Earlier today, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull offered some strong words of career advice to the new class of year 12 students: Don't elect to do law at university, unless you really want to become a lawyer.

Instead, he suggested, students would be better off choosing a broader range of humanities or social science degrees — such as degrees in languages, history, literature, philosophy or economics.

Mr Turnbull made a useful point, in this context, about the value of students considering a broad range of course and career options, and not simply letting their choices be dictated by their ATAR.

A high ATAR is a great achievement, but it does not mean that someone will enjoy, or benefit, from doing law. (This, incidentally is one reason why UNSW Law, where I teach, has recently moved away from an exclusive focus on the ATAR in determining admissions.)

As a country, we also have a relatively high number of lawyers, per capita, and therefore our emphasis should be on training more sophisticated, globally and technologically savvy lawyers — not simply a greater number of lawyers each year.

Law isn't a vocational degree

We should also welcome the emphasis by the Prime Minister on a broad range of humanities and social science-disciplines.

Just as we clearly need more science — and especially computer science — graduates in Australia, we also need graduates capable of thinking through complex business and policy challenges through the lens of historical and comparative experience, critical theory, and an evidenced-based approach to cause and effect.

The robot age is likely to make these skills more, not less important: robots will undoubtedly help us do a whole range of current tasks more efficiently, but also present a host of new regulatory and ethical dilemmas, for which we need these skills.

We also often downplay the value of these HASS (humanities and social science) disciplines in Australia, not least through the Government's own approach to funding higher education.

Where I disagree with the Prime Minister, however, is in where a law degree fits into this picture.

Law is not, or at least should not be considered, a vocational degree.

A legal education is clearly designed to acquaint students with the laws of the land, and how they evolve and are interpreted.

But it is also far more than that: it is an education in processes of critical thinking, and the art of pressure-testing arguments for their potential weaknesses.

ATAR approach, the wrong approach

Legal education, done right, is an advanced degree in analytic thinking, ethical reasoning, and policy-based analysis.

It is not a degree on how to register a land title at the land titles office: that is what we teach in a quite separate, post-graduate diploma called "practical legal training" that only students wanting to become lawyers need undertake.

Australian young people would therefore be well advised to follow the Prime Minister's advice and avoid an overly vocational, ATAR-driven approach to selecting their preferred course of study — or an equally narrow approach to their later career.

But they should also avoid the mistake of conflating legal with vocational education.

Persons with legal training can be — and often are — business people, journalists, military officers, policy-makers, and indeed Prime Ministers.

Thirty members of the current Parliament are lawyers by training.

If we train law students right, we can also ensure that when they occupy these roles they are better equipped to do the job ethically and effectively.

That, Prime Minister, is why you should be glad to have a law degree — not simply because it provided you with a rewarding first career.

Rosalind Dixon is a Professor of Law at UNSW.