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Is law the new arts degree?

Every year around 7,000 students graduate with a law degree in Australia, according to the Council of Australian Law Deans. With 36 law schools currently accepting students, one might safely think that it is only the top law graduates who can hope to find a job soon after graduation.

Instead, the numbers show that 74 percent of law students are finding employment within a few months of completing their degrees.

This is because many law students these days are not necessarily aspiring lawyers.

While an arts degree has traditionally been the generalised course undecided students choose when entering the tertiary studies, with today’s competitive job market and the desire for a higher-prestige degree, students are opting to study law. These students, however, have a wide range of career paths in mind.

Despite being unsure of her career intentions, Demi Benton, a third-year Law and Arts student, was attracted to the prestige of a law degree.

“I don’t think I want to pursue a legal career, and a lot of my friends feel the same way. I couldn’t just study arts though, it’s not good enough,” she told upstart.

Benton is planning a career either in the police force or criminal investigation, and hopes her combined law and arts degrees will increase her employment options.

“My parents and teachers encouraged me to study law because it will probably get me a job. I don’t think arts alone is really worth the HECS debt if you have to study a post-graduate [degree] afterward,” she said

Patrick Keyzer, Head of the La Trobe University Law School, sees the value in students choosing to study law, whether or not they are aiming to pursue a legal career.

“I have seen a lot of people studying law and move into other professions, and then found that the law is useful,” he told upstart.

He suggests that one of the reasons behind the increase in students studying law was the lowering of the ATAR score required by some universities. However, he does not necessarily see the increase in law graduates as a bad thing.

“Although there has been a massive increase in the number of law students and law graduates, it is still a very desirable degree for employers,” Keyzer said.

He believes that the range of skills that students acquire through law degrees, especially when combined with another degree, something that has become common in Australia in the form of double degrees, are still useful.

Keyzer’s confidence is shared with other legal scholars such as Geoff Bowyer, former president of the Law Institute of Victoria, who believes that law was changing into a broader and more generalist degree that is also favoured in other careers.

“Law degrees are seen in corporate and  government as a good base for making good administrative people,” Bowyer told The Australian Financial Review in 2014.

Not all agree, however. In a recent opinion piece, Cathy Sherry, senior lecturer at the University of New South Wales and a former lawyer herself, wrote that she believes that that the time studying the intricacies of law if one does not plan to be a lawyer is an unnecessary burden, describing law degrees as the new “default marker of academic achievement”.

She advises students not to rule the arts degree out as a study option, insisting that they are still valid qualifications that allow for students to gain a wide range of knowledge and skills.

“A well-structured arts degree (in which a student actually does their reading!) is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to attain a broad understanding of world history, politics, government, philosophy, economics, psychology, religion, sociology – the list is endless,” she wrote in The Herald Sun.

Keyzer agrees that the arts degree should not be totally overlooked, and that arts students who major in media and communications are highly employable in the modern job market.

Meanwhile, universities are re-branding arts degrees to have clearer professional pathways.

Both Deakin and Monash are promoting their arts departments as offering degrees that ‘future-proof’ students’ careers in terms of clear professional pathways. Students are allowed to start their degree from a wide scope and narrow it down, allowing greater assurance that they have a clear end goal in mind.

With these conflicting attitudes around the general applications of law and arts degrees, it remains to be seen how universities and degrees will change and adapt as students become more career-outcome focused.

Marlee Kirk is a third year Bachelor of Law and Arts (Creative and Professional Writing) student. You can follow her on Twitter @marleeliving97

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