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Why study law? How a law degree gives you options

Why study law? The obvious answer is you want to want to be a lawyer. Perhaps you’re attracted to the adversarial nature of the courtroom or you want to start your own law firm. Maybe you’re inspired to work in property law, specialise in employment law or make a difference in family or human rights law.

The less obvious answer is you’re looking to develop legal skills. You’re keen to develop finely tuned skills in identifying a problem, analysing the options and developing a solution for use in a variety of professional settings.

Both paths are now equally common, says Professor Marilyn McMahon from Deakin Law School. ‘For people with a law degree, about half end up working in a law-designated career path and the other half end up working in another area,’ she says.

‘We’ve moved away from a situation where a law degree was a narrow vocational degree, to the contemporary situation where it certainly serves as a vocational degree, and people use it to work as a lawyer, but it’s also being used in a broader sense for people to equip themselves with a tertiary degree that encourages good reasoning and the ability to develop solutions to problems in other areas.’

Whether you want to be the next Mike Ross or Harvey Specter, or you’re more attracted to the skills you’ll learn during the course, here’s an overview of the main benefits of studying law.

What can you do with a law degree?

First up, you can work in a legal role. If you want to become a lawyer, studying law prepares you for two main legal career paths: solicitor and barrister.

‘Solicitors are the lawyers most people are familiar with,’ Professor McMahon says. The role of a solicitor includes managing disputes, preparing contracts, investigating and researching claims, negotiating settlements and executing wills. Solicitors usually work in law firms, with a majority working in private practice. Corporate law firms and government organisations are other common employers.

A barrister gets involved when a case goes to court. ‘Barristers appear exclusively in court,’ Professor McMahon says. ‘They appear in local magistrate courts, through to the County Court, Supreme Court and occasionally the High Court of Australia.’

The role of a barrister includes preparing matters for trial and courtroom advocacy. Barristers are self-employed and responsible for obtaining their own work through relationships with solicitors.

Whichever career path you choose, there are diverse areas in which lawyers can practice, including international trade and arbitration, criminal, health and fintech. Cyber security is a notable growth area, says Professor McMahon. ‘We’re becoming very conscious of issues related to the retention, privacy and regulation of data, and of vulnerability to cyber attacks.’

'For people with a law degree, about half end up working in a law-designated career path and the other half end up working in another area'

Professor Marilyn McMahon,
Deputy Head of School, Deakin Law School

Diverse careers with a law degree

If your aspirations lie outside the traditional roles of a lawyer, why study law? ‘A law degree, because it equips people with core skills in relation to reasoning, strategising and development of solutions, is a good degree to have because it gives you skills which you can generalise. You are not just limited to law and practicing as a lawyer, but can apply these skills in other areas,’ Professor McMahon says.

People with law degrees a recruited to work in a variety of professional settings, including industrial relations, human relations, accounting, management consulting, investment banking and advocacy. Politics and journalism are also popular areas for law graduates.

In employer-speak, Professor McMahon says a law degree is shorthand for high-quality analytical skills – which are always in demand. ‘When employers see someone who has a law degree and they’re not looking to employ them specifically as a lawyer, what the law degree often will represent is that the person has undergone rigorous training in law and has developed skills that can be generalised to other areas of employment,’ she says.

Should I study law?

If you’re interested in news and current affairs and like to unpack the issues of the day – sexual harassment in the workplace, the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, climate change, border closures – you might be onto a winner with law.

‘You’ll see that in addition to the profound human consequences that each of these issues has, underpinning them there will always be legal issues,’ Professor McMahon says. ‘We need to be aware of our laws and legal system, how they regulate behaviours, what restrictions are tolerable and what aren’t acceptable and should be changed. These sorts of interests are the beginning of potential engagement with law.’

And if you like to read – a lot – even better. ‘Law involves an enormous amount of reading,’ Professor McMahon says. ‘The essence of doing a law degree is investigating cases and statutes and reading them very, very carefully.

‘If you find it intellectually challenging to unpick arguments and read documents closely, that’s a really good start for studying law.’

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Professor Marilyn McMahon
Professor Marilyn McMahon

Deputy Head of School, Deakin Law School

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