Bursting the Law School Bubble

This article was originally published in De Minimis, Melbourne Law School’s student newspaper.

“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. You’re going to be just like Harvey Specter!”

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 a little 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.


Picture by Harley Ng, third-year JD student

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 speak for themselves, and Melbourne is consistently ranked as the best Law School in the country, the massive oversupply of law graduates and a contracting legal market renders 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 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 as an oversimplification, 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 all postgraduate qualifications are uncapped, universities (including MLS) can charge up to three times as much as an LLB degree costs at a comparable university**.  With the added cash they can increase their research output, thus placing them in a better “rankings” position which gives them something to market the flip out of, thus generating more enrolments *** This is augmented by the fact that universities that offer law courses are invariably perceived to be more prestigious than they were before (your comment is evidence of this, Steve).

“The best part? The excess money**** goes towards subsidising more resource-intensive faculties – like Science or 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% 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 me and my compatriots. So I’m not so much concerned about being a rich and successful lawyer as I am about being a lawyer of any kind at all.

“The proliferation of law schools isn’t as much to blame as much as the way they conduct themselves. MLS for example (no doubt at the behest of Glynn Davis and the all powerful marketing department), has consistently refused to publish statistics of its graduate outcomes, impeding incoming students 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 (see: after being rejected for a multitude of graduate jobs and fast approaching the $12,000 PLT 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 with the impact on mental health being felt by everyone.

“Yes Steve, if the law schools just explicitly conceded that a substantial portions of graduating classes have no choice but to seek work in range of non-legal professions, or at the very least will face grave uncertainty as they approach their final semester, perhaps you wouldn’t be labouring under this grave misconception that I’m somehow entitled to anything other than student debt. This entire conversation could have been avoided! But that’s not the way things worked out – so I’m just going to continue.

“Now to your point about Harvey Spectre:

“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  the MULSS over $120,000  last year – explains why I didn’t correct you in first and second year. The reality is, however, that only 7% of all law students will be employed by law firms that offer clerkships and firm grad intakes, with few exceptions, have remained modest since the GFC. 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 in the UFC.

“I know what you’re thinking Steve, maybe this consideration could be taken a little bit 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, the MULSS careers policy is skewed pretty heavily in favour of  an unrepresentative class of  consumers (of law-grads), with little net return for the broader student body (more here & here).

“Before I finish I’ll make a few honourable mentions, and then you can finally use the toilet / 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, Glynn 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.

On reflection, 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.”

*or perhaps bewilderment because you used to eat paint as a child?
** though in fairness MLS’ own mini-campus does in make up for some of the added cost
***and more, and more, and more (see: Deakin University)
**** that doesn’t go into marketing

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