In a few months, I'll be writing to you again. Then I will be asking you to consider encouraging your child to take a year off before she starts university. Your sons are also included in that advice.
But right now, I want to draw your attention to your child's application, due by September's end, for university. I get it. You've always thought law was an excellent degree and therefore career. Great money, exciting future. It may even have led to your current job which you may or may not love.
Right now, around Australia, those who have the ambition to work at one of the top law firms are locked in a bitter struggle with their friends, their enemies and with people they barely know. Yes, it's the time of year when, as Hannah Wootton put it in the Financial Review, mate fights mate to secure a clerkship at a big corporate law firm. It's an eight-stage application process complete with psychometric testing, cocktail parties and an ability to come across as genuine and engaged in the five minutes someone is talking to you. Good luck with that.
After that arduous process, only a handful will make it, maybe one in 20. And what do they get then, when they've secured their coveted spot? I spoke to someone I've known for a very long time, since she was a tiny tacker. She secured a graduate spot at one of the toppest of the very top firms after the clerkship.
"I don't feel like I had a true sense of the range of options at university. While it's true we are all adults, it's hard to be self-directed when it comes to our careers at that stage. And the big firms are the easy route, a mindless option, a well-trodden path."
She says senior colleagues are very supportive but there are no two ways about life in one of these firms.
"Most of us are wired to want to please others particularly when you are young and trying to impress those around you. There is no natural, no structural, barrier to you working endlessly. I like to be well-regarded and I like to please others and that leads to destructive work habits."
For this person, that means working nearly seven days a week; and she's been known to sleep in the office. The role models are all great people but they are also no good at limiting their working hours. And this kid (always a kid to me) is not sure about staying in the law - and a top graduate at a top firm with fabulous personal skills. Mental health is in good shape now for this person and she plans to keep it that way.
Enrolling in a law degree doesn't mean you will complete the degree or even stay in the field. Sally Kift, the senior law academic who introduced retention strategies to Australia, says a few years back, she looked at the percentage of those who stayed practising the law. It was just 50 per cent after five years. Kift herself lasted those five years in legal practice and then became an academic. That attrition doesn't even look at the ones who don't finish first year.
There is some dispute about the annual number of law graduates. Malcolm Turnbull famously advised against doing law and bandied around the number of 15,000 graduates each year. A recent survey by the Council of Australian Law Deans of the 39 law schools across Australia revealed the total number of Australian law graduates (both undergraduate and postgraduate) starting employment or entering the job market in 2018 was 8499. Of those, just over 3800 came from NSW and the ACT, including 75 from the University of Canberra, and just over 1800 from Victoria and Tasmania.
Bit hard to understand that gap but even 8000 is a bit hard to accommodate when the number of solicitors in Australia is just over 66,000. There are of course many other brilliant jobs for lawyers, such as going in to politics, but even that is not as well remunerated as a partner at a law firm.
People want a job that enables them to have a life. They don't want to work in a sweatshop. It's not normal.George Williams
George Williams, the dean of law at the University of NSW for the last three years, tells me half his students don't want to practise law and he's doing his level best, with his team, to show the full range of paths. He says firms are very good at dominating the landscape for law students and that can create a narrow, linear path to a career. He's all over the work conditions and has had long conversations with firms about change. They speak of resilience, but he also speaks of mental illness.
Change is still coming, of course, but who knows how long it will take. He says that evidence from the Royal Commission shows problems with practising law (never mind the even less appealing reputational harms). That evidence will make it harder for law firms to recruit the best talent.
"People want a job that enables them to have a life. They don't want to work in a sweatshop. It's not normal."
Which brings me those university applications. Whether it's you or your kids, think of the careers where you can have a life. And a weekend.
- Jenna Price is a Canberra Times columnist.