Getting a Job as a Lawyer: The Science of Improving Your Chances

In 2016, many students, and particularly law students, are finding it difficult to find a job. The current figures in the Australian legal industry are: there are 60,000 practicing lawyers. The percentage of employment grows at an average rate of 5% per year. This allows for 3000 job openings per year, however, there are 12,000 law graduates per year.

The statistics speak for themselves.

The problem

The following mental models will attempt to explain the reasons for this phenomenon and what will contribute to the difficulties in landing a job.

1. Supply and Demand

Firstly, a significant part of the problem can be viewed from the fundamental economics concept of ‘supply and demand.’ Currently, there is an excessive supply of law students, while the demand for law students remains the same. Simply, there aren’t enough jobs for all law students and this will severely reduce the probability of obtaining a job.

2. Mere Association

Although it pains me to say it, the ranking of University will have an effect on the perceptions of employers. A degree from a low ranking University does not have a high level of prestige, recognition, and connections as other Universities.

Employers may subconsciously apply the psychological tendency of negative association, that is, associating the student as lower quality, if they come from a lower ranking University.

However, they cannot possibly know a student’s ability without testing the student’s ability, nevertheless the psychological tendency of ‘mere association’ may negatively impact a student’s job prospects.

Postulated Failed Solutions

In order to get a job, many students are raising their grades. They’re studying harder and harder in order to appeal to prospective employers. Without applying other solutions, this is likely to fail.

This claim is best explained through ‘the red queen effect’ and through the ‘appeal to possibility.’

1. The Red Queen Effect

In evolution, the ‘red queen effect’ is a phenomenon where one species evolves in order to gain an advantage, however, the other species adapts to keep up. Both species are continually progressing with no long term advantage over the other. For example, a rabbit evolves to outrun a fox, and the fox evolves to catch the rabbit.

As for law students, this very same pattern is occurring. Student A is raising their marks and student B is doing the same. Both students are becoming better and better while neither is getting an edge over the other. Thus, they are in exactly the same position as they were before.

2. Appeal to Possibility

A common thought that a number of students hold in their mind is, “We don’t need to worry, as it is possible to get a job.” This is a true statement, it is entirely ‘possible’ to get a job. However, ‘possible’ does not equal ‘probable.’

This is the logical fallacy called ‘appeal to possibility.’

It is more probable that a student will not get a job, than a student will. Relying on the belief that it is possible to land a job, may lead to ill-judged planning or inaction, and inturn, increase the probability of not landing a job.

Postulated Successful Solutions

1. Inversion

The mathematics of algebra frequently utilises the tool of ‘inversion’ in order to solve problems that can’t be solved any other way. That is, the problem is turned around in reverse. Let’s apply inversion to the problem in question. Instead of asking, ‘how can a law student get a job’, ask the following:

If I were an owner of a law firm, what would I want in a graduate and how would I choose between them?

The following mental models will attempt to answer the inverted question.

2. Bias from Liking Tendency

The psychological model ‘bias from liking tendency’ is where an individual tends to view the people they like, as more trustworthy and they're more likely to agree with the people they like.

This is contrasted with the ‘bias from disliking’, that is we are more prone to avoid and disagree with people we don’t like.

Owner’s perspective: “I have had such terrible experiences working with jerks in the past that, now that I’m in charge, I’m never going to work with a moron again. James is very smart, however, I can feel that he’s going to be a handful, and so I’m picking Rod instead. He’s a nice guy.”

3. Mutualism

In ecology, the scenario where one species benefits and the other is harmed, is called a parasitic relationship. If we relate this to the relationship between an employer and an employee, a business owner will not want to pay an employee if they are giving little in return. This leads us to the ecological theory called ‘mutualism.’ Both species benefit from each other’s existence.

In our case, the more that the employee can provide for the employer, the more the employer will provide the employee, in the form of a job and remuneration.

Note that this model is subject to potential exploitation by employers.

4. Ecological Niche

In an ecological niche, one species occupies a particular resource and a different species is occupying a different resource. Both species peacefully coexist because they are not competing for the same resource.

In our situation, a law student that is occupying a particular area of law which other law students are not occupying, will reduce the number of his or her competitors. Law student A is not a threat to law student B, and vice versa. Both parties can coexist because they are not competing for the same area of law.

5. Division of Labour

This point is an example of the ecological niche. Division of labour is one of the most fundamental models within economics. This is where a labourer can narrow his or her skills and focus entirely on a single area. As her time is not divided between skills, the singularity leads to exceptional competence and thus results in significant productivity.

For a law student, an edge can occur if the individual dedicates their additional time to an area of law such as negligence, or even a speciality within this, such as medical negligence. It would be very difficult for a non-specialised student to compete with the specialised student, within the specialisation. The student could be so exceptional that it would be irrational for the employer to hire somebody else.

A potential risk of taking this strategy is the chance that the mastered skill is unwanted or not in demand.

6. ‘Us and Them

A point which is similar to the bias from liking tendency is the predisposition to reject people that are not in the ‘in-group’. We have the tendency to view ‘outsiders’ as threats and ‘insiders’ as favourable.

A student that attempts to align themselves as being the ‘same’ as the employer may result in greater favour than the others.

Conclusion

To sum-up, the above mental models indicate that the following ideas will increase the probability of obtaining a job:

1. Don't rely on wishful thinking. 

2. Don't rely purely on grades.

3. Be likeable.

4. Try to find as many ways as possible to be useful to your potential employer. 

5. Become really good at a single area of law.

6. Try to appear 'similar' to the potential employer. 

* * *

The following is a list of academic disciplines that were used in order to solve the problem.

Psychology — ‘mere association’, ‘bias from liking tendency’

Ecology — ‘niche’, ‘mutualism’, 'parasitism'

Economics — ‘supply and demand’, ‘division of labour

Evolution — ‘red queen effect’,

Philosophy — ‘appeal to possibility

Mathematics — ‘inversion

Sociology — ‘us & them