Overcoming the age gap to take a leap into law

QLS president Christine Smyth

With an increasing number of mature age students setting on a career path into law, the value of older graduates has gained new attention.

Those who join the legal profession after one or two other careers, or perhaps even a decade of raising a young family face a multitude of challenges unique to law graduates who attend university fresh out of high school. However, they also bring broad and interesting competencies that all workplaces in both the public and private sector can benefit from.

Four years ago Malcolm Kane made the decision to return to university to study law as a mature age student. Speaking to Lawyers Weekly about his experience of law school culture and the profession at large, Mr Kane shared his unique journey.

“I won’t say that it was an easy experience by any means. I certainly was introduced to the law in a way that I had never experienced before,” Mr Kane said.

Today, at 57, the Queensland law graduate is readying himself for admission but is unsure if he will ever work as a legal practitioner. When asked to identify what he believes quells his aspiration to work in a law firm, Mr Kane volunteers his age as a main factor.

While he acknowledges that nobody is likely to discriminate him out-right, because that would be illegal, Mr Kane said he expected applications from younger candidates to be be viewed more favorably.

“I am realistic and I do understand that law firms would probably prefer, maybe a younger graduate because they’ve got time, they’ve got years ahead of them; and that maybe they can be moulded in a particular way,” Mr Kane said.

“Maybe my life experience might be seen as being less flexible in that regard.”

“I don’t consider that to always be the case but it is a perception – and I’m also very much aware that no HR manager is going to say that ‘we wouldn’t hire you because you’re too old’,” he said.

What Mr Kane describes as a perception of being “inflexible” on one hand speaks to a diversity of experience and wisdom, which can often translate to better business outcomes and team dynamic.

Tracking the number of mature-age lawyers being admitted to the profession year-on-year is difficult in the absence of university data. This initial challenge in quantifying mature age graduates makes it hard to identify what work in law, if any, they fall into.

The Council of Australian Law Deans last year released figures that broke down the total number of graduates from both LLB and JD law programs, however separate figures for each cohort were not provided. What is known is that in 2015 a total of 7,583 Australian law students graduated with an LLB or JD and, of that group, 1,662 students hailed from Queensland and the Northern Territory.

Similarly, figures provided by the Law Society of Queensland offers a breakdown of its members by age. Profiling members of the state law society in this way does not indicate which of the 3,633 members who are over the age of 50 are new practitioners.

Mr Kane, who celebrated his 53rd birthday in his first year of law school, said the decision to study law later in life came from wanting a new career. He also said that he considered pursuing this new career avenue would tie together other relevant experiences of jobs he held down in past. Over a career spanning more than 20 years, he has worked both in the Queensland public sector and for the state police force.

“Initially when I began the degree I didn’t really see myself as entering into private practice, I think because I felt that age may have been, or would be, an impediment to that given the number of graduates each year and the limited number of graduate positions,” Mr Kane said

“My own view was that that would probably be an unlikely avenue for a career change, but I know that there are other areas that you can of course use a law degree in,” he said.

The new ranks of lawyers stepping into the legal profession in Queensland and throughout the nation are the target for most conversations about the diverse make up of law in Australia. Often the diversity narrative about the Australian legal profession can tend to focus on factors other than age, such as gender or cultural diversity. Universities and law societies, both interested in industry employment trends, are starting to address the issue with support for later-life law graduates.

At the University of Queensland (UQ) for example, campus and faculty specific careers, mentoring and networking programs are available to students. A spokesperson from the careers division, who works on initiatives targeting the UQ’s law school, told Lawyers Weekly that tailored advice and assistance was available to its mature age cohort.

According to president of the Queensland Law Society (QLS), Christine Smyth (pictured), there are a range of programs on offer to support new graduates as they transition from university into paid legal work. While no programs specifically target mature age students as yet, Ms Smyth added early career lawyers can benefit from specialised professional development and networking events hosted by the law society.

“QLS has implemented a number of initiatives and programs designed to assist all new students entering the legal profession, including mature age graduates,” Ms Smyth said via email.

“Newly minted and mature aged lawyers can also take advantage of QLS’ senior counselors mentoring program in which they are paired up with senior solicitors with 15 years or more experience to provide them with guidance and career advice,” she said.

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