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Law has always been regarded as an attractive and lucrative career, but competition for jobs has intensified in recent years.
In the UK, the changing nature of the profession — highlighted by a greater reliance on lower-paid paralegals, more outsourcing of legal work to cheaper cost centres and a collapse in legal aid work — has reduced the numbers of training contracts on offer at law firms, the final stage in qualifying as a solicitor.
This has led to increased competition for jobs at a time when those graduating from first degree law courses in England and Wales rose to a new high of 16,120 in summer 2014 — the fifth consecutive annual increase, according to Law Society figures. The number of practising solicitors has risen by more than 15,000 since July 2009 to 136,294.
Nor is the tough employment situation unique to the UK. In the US, numbers of students enrolling at law schools have fallen, as students opt for careers in technology or business instead. The American Bar Association says that the 204 ABA-approved law schools saw 2014 juris doctor (JD) enrolment reach 119,775. This was the lowest since 1987 — and a 17.5 per cent decrease from the historic high in 2010.
Pressure has extended to law schools, which are offering new courses to help students stand out.
James Greif of the Association of American Law Schools, says some schools are offering courses on growth areas such as cyber law or healthcare law, or are reducing enrolment.
Other regional schools have capitalised on their local strengths, such as the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, which offers qualifications on gaming law and regulation. The James E Rogers College of Law at the University of Arizona has set up a global mining law centre, which includes courses on intellectual property (IP) and workplace safety.
MIT recently joined forces with Boston University’s law school to open a free legal clinic for campus entrepreneurs. The clinic helps secure protection for their IP and works with investors. It is tapping into a growing area of the economy, as patent applications have tripled over the past 20 years.
In the UK, law schools are wooing applicants with eye-catching initiatives. In August, the University of Law, a private university in Guildford, promised that students who do not secure a job after nine months following graduation would receive half their tuition fees back. The pledge is aimed at students enrolling on the Legal Practice course.
But while competition to secure jobs might be tough, the longer-term employment picture is more encouraging. In the US in a few years time, the number of jobs available will outpace the number of law graduates.
In the UK, the profession is also changing and there are newer, more flexible ways to become a solicitor for those who cannot secure a training contract.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority, under its “equivalent means” system, is allowing individuals to be admitted as solicitors, provided they have the right skills and experience. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is planning to set up six-year legal apprenticeships for those wanting to be solicitors straight from school without going to university.
Despite today’s fierce competition, lawyers say the legal profession remains attractive and opportunities are varied.
“As long as you go into it with your eyes open and are flexible in terms of where you get your training, it’s still a career that is incredibly rewarding, says Simon Hart, training partner of law firm RPC. “Lawyers will always be around.”