01 October 2012

Learning curve

A career in the law remains a dream come true for many.

By Jonathan Ames

Despite increasing moves towards narrow specialisation and the tedium of certain types of transactional work, the legal profession is still home to high intellects and, often, exciting and challenging work.
And it continues to carry the kudos of middle-class respectability or working-class aspiration – countless parents still yearn to boast to their neighbours – whether on the factory floor or in the suburban close – about their son or daughter the lawyer.
But that dream is increasingly becoming a mirage as a combination of factors militates to contract legal professions and reduce opportunities within them. Among those are the grindingly slow recovery in developed jurisdictions from the global financial crisis and, perhaps more importantly, the start of a profound restructuring and realignment of legal professions themselves.

Too many lawyers

Yet law schools across the world behave as though it is 2002 and not 2012. As our Barometer survey demonstrates (see page 29), top partners across jurisdictions are concerned that their local legal education institutions are churning out many more lawyers than their markets can absorb.
Some speculate that the reason for this alleged over-supply has a lot to do with university economics. Put bluntly, law is a low overhead, high return subject. Unlike science or technology disciplines, university law faculties and other law schools needn’t invest in expensive laboratories and other equipment – they simply need lecturers and books. But they can still charge students a relative fortune for the privilege of bagging a law degree, with some jurisdictions requiring further expensive vocational training. Parents are unlikely to get much change from $100,000 in the US and £50,000 in the UK for the honour of being able to say ‘my son/daughter the lawyer’.
In addition to issues around numbers, there is also debate over quality. Qualification processes vary markedly around the world and yet the practice of business law is becoming increasingly global and cross-border in nature. As our commentator points out this week (see page 12), there is a strong argument for international leadership in legal education, so that qualification routes for transactional lawyers are far more harmonised.

Down the pub

Our commentator calls on the top echelons of the International Bar Association to take a lead. Indeed, their time would be well spent doing so as they meet for the association’s annual conference next week in Dublin. The organisation has a well-deserved reputation as the premier international legal networking group, and it has begun to forge a human rights role. But tackling this thorny issue would establish it as having a practice-orientated relevance to the world’s legal professions.
If nothing else, thousands of lawyers streaming into town will at least provide the Irish capital – and its many pubs – with a much-needed short-term economic boost. IBA members are not known for their abstinence, while the Irish are renowned for their warm welcomes; the two should be well matched.
Our Ireland feature this issue highlights the magnitude of the country’s struggle to emerge from the depths of an economic quagmire, while at the same time maintaining its position as teacher’s pet with the troika of the International Monetary Fund, EU and the European Central Bank. The country’s legal profession is playing a key role in the recovery process, with Dublin’s top firms beginning to establish themselves on the world stage.

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