A lawyer is a qualified professional who can offer legal advice or represent clients in court. However, oftentimes the term ‘lawyer’ can encompass a wide range of roles and responsibilities in different sectors, for example:
- community organisations.
Law professionals can range from barristers – independent law specialists and advisers – to corporate lawyers who specialise in everything from construction to copyright. And, of course, they also include mediators, judges and specialists in specific social issues, such as women’s rights.
The sheer breadth of pathways available means that while law can seem like an exciting career choice, it can be a daunting process to figure out.
We’ve created this guide for anyone who wants to become a lawyer or pursue a career in law in Australia and needs help determining:
- where to begin
- which questions to ask about your law degree
- which of the different ways to become a lawyer is right for you.
Regardless of your age, previous area of study or professional experience, it’s possible to study for a career in law. Whether you’re a professional with an established career who’s looking for a change, or a graduate with a degree in a different discipline, this guide will help you identify the best degree option for your specific goals and situation.
Why become a lawyer?
Law is often thought of as a ‘noble profession’, according to University of Canberra Associate Professor, Dr Trevor Ryan, who teaches Legal Theory and Constitutional Law. Becoming a lawyer can also be an excellent choice for someone who wants to make a real difference in their community.
“In the media, we often see lawyers defending the interests of disadvantaged groups,” Dr Ryan says. “But on the other hand, sometimes lawyers are dramatised as unethical and self-serving for fictional TV shows.”
The reality, he adds, is that here in Australia, lawyers operate within a framework of strict rules and legal ethics. So if a lawyer knows that their client is guilty, they can access this framework and consult with the law society for guidance. They’re never on their own.
And on a practical level, despite the profession’s unique challenges and contradictions, it continues to be a good career for the future, with a high salary potential.
How to qualify as a lawyer in Australia
If you want to study to become a lawyer in Australia, you have two degree options:
- an undergraduate Bachelor of Laws degree
- or a postgraduate Juris Doctor degree if you already have a bachelor’s degree in another discipline.
Regardless of which course you do, to be able to be admitted into practice as a legal practitioner in Australia, you’ll need to successfully complete The Priestley 11. While every university’s course structure will vary, these 11 law subjects are an essential component of any law degree and cover the following subjects:
- Administrative Law
- Civil Procedure
- Corporations Law
- Contract Law
- Criminal Law and Procedure
- Equity and Trusts Law
- Ethics and Professional Responsibility
- Evidence Law
- Federal and State Constitutional Law
- Property Law
- Torts Law
Generally, the requirements to be a lawyer in Australia also include either:
- supervised practical legal training in a law firm for 3-5 months, or
- a practical legal training program (PLT) if your placement was less than three months. Work experience is a program component, with options ranging between 0-75 days (depending on the jurisdiction). If you choose to do less than 75 days of work experience, you will need to do additional coursework online for a period of up to eight weeks.
After your placement, you’ll need to apply for admission to the Supreme Court in your state or territory within five years of graduating.
You also need to apply for and maintain an annual practising certificate in Australia. This certificate allows you to practise law throughout Australia and in some international jurisdictions.
Finding your niche
You can also choose between several areas of law to specialise in through your elective units. You’ll probably want to learn about as many of these areas as possible before choosing your specialisation.
Dr Ryan says that the University of Canberra’s law curriculum offers students a chance to explore different branches of the law early. This makes it easier to choose electives in the areas that you like later on.
“In the [online] Juris Doctor degree, you start off with core units and then branch out into those electives and research or internship units,” he explains.
“We advise students to think about their majors right from the beginning, though – for example, whether they want to focus on the commercial or justice sectors.”
Students of our online Juris Doctor degree can explore electives like:
- Law, Innovation and Technologies
- Law Reform and Social Change
- Human Rights Law
- Intellectual Property
- Workplace Law in Context
Having a general idea of the direction you want to practise as a lawyer can help you choose the right electives or specialisation.
Different ways to use your law degree after graduation
Whichever law degree you graduate with, you’ll have a wide range of career options to choose from. As a law student, you’ll likely graduate with a highly methodical, logical way of thinking that’s useful in management. You’ll also be able to form and articulate arguments, which is essential in lobbying for policy reform or advocacy.
Additionally, Dr Ryan says, you can transfer the legal skills you’ve learned across many industries and sectors. “As a lawyer, you might find yourself negotiating or drafting contracts, acting as a policy adviser to the government, or working in litigation or in big corporate law firms,” he says.
Other specialist areas of law, such as patents, often have extra requirements. These might include:
- holding a bachelor’s degree in engineering or science
- completing relevant work experience
- passing exams set by the relevant boards
- applying for a practising certificate.
Becoming a barrister in Australia
If advocacy interests you, becoming a barrister is a natural choice after you graduate. And Dr Ryan believes that you’ll naturally figure out whether you want to be a barrister during your degree.
“It might be through competition or mooting style, assessments, activities or electives involving advocacy,” he says. “Regardless, it soon becomes obvious to you whether being a barrister is right for you.”
If you do want to become a barrister in Australia, you’ll have to meet additional requirements. These involve completing an extra course of study, called a reading, which starts with passing a bar exam testing knowledge in procedure, evidence and legal ethics.
Additionally, Dr Ryan says, a good barrister must develop a wide range of general knowledge, adapt quickly to new facts and think on their feet.
Which degree is right for you?
When you’re choosing a course to help you become a lawyer, it’s important to consider both your professional goals and your current situation.
While both a Bachelor of Laws and a Juris Doctor degree can be a step towards becoming a lawyer in Australia, the two degrees differ in their:
- admission criteria
- number of intakes per year
- time required for completion.
A Bachelor of Laws degree is ideal if you have no prior work experience or other undergraduate qualification, or you’re coming straight from high school.
A Juris Doctor degree is perfect if you have an undergraduate qualification and want a career change, to advance your career or give back to your community.
When might a Juris Doctor degree work better for you?
If you’re an ambitious working professional looking to gain the skills necessary to progress in your career as an ethical legal practitioner, an online Juris Doctor may just be what you’re looking for.
Dr Ryan believes that completing a Juris Doctor degree can be ideal if you want to practise law in emerging areas like:
- intellectual property
- new finance technologies.
“It can act as both a flexible entry point into highly paid, powerful professions in business or politics, or as a means to give back to the community,” he adds. “At the same time, it also gives you the power to advocate for people if you want to work in NGOs, in community legal services or government law.”
As with other professions, the pandemic has transformed the way lawyers work. As businesses move away from fixed offices, lawyers can choose their own hours and work in firms with a flatter, more collaborative structure. That’s good news if you’re seeking an exciting career but want to balance it with family responsibilities.
What to expect from a postgraduate Juris Doctor degree
Our online Juris Doctor should provide you with the legal fundamentals, advanced theoretical and technical knowledge and practical dispute resolution skills to help you get to the next stage in your career.
What is included in the course?
Aside from all Priestley 11 units aforementioned, which will help you satisfy all the academic requirements for admission to legal practice, you’ll need to complete the foundation units, all additional core units, at least one of the three Research and Internship Stream units and remaining electives to graduate with our online Juris Doctor.
You will get hands-on experience through the completion of a research-based project or by undertaking a law internship.
How long will it take?
Our online Juris Doctor is four years part-time, or can be fast-tracked to three years depending on individual study path and unit availability. Each unit is seven weeks long and will typically require a minimum of 15–20 hours of online study per week.
Our online Juris Doctor degree also includes a Graduate Certificate in Legal Studies and a Graduate Diploma in Legal Studies. The graduate diploma is both an entry and exit point and is 16 months long. However, the graduate certificate is an exit point from the Graduate Diploma in Legal Studies or the Juris Doctor and spans eight months.
What is the criteria for admission?
To be eligible for the Juris Doctor, you must hold an undergraduate degree (or equivalent) in any non-law discipline, with a GPA of at least 5/7. You’ll also need to achieve an overall IELTS Academic score (or equivalent) of 6.5, with no band score below 6.0.
When can I start?
We offer six intakes each year for domestic students: January, March, May, July, September and October.
Why study University of Canberra’s Juris Doctor degree online?
With six intakes a year, our online Juris Doctor degree can help you fast-track your law studies so you can take the next step and achieve your career goals quicker.
Our accelerated postgraduate courses are not only delivered online, they are career-relevant and designed to deliver outcomes that create real impact and inspire real change in the world around us.