Lawyers for Satan is a popular theme but these days it's not just joke flames licking at the profession's feet. As lawyers assess the industry's belated version of the digital revolution that has smashed the media, the challenges are no laughing matter.
Nick Abrahams, partner at a Sydney firm who also calls himself a "legal futurist", has compared lawyers with "a frog in pot that is slowly being brought to the boil, comfortably numb". Slow to catch on, these legal frogs are going to be cooked, Abrahams says. As happened with journalism, technology is reshaping the law, shattering a once impenetrable information monopoly, robbing it of its exclusive mystique - and taking the expensive legal fees down at the same time.
"We're not going back," Abrahams says. "There's this general feeling among certain lawyers that we've seen this before, that it's all cyclical and it's all going to come back. But the reality is, it's not coming back. This is the new normal."
Law firms are merging and tightening their belts to meet the challenge, which has been worsened by lingering affects of the global financial crisis. Corporate clients are looking afresh at their legal bills, and asking: "What's the risk? Do we really need a lawyer? Can we do it in-house?", says Abrahams. Exorbitant fees - traditionally billed by lawyers who toiled attached to a dollar-spinning clock - are under scrutiny. Set fees are in; the old-school racking up of money in six-minute increments is on the way out. Naturally, the job market for lawyers is being squeezed tight as a result and salaries are a taking a shave.
But while sympathy may not come easily, the people facing perhaps the hardest fall are not fat cats in fancy cars but the young guns - the law graduates pouring out of Australian universities at such a rate that a degree once promising security and relative riches now comes laden with fear and uncertainty. Students are emerging from the brutal slog of law school into what industry elders see as the worst job market in decades.
Professor Carolyn Evans, dean of Melbourne University law school, says last year "was the worst that I'd seen". As her students head out into the world, Evans tries to prepare them. Lawyers and law students are already known for shockingly high rates of depression and suicide. "So particularly when there are difficulties with employment we see rising levels of anxiety and concern," she says.
Little wonder they're anxious: looking round, these students can see so many other hopefuls just like them that the competition for jobs is simply daunting. Australia is producing around 12,000 law graduates a year - a startling figure that has drawn much concerned industry and academic commentary. (For perspective, consider there are only 60,000 working lawyers in the entire country.)
Nick Abrahams says there are now more law students nationally than there are actual lawyers in all of NSW. He jokes: "Perhaps the answer is that rather than going to law school to become a lawyer, go to law school so you can open a law school.
But Neville Carter, head of the College of Law in Sydney, urges cautious interpretation of the 12,000-a-year figure. He says it includes everyone studying any kind of law degree, including post-graduates, as well as a sizeable number of students who study law for other reasons but never intend to practice. He puts the true figure for graduates hoping to enter the profession around 6500 a year.
That still sounds like an awful lot and Carter doesn't downplay the scale of the employment challenge. Employment statistics are down for all graduates, he says, but "law is a particular concern - with employment rates in the mid-to-high 70s [per cent] six months after completion of qualification - from historical highs in the late-to-mid 90s".
Awaiting law graduates on the other side of the job search is a career that in its early years offers the prospect of endless hours doing menial work off for richly rewarded partners and senior associates - off the back of a degree that these days doesn't set them apart from graduates in many other fields and increasingly leaves them lagging. Three years ago, lawyers tumbled out of the top 10 rankings for graduate salaries - their median earnings under $50,000 and a vast $27,000 behind the top earners, dentists. That gap remains - a dentistry graduate last year earned $80,000, with lawyers back on $55,000.
Kate Horman, who worked for a big Sydney firm before quitting to start her own online legal business, said the hours were brutal, but law firms could pick and choose and then exploit their juniors to the hilt. "The fact that there's such a glut of graduates means they're having to work harder and longer because you've got heaps of grads coming up the ranks who are going to be cheaper. It's hugely competitive and hugely pressurised. Most aren't brave enough to admit they spent five years on a degree to get into a profession that isn't what they thought it was going to be."
Some students hear the stories and look at the numbers and decide it's barely worth the trouble. Tom Aitken, who graduated this year, is selling cars in inner-city Melbourne - and is going to stick with that. "One of the big things that turned me off from going into the legal industry was how difficult it seemed to be to get a job. The talk was of people applying for all these jobs and not getting anywhere."
For Liam Murray, who got his degree from Deakin University in Melbourne in April, the job hunt is confronting but he hasn't given up.He's been applying for jobs for three months. In love with the law - and possessed of a desire to "contribute something important to society" - he is a realist but an optimist. "There are a lot of students who expected it to be easier to get a job - not me though, I always knew it would be a challenge to get a job straight out of uni."
The young hopefuls will be both comforted and terrified to hear the job market is often as tough for lawyers at far later stages of their careers. One Melbourne lawyer - aged 46, holding a Master of Law and a CV dominated by blue-chip firms in Sydney - was stunned at the state of the job market when he came home last year after a stint in Europe. Paul, who did not want his surname used, applied for 80 jobs, scoring only five interviews. He was eventually hired as an in-house lawyer in the corporate sector but it took six months. "It certainly made me question why I'd invested so heavily in a profession that didn't love back or value its own. The experience motivated me to start my own business on the side and strive to be more financially independent."
For older and younger lawyers alike, the ongoing challenge is how to adapt to the digital revolution that still firming its grip on the industry. Nick Abrahams sees it as both risk - for lawyers and employers who don't get on board - and an opportunity for the tech-savvy to embrace.
"If you can be a lawyer and work together in some way with technology there are huge opportunities," says Abrahams, who has invested in one such digital entrant, LawPath. The tech-wave in law is about handing the tools and the information once locked away in law school libraries and lawyers' heads to the mass market. Google is among the powerhouses racing to tap the market.
The revolution is more advanced in the US, Abrahams says. "At Stanford University, they have joined their legal department with their computer science department and their design department and they're focusing on creating disruptors to the legal profession."
Australian educators are taking the disruption message to their classrooms. Carolyn Evans says University of Melbourne students will have a new subject in 2015: "Law Apps". Evans says students will create law-based apps for ordinary people, that will "help people understand a particular area of law and whether they have a case that might be worth bringing to a lawyer".
Some experienced lawyers are already making the leap to the new era. Fiona McCord quit her job as a lawyer with ASIC to launch a business called Base Legal. She runs her one-woman home and web-based company from her home, in Torquay, offering a cost-effective one-stop legal shop for small and medium businesses.
"My motto is approachable, affordable and reliable," she says. "I'm getting clients who normally wouldn't go to see lawyers and they're coming because there's nothing intimidating about it. I'm not intimidating them, I'm not judging them, I'm happy to assist them and I let them know what the costs will be up front."
That's the kind of sunny people-friendly philosophy that if it catches on could really render lawyer jokes redundant if it catches on. But How swiftly such a shift takes hold depends on how willing lawyers are to lay to rest the legal style reflected in the punchlines of a thousand jokes.
"How much do you charge?," asked the client.
"I charge $200 to answer three questions."
"That's a bit steep, isn't it?"
"Yes it is," said the lawyer. "What's your third question?"
A funny business, indeed, but we may be about to witness the end of the punchline.
Internet tools make it easy to get advice
The name of her new legal services company, The Lazy Lawyer, is clearly no guide to the work ethic of its owner. Kate Horman is anything but idle.
It's not yet two years since she graduated from Sydney University law school, and already she is embracing the challenges of an industry in flux - and Horman is doing it on her own, using technology to take law out of the hands of large, pricey firms and to hand control to ordinary people.
"I call myself the Robin Hood of the legal world and technology is my greatest tool," Horman says of her Bondi-based home-run and web-based business.
"We can reach the general public. We can provide free information and free guides. My philosophy is that no question is too stupid to ask. That's the way it should be. But lawyers have always set themselves above everybody else."
Horman did get a job at a large Sydney law firm after graduating, but soon knew it was not for her.
"You're paid more than the average graduate but you work your arse off. You're flogged. You're married to the job. Start at 7am and finish at 10 to10.30 at night. And there are times when they don't go home from work at all."
While working at the big end of town, Horman hit upon the Lazy Lawyer concept. Her idea was - to take the secrets of the lawyer's office to the man on the street, who has long believed the legal industry's pitch that to do anything involving legal documents, you need a lawyer.
Not so, says Horman. What you need are access to the documents - such as shareholders agreements or employment agreements - stripped of jargon and available online, with advice on how to do it yourself.
"The saving grace is that people are starting to look at the old system and say, 'Hang on, we can disrupt this'. There's a different way of approaching it. It's so old and staid. It needs to change.
"Until now you had to go to a law firm to get these things done. People would think 'it's too hard and costs too much'. Now you can buy the templates online, populate them yourself, and you're covered legally."
Degrees of difficulty: bleak outlook for new graduates
DURING his years studying law at Deakin University, in Melbourne, Liam Murray came to recognise students who believed their life was set just because they'd done the hard yards in the lecture halls.
"There's a breed of student with a dangerous mindset that says, 'I've done this course, I'm really important, I deserve a job'. And the reality is, no you don't. You have to prove you deserve it."
Prove it, and then some. Law graduates are spilling on to the streets in such numbers that you wonder if all those law schools have sold them a lemon. Where are they all going to work? For Liam Murray, that's an open question. He has been applying for jobs for three months - no luck yet, but it's early days. He loves the law.
"I'd always really enjoyed debating, thinking things through - the mental processes of debating and construction of arguments. And as corny as it might sound, I actually wanted to contribute something important to society," he said.
He has tried to apply his passion to delivering legal services to the community, - even if he isn't being paid for it. Volunteer lawyering is a useful way of gaining experience and satisfying an urge to help - so Murray was surprised when his approaches to community groups were rebuffed.
"They'd say, 'We just don't have the space for you'. So even getting voluntary experience can be a challenge. Initially it's a surprise when you think you're trying to give away your legal support and you get the knock-back. Some people let it get them down."
It gives a striking indication of how many lawyers are roaming Australian streets now: so many that they can't even give the law away.
But Murray is in for the long haul.
"I'm really optimistic about it. I accept that it can be a very challenging area to get a job. It's one of these challenges in life - getting your foot in the door. And once you've got that first role then other opportunities avail themselves."
Sources: www.thelazylawyer.com; www.baselegal.com.au
Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/national/newscustom/law-of-the-jungle-lawyers-now-an-endangered-species-20141011-114u91.html#ixzz3GVvead2D