Maples and Calder Ireland sponsor The College Tribune's Law Section
Maples and Calder Ireland sponsor The College Tribune’s Law Section

When you think of a career in law, what springs to mind? Is it the clichéd image of a judge banging their gavel or a barrister in their white wig pacing in front of a jury? Perhaps your mind wanders to TV shows such as ‘How to Get Away with Murder’ or ‘Suits’, perhaps even the classic movie ‘Legally Blonde’. For many law students fortunate enough to grace the hallowed halls of Sutherland, the image of a stressed-out solicitor racing around the offices of a corporate law firm is becoming increasingly more prevalent when imagining life after UCD. 

A career in corporate law now looms large in the minds of law students. Law students can hardly have a conversation with each other without the topics of corporate law or internship and training contract applications arising. If not arising in conversation, corporate law’s omnipresence in the lives of law students can be seen at society events, many of which are sponsored by Dublin’s leading corporate law firms. If that’s not enough, the large corporate firms dominate every law internship fair, hoping to entice students with their fancy pens, branded water bottles and various other bits of “merch”.

As a law student, it is really difficult to escape the reach of corporate law. It has entrenched itself into the minds of law students, with a career in corporate law becoming the default career for law students. The rise of corporate law has indeed brought with it huge benefits, particularly for students who hope to earn large salaries and receive world-class training.

However, the rise of corporate law is not without its issues both for students and, perhaps more importantly, the legal sector itself. One problem arising from the increasing commercialisation of the legal sector in Ireland is access to justice. Access to justice is a fundamental human right and the cornerstone of our legal system and the rule of law. It requires that every person have access to the legal system and legal profession to enable them to obtain justice when required. 

Recently retired High Court Judge, Deirdre Murphy, has highlighted the problems that the increasing commercialisation of the legal profession in Ireland poses in this area, remarking that big corporate law firms are  “hoovering up the talent” from university-level and that none of these firms are in the business of representing the ordinary citizen.

This seems, albeit based on anecdotal evidence, to be the case, with many law students obtaining training contracts before they finish college. In many ways, these corporate law firms have their pick of the bunch with internship and training programmes becoming oversubscribed. Many firms report receiving over 1,100 applications for their summer internship programmes which may have only fifty spaces. Therefore, places on these programmes are highly coveted and have aided the rising dominance of corporate law firms in Ireland and subsequently changed the default image of a career in law.

There are also significant consequences to large firms “hoovering up” the best and brightest of law students. Such a scenario results in the “best and brightest” legal minds, if one may use such a term, being hidden away in the folds of commercial law firms, inaccessible to ordinary citizens.

Moreover, nearly all of the leading corporate law firms are based in Dublin, leading to what the Director General of the Law Society of Ireland, Mark Garrett, refers to as “legal deserts” in other parts of the country. In 2022, for example, eleven counties in Ireland had either one or zero trainee solicitors. In 2023, this increased to 13 counties, with 92% of solicitors working with Dublin-based firms.

Garret, when contacted directly, stated that the issue was both “concerning and a priority” for the Law Society to address in the future. He referred to an interview with the Irish Times where he addressed the same issue, emphasising the need for greater diversity within the legal profession. He also suggested that the public sector has a role to play in offering more legal traineeships and more diverse work experience.

While this issue has been acknowledged within the legal profession, little has been done to promote or make accessible alternative career paths for law students. While workshops and career events with commercial law firms are a regular occurrence, there is a noticeable lack of emphasis on alternative legal careers. 

With this in mind, it is, perhaps, unsurprising, that many law students have become fixated on a career in corporate law as the be-all and end-all. The legal career most publicised, other than that of a corporate solicitor, is that of a barrister. However, many law students who consider a career at the Bar are dissuaded due to the financial uncertainty it brings. Barristers are self-employed and unpaid during their training, a stark contrast to the 40-50 thousand a year salary range some of the big corporate law firms offer trainees. This has also been acknowledged by Garret, acknowledging that “people are shying away from that work for the very simple reason that it is not economically viable”. Careers in public service areas such as legal aid are also being neglected, leaving those most in need in society vulnerable and their access to justice threatened. 

The growth of the corporate law sector within Ireland has had a significant positive impact on students. However, for individual law students, it is worth examining whether a career in law aligns with their dream of a legal career. This is difficult, currently, as a career in corporate law seems to dominate the minds of law students. However, it is in the interest of law students, the legal sector, and society as a whole to remember that there is more to a career in law than corporate law firms.

Beatrice Drummond – Law Writer