Bush lawyers

By Legal Eagle

We’ve just been doing our tax returns in the Eagle household, including looking at our HECS debt. The year our daughter was born, we found out that HECS had not been taken out of my husband’s salary as we went, and so we owed a debt to the tax office. Whoops. That was a shock to the system. But luckily, my husband didn’t begin a Law degree in the last 10 years or so – we would have had an even bigger shock then.

The Law HECS debt was increased massively about 10 years ago (fortunately for me, after I had already started studying). I think this was because Law was perceived as a “prestigious” course for which students would be prepared to pay. But, unlike other “prestigious” degrees, the cost of a law degree to a university is low. The Victorian Law Institute has calculated that law students are required to repay 80.5% of the cost of their education as compared to around 30% for Medicine, Dentistry and Veterinary Science students. In addition, contrary to public perception, the vast majority of young lawyers are not highly paid, and it takes about four years before many law graduates get an average salary. I know that friends who worked in small practices could have earned more money waiting on tables than they did during their Articles year. It’s only the people who work for the megafirms who get the megasalaries.

In light of the foregoing, I was interested to see that there is now a proposal to attract lawyers to rural areas which involves part or full payment of HECS debts in return for “going bush”. As with doctors, there are big problems in getting young graduate lawyers in country areas.

I must confess that the idea of working in the country has never really appealed to me. I like being near my friends and family. I would be worried that I’d be isolated if I went to the country. My husband, on the other hand, grew up in the country, and says that it was a great place to grow up (at least, until you got to the age of about 14).

Still, I think that if I had a ~$34,000 HECS debt, I would seriously consider moving to the country for a while to get rid of it. It’s a good idea – it will attract some people who wouldn’t otherwise move to the country to consider it as an option. The upsides of moving to the country are that you would be close to the bush and the outdoor lifestyle would be great. House prices would be less, and hopefully work would be less frenetic than at a city firm. If this proposal gets off the ground, it will be interesting to see if it has a practical effect.


  1. Pete
    Posted October 4, 2008 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

    As an arts graduate who began a law degree, I have a longstanding concern over exactly where my extra fees are going. In undergrad arts I attended lectures and tutes with no material resources beyond the actual lecture theatre, and nothing has changed. Aside from the possibility that the academics are better paid, or that the LSS have a fine dining allowance, I can’t account for the discrepancy. Could it be a case of charging upwardly mobile young consumers more so that they feel the product is intrinsically more prestigious? If I was after that form of gratification I would go and buy a t-shirt from Comme des Garcons, not spend 3 and a half years in law school.

  2. LDU
    Posted October 4, 2008 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

    The legal profession is like a pyramid isn’t it? You have the Top 100 Australian companies contracting their legal related work to the big firms at the top, and as you go lower down the pyramid things aren’t as glamorous.

  3. conrad
    Posted October 5, 2008 at 6:36 am | Permalink

    I think you have a little functional fixedness as to what country towns need (and outer suburbia for that matter), as almost everyone in the media has incidentally (add teachers, doctors and nurses to the list). You’ll find that many country towns need essentially everyone. That’s one of the problems of having an aging population and a rather average training system. As I said over at Andrew Norton’s blog, one day you’ll need an audiologist too, but no-one is going to give them HECS relief, and nor the 100 other occupations that arn’t in your mind that are in short supply also. Should everyone that moves to the country/outer suburbia get relief?

    Pete: “As an arts graduate who began a law degree, I have a longstanding concern over exactly where my extra fees are going”

    Perhaps you’re not aware of this, but you’re still not paying the full cost of a degree, even in law (assuming you are paying the Aus public student fee), thus you arn’t paying extra at all (you’re paying under the cost — which is why there are probably 25 other students in your tutorials, and why everything seems done on the cheap). I’ll also let you in on the obvious, which is that most universities in Australia already have staffing difficulties because they don’t have enough money in many fields (which are sure to become worse), and I imagine that is true in fields like law where you can’t get people from Iran/China to teach on the cheap. A second thing you might want consider is whether it would be wrong for universities to charge you more than the price of your degree if they wanted (assuming competition, unlike now). No-one at places like Harvard would even consider it wrong.

  4. conrad
    Posted October 5, 2008 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    Alternatively, we could just accept the fact that not every service is going to be available everywhere. If you live in a regional area, you get other benefits like cheap housing, clean air, no traffic jams etc. If the area is so horrible that no-one wants to go or live there, then subsidizing people to live there permanently is a pretty odd thing to do in most circumstances (you might like to compare the general attitudes some people have to all the Aboriginal areas on this issue, where people often say they should move).

    “Law doesn’t have people from overseas who can teach on the cheap – it just has desperate postgrad students like me who it can hire on contract”

    Yep, that’s the way the social sciences work — it’s like a little industry of PhD students to the slaughter (I’m not sure if it is that bad in law). The engineers have woken up to that, which is why there almost no Australian born engineering PhD students anymore.

  5. Posted October 7, 2008 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    Conrad, until quite recently it was not possible to study law at regional universities. Ditto dentistry, medicine, optometry etc. The position has improved in some areas, but there is still a skew relative to population. That is, expressed as a % of the population in metro and regional areas, there are more places in metro areas.

    Accepting the interest in emmigration for personal and career reasons, Australian young are fairly locationally immobile. Regioanl students who study in the metros are far more likely to stay in the metros, regional students who study regionally to stay in the regions.

    If you look at student numbers in the professions at metro universities, there is a stong bias towards overseas students, female students and those from Asian groups. Vet science or optometry are classic examples.

    For a number of cultural reasons, female and Asian background students are less likely to consider regional possibilities.

    It’s not a money issue. The last time I looked in optometry, there was a clear gradient in starting salaries from the inner city areas (low) through the outer metro and surrounding ring to the broader regional areas. In a profession now dominated by employed staff, the greatest end career returns came in regional areas.

    There will always be some shifts in professionals between areas. Adelaide loses its higher fliers to other metro centres as an example. However, the current system does have bad structural skews.

    If you look at the distribution

  6. Posted October 7, 2008 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    Sorry for the typos in the last post. The small size of the comment box makes it harder to see errors.

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