If there were no bad people, there would be no good lawyers.
~ Charles Dickens ~
When you were really little, pre-school aged, what did you want to be when you grew up? Perhaps a doctor? Or a teacher? An emergency services profession — police, paramedic, fireman? An adventurous job — astronaut or explorer? Did this change as you got older — maybe you were influenced by Australian local heroes or foreign film actors?
Did anybody dream of being a lawyer as a kid? Unless a family member was in the legal profession, chances are you may not have even known what a job as a lawyer entails, or what their work tasks are — let alone the scale of a lawyer salary in Australia.
In Australian society, lawyers tend to be the butt of the dry Australian humour. While the public certainly appreciates the expertise of the criminal justice and legal profession, we also have the concept of the 'tall poppy syndrome' whereby we cheer for the underdog rather than the wealthy and entitled — even if they did work hard to obtain their bachelor or master degree.
The jokes that complete the rounds of an informal dinner party, and the stereotypes that exist, do not paint an accurate picture of the breadth of work many lawyers are involved in and the fact they are not all the money-pinching criminal profession Australian joke-tellers would have you believe. In fact, these days practising lawyers work on human rights cases, and environmental and social issues as well as the work they do on day-to-day criminal cases.
If you harbour an interest in Australian, or foreign, law, you may be wondering how to become a lawyer in Australia. And whether you're about to complete your secondary schooling, or you are an adult looking for a change of work or career, you're undoubtedly going to ask: how long does it take to get a law degree?
Superprof is here to answer those questions for you.
What Secondary School Subjects are Prerequisites for Studying Law?
When you've decided on a career, it's essential you start to prepare for it and find out as much as you can as early as possible. Universities all have set requirements for admission into courses — and these often vary from state to state. The last thing you want when you go to apply for the law degree of your choice is to discover you haven't met the entry requirements because you chose the wrong subjects in secondary school.
What subjects should I complete to ensure I meet entry requirements for a law degree?
In order to gain entry to all Australian universities, you need an Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR). The ATAR to gain entry to an undergraduate law degree can vary as much as 30 points between universities. The University of Sydney frequently has the highest ATAR requirements — 99.50 — whereas Central Queensland University was accepting students with an ATAR of 69.05 for their online distance education law degree.
In addition to your ATAR, which has its own set of requirements — students must satisfactorily complete at least 4 subjects at tertiary/category A level, two units of which must be English — all Australian universities require prospective students to complete Year 12 English to a satisfactory level.
While there are no specific requirements to complete subjects like legal studies or sociology, or even mathematics, in order to apply and gain entry to a legal degree, studying these subjects in high school may certainly give you, at the very least, a boost of confidence once you start tertiary studies.
When it comes to selecting your university and your degree, there are a number of options to consider. Some universities require you to complete another bachelor degree prior to, or alongside, a legal degree. Others have undergraduate and graduate degrees that enable you to 'just study law'.
If you're still on board to study law, some other secondary school subjects that may come in handy include:
- Sociology — the study of society and social functions can certainly provide a good grounding, especially if your intention is to graduate with a specialisation in human rights or youth justice.
- Politics — even if you're not considering providing legal services to politicians or corporations, knowledge of politics and an understanding of how things work can be beneficial.
- Maths — the non-mathematical skills you develop are what we're looking for here: endurance for pressure, confidence, positive self-esteem and sharpened observation.
- Language other than English — it does not hurt to have another language under your belt, particularly if you want to go into international law or work in a foreign country.
Of course, you should also consider the other half of the degree you are likely to choose.
And remember, there are people who tutor in law-based subjects.
How Long Does it Take to Get a Law Degree?
Once you've worked out how to become a lawyer in Australia, the next question you have will probably be: Exactly how long does it take to get a law degree? (At some point, you'll likely have investigated the lawyer salary in Australia, but if not, we'll be getting to that soon.) The short answer is: like medicine, admission into the legal profession requires specialised knowledge which takes considerable time to acquire — you're looking at at least 6 years to complete a law degree.
In Australia, the legal profession is maintaining steady growth. Depending on where you want to specialise, some areas, such as barrister and solicitor roles, have particularly strong growth trends. According to the National Profile of Solicitors, in 2019 there were close to 77,000 practising solicitors throughout Australia, showing an increase of 33% over the previous 7 years with no signs of slowing down.
These practising lawyers cover a range of specialisations, including contract law, criminal law, constitutional law and industrial law.
So, if you have your sights set on becoming a solicitor or barrister, let's have a look at the stages of study you'll be required to complete.
Stage 1: Academic
The pathway and courses you choose will depend on whether or not you already have a bachelor degree in another discipline. If you do not already possess a bachelor degree, you can apply for a Bachelor of Laws. If you do already have a bachelor level qualification, you will be eligible to apply to enrol in a Juris Doctor course.
Bachelor of Laws
A Bachelor of Laws provides students with all the skills, both legal and academic, required to begin practising law. It is a 4-year full-time degree, or up to 10 years part-time, in which students cover:
- public and criminal law
- evidence and litigation
- electives including environmental, international and human rights law
- practical experience through internships, clinical placements and exchanges.
Some universities also have a flexible degree option whereby undergraduates can combine law with another discipline to complete a double degree. Rather than being double the work, a flexible degree allows students to pursue other areas of passion and further their career goals. This option adds only one additional year to your study.
As mentioned, this degree is for graduates who already have a bachelor degree in another discipline. It covers similar content to the Bachelor of Laws with the same practical experience and practise opportunities and provides the same level of qualification. The Juris Doctor is a 3-year full-time course, or up to 10 years part-time.
There are multiple post-graduate courses you can enrol in across many universities. It is best to check admission requirements and course types at your preferred university, but in general the types of courses you can enrol in include:
- Graduate Certificate of Law
- Graduate Certificate of New Technologies Law
- Master of Laws
- Master of International Diplomacy
- Post-graduate research.
You may be wondering where the famed 'bar exam' sits in this process — in Australia, it doesn't exist. Rather than sitting a long, theoretical exam and then be sent out into the legal world, the Australian system requires potential lawyers to gain practical work experience.
Stage 2: Vocational
Once you complete your degree, to be eligible for admission to practise law in the Australian legal system, you must complete Practical Legal Training (PLT).
Upon successful completion of the PLT program, which usually takes one year, you are awarded the Graduate Diploma of Legal Practice and can apply for admission as a professional practitioner in your jurisdiction.
PLT training generally involves structured and supervised training and experience in the workplace. The training includes areas such as:
- ethics and professional responsibility
- skills needed by a lawyer
- problem solving
- office accounting
- civil litigation
- property law
- commercial and corporate practice.
You are also required to select two electives for workplace experience in specialised areas such as: criminal law, family law, wills and estates practice, industrial relations and environmental practice.
Some universities incorporate PLT into their course requirements, but if your university doesn't, you will be required to separately attend a university that does for this component.
After you've satisfied all the requirements for your PLT, there is a couple of final steps to take before you can independently enter the profession.
Stage 3: Professional
The final steps to becoming a fully registered lawyer (solicitor or barrister) are:
- Within 5 years of graduation, apply for admission to the relevant Admissions Authority in your state or territory.
- Apply for a Practising Certificate from your local Law Society.
- Complete up to 2 years of professional, supervised practice with a law firm — obviously one that specialises in your chosen field.
Within this process, you also need to provide evidence that you are a 'fit and proper person'. While this may sound a bit odd, it's actually all about ethics. Basically, these requirements necessitate that you disclose any criminal, academic or general misconduct, but it is worthy to note that each Admissions Authority has its own rules so you are best advised to check these carefully.
An Overview of the Lawyer Salary in Australia
According to a 2020 survey by Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching (QILT), the average starting salary for a lawyer, 3 months from graduation, is $60,000. This raises to $82,000 after 3 years. An average lawyer salary in Australia stands at around $185,000 — this depends on the field though, as the differences can be quite stark.
|Field of Law||av. Junior Salary||av. Experienced salary|
|Generalist In-House Counsel||-||$129,000|
|Human Rights||$54,000||$100,000 +|
Highly experienced lawyers, in the top firms, who deal with international clients and global companies can sometimes earn well in excess of $700,000 per year.
While you may think that lawyers are extremely well paid (and they are) it is somewhat of an eye-opener to realise that, out of the 10 highest paying careers in Australia, legal professionals rank at number 7 — under medical specialists, financial advisors and psychiatrists, but above a CEO or engineer.
What Skills Does a Lawyer Need to be Successful?
Apart from a knowledge of Australian law (obviously), there are a number of key skills you will need to develop if you wish to be successful in your chosen career.
Seven Qualities You'll Need if you Want a Career in Law
- Analytical: ability to find different ways to resolve a situation
- Communication: precise language, easy to understand, clear and convincing.
- Creativity: ability to generate fresh perspectives and think beyond the obvious.
- Judgement: identify weaknesses and draw conclusions.
- People skills: persuasive, ability to build trust and to read into the actions of others
- Perseverance: from first year undergraduate to a practising lawyer takes a lot of time and effort; cases may go on for years.
- Research skills: preparing legal strategies requires research plus the ability to explain these to the client.
If you are passionate about the law and about helping people, and you possess the skills listed above, then a career in the legal profession may be right up your alley.