,000 finish their degree each year, and enter a market where there are only 66,000 solicitors. These graduate numbers far transcend the growth in the legal market. … Law deans are running a bait and switch operation. They hold out the promise of a legal career, while adding to the unemployment queue.”

Responding in the same newspaper, the Dean of the University of Melbourne Law School, Professor Carolyn Evans, rejected this criticism. She cited statistics from Graduate Careers Australia to argue that law graduates have strong prospects for employment and higher wages than many other fields:

  • “around 74 per cent of those who graduated from law school four months earlier and were available for employment were in fact employed. The national average for graduate employment is a bit under 69 per cent”;
  • “those with Bachelors degrees in Maths had an employment rate of 62 per cent, chemistry graduates a rate of 50 per cent and physics graduates a rate of 54 per cent”; and
  • “the average starting salary for law graduates is above the average salary for graduates of all degrees and in the top ten degrees by salary for recent graduates.”

However, it is important to note that many of these graduates are not working in the legal profession. Professor Evans says she speaks to graduates whose careers are “in business, the arts, policy, diplomacy and consultancy” — but she says the skills offered by a law degree made these careers possible.

The Legal Nomads website regularly publishes profiles of law graduates working in very diverse fields, from journalism and tax advice to curry evangelism and LEGO art. Universities are supporting this flexibility by offering double degrees in unusal combinations such as Law and Creative Writing.

Even within the legal profession, career opportunities and pathways are changing. The AFR reports that relatively young “millennial” lawyers are developing niche expertise and opening their own legal practices.

Chance for students to experience the legal profession

If you are considering a career in law or politics and want to get some insight into what it’s really like, check out the LEAP into Law program at Victoria University on 9-10 April. You will work with academics, solicitors, barristers and possibly even judges; visit the Magistrates’ Court; learn how to examine a witness; debate your own suggestions for legal change; develop your negotiation skills; and find out about the broad range of careers available within the legal field. Places are limited, so register your interest through the contacts on their website.

Human rights law: essential or counter-cultural?

Writing in The Guardian UK’s Studying Law section, Rabah Kherbane says “every aspiring lawyer should study human rights law”. While it is “often wrongly assumed that human rights law is specifically for those who want careers in human rights”, he argues that “irrespective of your area of practice, human rights are relevant in domestic courts and domestic law”. However, Loyola University’s Professor William P Quigley warns that maintaining a commitment to human rights is hard work: “It pains me to say it, but justice is a counter-cultural value in our legal profession. … The actual message from law school and on throughout the entire legal career is that justice work, if done at all, is done in the margins or after the real legal work is done.” Studying human rights as a discrete subject is not required for admission to practice law in Australia.

HELP changes may be costly for future women lawyers

Research by Professor Bruce Chapman suggests richer graduates would pay about $30,000 less for their degrees under proposed changes to the HELP scheme, and “[w]omen who take time off work to have children would be among the hardest hit.” Responding to this criticism, Education Minister Christopher Pyne observed that “women are well-represented amongst the teaching and nursing students. They will not be able to earn the high incomes that say dentists or lawyers will earn, and vice chancellors in framing their fees, their fee structure, will take that into account.” In fact, women are well-represented amongst law students, too: “61.4% of all law graduates are female.” However, the most recent Graduate Careers Australia report shows that female law graduates immediately face a gender pay gap, and they are far more likely to leave the profession within 10 years. As a result, if above-inflation interest is applied to HELP debts, women may pay significantly more for their law degrees than men. However, the proposed changes must first be passed by the Senate.

Uni fee changes to hit law students; face possible challenge

The cost of becoming a lawyer is likely to dramatically increase under the Commonwealth budget’s deregulation of university fees. An advisor to the Abbott Government on higher education, Andrew Norton, predicts that fees will almost quadruple to equal the price charged to international students: “This would see annual fees for a law degree rise, on average, from $9792 a year to $37,831 a year.” While other estimates are lower, they nevertheless predict that “we can expect fees to rise more steeply in degrees with high private benefits and strong international demand, such as law”. The increased fees will mean law students are in debt for much longer: “The payback period for a four year professional degree such as Law will stretch from 14 years now to 20 to 25 years, depending on which university you choose.” Students will also be required to pay a higher rate of interest over the life of the debt. However, some of the plans might not be easily implemented. The government says the new interest arrangements will apply retrospectively to former students, but Monash law professor Justin Malbon questions whether that would be legal: “At its heart there’s an arguable case that it is a contract, and there’s an arguable case that taking into account the terms of the original legislation that they cannot later come along and unilaterally vary the contract to add in terms that never existed in the first place.”

Women barristers wear men’s wigs

Lady Hale, a judge of the UK Supreme Court (equivalent to our High Court), has objected to barristers’ traditional headwear: “I do object to wigs as being 18th century dress in the 21st century. I think it’s really very silly, is the right word, for the legal profession to think that they dignify themselves by doing this. But I have the specific objection that everybody has to wear these men’s wigs. I had a fantasy once, that on my last day of having to wear a wig in court, I would go and hire a Madame de Pompadour woman’s wig, and powder that up and put that on instead.” According to Legal Habits, a history of lawyers’ clothing: “When women were first called to the Bar in 1922 there was some debate as to whether their entitlement should extend to the wearing of wigs. It was suggested that they should revert to the Tudor-style biretta, a soft, cornered black cap, before a vote among certain senior judges decided the matter. In March 1922 it was decided that women barristers should in fact wear the wig ‘which shall completely cover and conceal the hair’.”

Britain debates judicial gender balance

In response to a report showing only 22.3% of British judges were women, the Labour Opposition is considering whether to support “quotas for female and black and ethnic minority judges … to achieve a judiciary reflecting the composition of the population”. Quotas are a controversial form of affirmative action that require a set proportion of positions to be allocated to underrepresented demographic groups. A statistical analysis of the Australian judiciary found that while there has been significant improvement in the last decade, “[n]evertheless, there is a significant distance to travel in achieving gender parity — there are still more than twice as many males as females in the judiciary.” By contrast, “61.4% of [Australian] law graduates are women.”

Call for more statutory interpretation at law school

In a speech to Monash University on Thursday, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Marilyn Warren, called for a greater emphasis on statutory interpretation in legal education. Noting that “the ‘Priestley 11‘, the core subjects for a law degree… have not altered over the decades”, she observed that “[w]hilst cases on statutory interpretation feature significantly in the High Court of Australia and intermediate appellate and superior courts’ jurisprudence, statutory interpretation is not a compulsory subject.” The Chief Justice of the High Court, Robert French, expressed a similar view in 2011. When asked “What is the one piece of advice that you could bestow on a young law student?”, he replied, “I have got three words here: understand statutory interpretation. … I’m not sure there is enough emphasis given to it in legal education today.”