Demand for specialist legal skills growing

by |
Young lawyers and business professionals are turning to higher degrees to find an edge in a job market that is becoming ever tighter, due to oversupply and the pressure to specialise earlier in their careers.

While there is no substitute for practical legal experience, many firms are less prepared to invest time in training junior solicitors and instead expect new recruits to hit the ground running. At the same time, companies and government departments are realising the value of employing legally trained professionals within their ranks. They are also more inclined to hire lawyers as corporate counsel.

Thus, the demand for specialist legal skills is growing as organisations seek in-house lawyers and professionals with a knowledge of transactional law as it relates to their field, such as compliance, human resources, intellectual property or finance. This is good news for the legal profession, but it adds to the pressure on new graduates to rapidly build their skills and be able to take on complex matters almost as soon as they start work.

In times gone by, lawyers would entrench themselves in a specific area of legal practice or routinely work with a specific client group to build their expertise. In five to 10 years, that person would be considered an expert in their field.

The job market is no longer so patient. Graduates holding only a bachelor of laws risk getting left behind while their better-qualified peers more quickly secure a foothold in the legal industry.

Just consider the statistics. The number of job ads in Australia asking for skills in tax law, patent law and business law hit 940 in 2016. This was a 20.4% increase over 2015 (781 job ads) and a 41.8% increase over 2013 (663 job ads), according to Burning Glass.

Our market research suggests students want thoroughness, speed and flexibility in their studies, which is why Southern Cross University has launched two specialised degrees – a master of laws (business law) (LLM) and a master of business law (MBL) – to meet the needs of bachelors seeking to stand out from the crowd.

Our enrolments show that the accelerated degrees, which can be completed entirely online in just 16 months, appeal strongly to busy professionals who are already working hard to advance careers or those just embarking on their careers who want to stand out from the crowd.

The LLM serves working lawyers wishing to build their expertise in emerging fields including competition law, intellectual property and global business law, as well as in traditional business law subjects. The MBL is a legal studies degree for other professionals, such as business executives and managers, who need to make decisions that have legal consequences for their employers.

New graduates know they are preparing to enter an industry that is facing radical change, partly due to the impact of digital technology. Legal “robots” that can research, collate, analyse and distil legislation and case law are coming into use, automating many entry-level jobs, while online signing is diminishing the need for time-consuming face-to-face contact with clients.

New practice-management software, complete with mobile apps, is revolutionising case management and threatening even middle-management positions. In addition, instantaneous online access is equipping employers with detailed information about candidates and making them more discerning when engaging legal professionals.

The ceaseless restructuring of the legal industry is also a destabilising factor. The top-tier firms continue to consolidate, while savvy entrepreneurs establish boutique firms to service niche practice areas.

It’s no wonder, given this state of flux, that newly-hatched graduates are seeking ways to stand out.

There are now 41 law schools across the nation, with no cap on admissions. Nearly 15,000 students finish their degrees each year, and enter a legal jobs market comprising just 66,000 solicitors. Reports of law graduates being unable to find jobs are increasingly common.

Data from the Australian government confirms the trend to higher degrees. The figures show that demand for masters degrees by coursework jumped 5.7% in 2015 over 2014, compared to a 2.7% rise in student numbers across all higher education institutions.

Online courses provide an avenue for professionals who wish to specialise, offering lawyers and non-lawyers alike an opportunity to obtain expert skills and knowledge on a particular area of law. The online nature of the degrees means the course work can revolve around the lives and careers of students. The ability to access coursework 100% online interface means students can complete their study in the way that suits them, while receiving the support they need.

The business world – much like other parts of our community – no longer wants a “one-size-fits-all” approach. There is a clear need to provide an expert, individualised service to each client. Those with an LLM or MBL will be able to offer this value-add service. The qualification in itself will become a marketable attribute of the person who brings that expertise to the firm, the company and ultimately the client.

By Professor William MacNeil, head of the School of Law and Justice at Southern Cross University

Related stories:
Entry-level jobs growth at US firms may have ended
Here’s where the best-paid grads in the US went to law school