chapter  7
Law student numbers: reassessing the issues
Pages 15

Introduction In the period from 1988 to 1993, 12 new law schools have opened in Australia.1 At the same time, concerns about the number of law students grew, leading a number of media stories to warn of an impending ‘glut’ of lawyers.2 These reports claim that the number of students will soon equal the number of lawyers, if it does not already. The implications seem horrendous – a doubling of Australian lawyers when the current number are having difficulty making a living. The legal profession will not be able to absorb all the graduates and they will be left, with an otherwise useless education, to become a social problem chasing ambulances in search of their hapless prey. This picture is deeply flawed. Statistically, it is simply nonsense.3 It is not true that there are as many university law students as there are practicing lawyers. The current ratio is approximately 59 students for every 100 lawyers, which is below the long-term average ratio of 65 to 66 students for every 100 lawyers dating back to the 1960s. Existing law schools have contributed as many new students as the new law schools. The proportion of law graduates who are unemployed is lower than any other graduate group except medical graduates. The difficulties that some graduates are experiencing in getting jobs in the profession is primarily related to the downturn in the legal profession, not the increase in student intakes that occurred in the height of a boom. There are real problems with the education Australian law schools currently provide – but the crucial issue is the quality of that education. But improving Australian legal education requires consideration of issues much broader than the mere numbers of lawyers and law students. Changes in law, society and legal practice, and the variety of careers law graduates pursue, challenge law schools to keep their degrees relevant to the needs of students, the profession and the community they serve. To the extent that law schools do not respond to these challenges, they will produce too many graduates equipped only for the legal practice of the past and ill-suited to the range of work they will perform in the next century. Where large numbers of law students are educated cheaply or according to outdated assumptions, this will produce law graduates unequipped for performing useful functions in tomorrow’s world. But, if universities

discipline themselves to provide only education of the highest standard, then law graduates will be properly equipped to perform useful services in professional practice and elsewhere. The number of law graduates would incidentally be lower because of the increased cost of a better quality education. The first part of this article summarizes the statistical evidence about the number of law students and lawyers in Australia and the historical trends into which these numbers fit.4 (These figures were compiled in 1993 – for updated figures and commentary, refer to this Chapter’s postscript). The second part of the article argues that the real issue is the quality of legal education, which, if addressed adequately, will make issues of quantity largely irrelevant.