I was lucky enough to be invited to University of Auckland last night to speak as part of a panel to law students about their options within law once they are admitted. It seems that they have lots of information about where they might be able to use a law degree – both inside and outside the profession – but very little opportunity to get any practical insight into the realities of the different types of practice out there. Sure, they are heavily courted by the Big 8 throughout their university years, but would still be hard pushed to describe what a corporate lawyer in the top tier does as opposed to an employment lawyer, much less what sole in-house counsel might do as opposed to a general practice lawyer in a rural location.
The main problem with this is that we all know how linear a legal career is and so those initial career steps really do shape opportunities going forward. You quickly go from being a graduate with a world of possibilities to being a ‘something’ lawyer, be it a corporate lawyer, a property lawyer, an employment lawyer etc. But how do you make good choices if you don’t really know what you might be getting yourself into? Fresh-out-of-the-box lawyers always comment on how different practice is to their expectations – sometimes different in a bad way, sometimes not, but always different.
Unfortunately an overriding sentiment amongst most of the students was how they were bracing themselves for entering the profession rather than looking forward to it. They seemed to view the first few years as something that will need to be endured to earn them a place at the table later down the line. They simply didn’t seem to think the profession was looking forward to welcoming them and would be supportive and tolerant whilst they found their feet in the real world.
Both these issues should be worrying for the profession as it seeks to address why so many talented people leave the law and don’t move through to the top of the tree. Much is written about the lack of work/life balance and family friendly hours but last night confirmed to me that it is a far more complex problem than that.
Firstly, we will miss out on large numbers of law graduates even joining the profession in the first place (statistics from the Ministry of Education June this year suggest that about 40% don’t go on to do Professionals) because they simply don’t feel welcome. Secondly, we will lose yet more further down the line because they have not had the opportunity to make well informed choices at the start of their career. They end up in areas of work they do not enjoy and see limited options to change direction.
The students I met last night were universally smart, committed and talented individuals and I saw no hint of the sense of entitlement that Gen Y and Millenials are so often accused of. They deserve to feel excited about their career ahead and as, quite literally, some of the brightest and the best young people in the country we should all be invested in allowing them to fulfil their potential. That has to be good to everyone.