Managing partners have warned that the nation’s law schools are producing a glut of graduates who are chasing a diminishing number of jobs.

The difficulty confronting law graduates has been exacerbated by the growing competitive pressure on the largest firms that have traditionally been the one of the main sources of legal employment.

“The biggest firms are under enormous pressure to slim down, in some cases shedding upwards of 50 partners over two years,” said Henry Davis York managing partner Sharon Cook.

“I would say this is the toughest market for a summer clerk or graduate in more than 30 years.”

Large numbers of talented lawyers were being pushed on to the job market and established firms were fighting for business against new entrants.

The market for legal services had become “incredibly competitive” and clients were starting to recognise there were better value alternatives, Ms Cook said.

Her assessment is in line with that of John Poulsen, managing partner of Squire Sanders, who said no room was being made for the next generation of graduates.

“The problem is that there are too many law schools churning out graduates for too few positions,” Mr Poulsen said.

“The paradigm seems to be this exponential growth theory, that there should be an infinite supply of lawyers because the demand for their services will somehow be infinite.

“Obviously that just hasn’t been the case. There were 500 applicants for about 80 positions in Western Australia this year.”

There are 35 law schools currently operating around the nation, with a 36th opening in Western Australia’s Curtin University this year.

In Victoria alone, about 1300 law graduates are expected to attempt to enter practice this year, rising to 2500 a year by 2018, according to estimates by the state Law Institute.

The usual migration of young lawyers to industry hubs in New York, London and Hong Kong has slowed, which has had the effect of reducing the amount of low-level work available for recruits.

“The big firms certainly have less need for cannon-fodder,” said Squire Sanders’ Mr Poulsen.

The glut is worse in the US with more than half of all US law schools cutting their intake over the past two years.

“It’s a new world for lawyers,” said Chris Lovell, national managing partner of Holding Redlich.

“The big firms are not busy, they’re quiet. Mergers and acquisitions, financing, these are their staples. But there is just simply less of it going on.”

He said clients were more discerning in lean times and this meant the ability of the big firms to charge for the work of graduates was diminishing.

Penny Carruthers, co-ordinator of the University of Western Australia’s postgraduate law program, said law schools were competing to differentiate their students in an increasingly tight job market.

“Law has been a very good degree to have vocationally and I think that’s generally still the case,” she said.

“But you get the double-whammy, so-to-speak, of economic factors impacting on firms and a big batch of students all hoping to enter the field.”

She said the recent shift to the American model of postgraduate law studies – the Juris Doctor degree – would offer students a competitive advantage.

Craig Slater, president of the WA Law Society, said that while more law graduates were being absorbed by government, business and banking, predictions of a “looming disaster” for the legal profession had not been borne out.

“Law is one of those glamourised industries and people go in with certain expectations. Sometimes it’s just smart people taking the opportunity offered by good grades and they find that it doesn’t quite offer the career they wanted,” Mr Slater said.