What does the next generation think of today’s issues? The Big Smoke’s Next Gen program publishes Australian students mentored by TBS writers. Today, Josie Jakovac looks at pay gaps and perceived gender imbalances, specially in legal professions.
Mentor: Ugur Nedim
Student: Josie Jakovac, 16 years old
Topic: Realities and perceptions of gender imbalance and pay gap in the legal profession.
Employment. It’s a word which either makes you smile, groan or bite your lip. Or, if you’re an Australian law graduate, it probably seems like a complete fantasy!
Many students each year choose to study law due to the degree’s versatility and its applicability across a wide range of employment sectors. This intense interest has resulted in an extremely competitive field. How competitive? Charles Darwin’s coined phrase – “Survival of the Fittest” – comes to mind. It seems, however, that there is a growing conception amongst students and graduates that “fittest” has become a synonym for “well-connected”, “experienced” and “male”.
The release of shocking statistics in 2014, claiming that Australia releases more than 12,000 law graduates per year into a job market of just 60,000 solicitors, has led to high levels of anxiety for those in their later years of studies. Students believe law firms are “grossly overwhelmed” with CVs and have increasingly grown pessimistic about securing employment after graduation.
But is all this fear justifiable, or have we developed false impressions based on exaggerated statistics?
The truth behind the figures
Originally presented by Graduate Careers Australia, this “12,000” figure has led to the emergence of numerous articles “exposing the dire state of law graduate opportunities”. In the investigation’s wake, many bodies including the College of Law have questioned its accuracy, arguing that the figures are misleading for the following reasons:
- the figure represents all the students in Australia who completed law-related degrees, not just the traditional “Bachelor of Laws”. It also includes those completing their Juris Doctor who may already be employed,
- 8% of these graduates were not seeking immediate employment (see below),
- many of those seeking full-time employment did not intend to practice law,
- a significant portion of the figure is comprised of overseas practitioners granted admission by the Supreme Court of NSW in early 2014.
Taking these factors into account, the College of Law estimates that nation-wide there were approximately 5,500 graduates seeking employment as legal practitioners in 2014, 2,233 of which emerged from NSW Universities alone. Although this figure is significantly lower than the original, only 78.5% of these graduates were granted full-time employment (see above), confirming that law remains a highly competitive field.
It is important to note that this employment rate has steadily increased over the past decade, which may be attributed to:
- an increase in the number of firms participating in Graduate Employment and Summer Clerkship programs,
- greater access to careers guidance programs, such as the NSW Law Society’s Continuing Professional Development (CPD) program, and
- law students becoming mindful of alternate career paths they can pursue with a law degree, particularly as business, humanitarian resource or marketing professionals.
Marina Brizar, a private solicitor for Playfair Visa and Migration Services and graduate from the University of Technology Sydney, believes “it is essential that the legal industry recognises the need to engage and nurture innovation and fresh thinking, which can be sourced from enthusiastic, talented and passionate graduates.”
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As a relatively new entrant into the legal profession, she says the legal industry is changing, slowly but surely, and holds “an optimistic and hopeful outlook for the future industry”.
Tips from the experts
There is no “fool-proof formula” for securing a job in the legal profession, however there are certain things that can give your career a head-start. Brizar and reputable partner at Clayton UTZ, Karen Ingram, shared their ideas:
- Tailor your electives to study the subjects you love – This will help you get the marks you need to have a strong application
- Do client-service work whilst studying/Participate in team activities – Any interests from running coffee shops, to sports, to charity groups. This will help develop your communication skills and ability to work within a team which is a key characteristic many employers look for. It can also ensure that you maintain a healthy balance of study and recreation.
- Apply as an intern, clerk, paralegal or volunteer – This will help you explore the field of law which you’re passionate about and gain experience which is highly sought-after and largely beneficial for employment.
- Establish a network of contacts – Brizar particularly recommends this through industry groups such as the Law Society of NSW and the Law Council of Australia. Though, it is important to note that winning a job solely on connections alone is very, very rare. Students are thus encouraged to focus on maintaining a competitive qualification.
Exploring the “gender gap”
Unbeknown to many, the majority (62.3%) of Australian law graduates are in fact female! Ingram observes that this trend remains relatively static at entry-level law practices, despite an average pay gap of $3,800 in favour of males. This difference is comparable to the national gender gap average of $4,000 across all employment sectors.
“Lawyers are encouraged to succeed irrespective of gender, and on the basis of merit.”
“Students and graduates are generally at a stage in their lives where they are not making decisions between their careers and starting a family, or having to balance the cost and demands of childcare with their study or career goals.”
In stark contrast to the admission figures, there is a significant gender disparity in favour of males in senior legal positions – women holding only 22% of senior positions in law firms and comprising merely 16% of the Bench of the Federal Court of Australia.
Unfortunately, this disproportion has little to do with ability. Rather, it is largely driven by the historic bias ingrained in our Australian legal sphere, though personal factors may contribute. In terms of the latter, a highly capable female lawyer is more likely than her male counterpart to “move her career focus away from working in a firm to other positions of employment that offer flexibility to start a family, care for small children or elderly parents”, according to Ingram.
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Ultimately, it is fair to say that although there are opportunities in the higher echelons of the legal profession for women, age-old biases and personal factors can stand in the way of progress. Gender representation in firms should be a matter of personal interest – staying true to one of the fundamental aspects of natural justice: Equal access before the law – but society is far from this ideal.
Weighing up the risks
Though the statistics may be confronting for law students, both Ingram and Brizar urge aspiring youth not to be deterred.
“Back yourself. You earned the right to be at law school and to your career; whatever you choose it to be.” – Karen Ingram
When asked whether pursuing a law degree was “worth the risk”, Brizar replied, “Absolutely! A law degree equips graduates with the knowledge and skills to not only practice as a solicitor in private practice (which at the start of a law degree seems like the logical end game), but to explore other employment opportunities, for example in the fields of research, law reform, policy and government. A study of the law is a study of history, demographics, social science, statistics, the cause and effect of human actions and inactions; for this reason it is fascinating.”
Ms Brizar directed her concluding statement towards young women; especially those hesitant to pursue a law career due to the perceivably bleak graduate and senior employment opportunities for females.
“The tip that I have is a practical one made up of a few components that give effect to the advice I received: be passionate; work hard; embrace challenges as learning opportunities; and, know your worth. In the words of the Queen Beyoncé, ‘The most alluring thing a woman can have is confidence’.”
This article is part of a series for The Big Smoke Next Gen.
The Big Smoke Next Gen is a program which matches professional and experienced writers, academics and journalists with students who wish to write non-fiction articles and voice their opinions on what is shaping the nation.
For more information about our program at The Big Smoke, or to become a mentor, please contact us.