APLEC 2011

Sydney Harbour Bridge

The Australasian Professional Legal Education Council (APLEC) Conference for 2011 was hosted by the University of Technology Sydney on 10-12 November with the them, “The Times They Are A-Changin'”.

APLEC represents all professional legal training (PLT) courses in Australia and New Zealand and meets regularly to discuss issues concerning PLT.  The purpose of the annual conference is to provide a forum for PLT staff and interested parties to meet and exchange information and ideas.

I thought that Maxine Evers and her colleagues did an excellent job of hosting the conference.

There were a number of plenary seminars to top and tail some parallel presentations.  What follows are my personal impressions of the sessions I attended.

Paul Maharg – Kindergartens for civic and critical professionalism: a transformative vision for law schools

I was heartened by Paul’s keynote session because he spoke to a number of ideas in which I share a deep interest. Paul observed that the traditional pedagogy for legal education emphasises regulation, rote learning and summative assessment and that typical learning spaces are the lecture theatre, the moot court, the library and some clinical placement.  He also observed that research into legal education suggests the traditional pedagogy damages law students and their aspirations and their ‘aspirations and their understanding of what constitutes legal practice and legal ethics in society’.

Paul suggested that we can learn from the ‘methods and spaces of the kindergarten movements and the research carried out on them’, and he argued a fresh and pragmatic approach is ‘essential to the intellectual life of our law schools and their democratic accountability’. (I am a little anxious about misinterpreting Paul, so my quotes are drawn from his abstract)

Paul then provided a summary of ‘the kindergarten movements’ with reference to Dewey, Thorndike, Frobel, Pestalozzi, Baines, the Highscope method, the Eynsham  school, and Shulman, and then went on to talk about ‘transforming the pedagogy’. He outlined approaches under four headings. ‘Experience’, ‘Ethics’, ‘Technology’ and ‘Collaboration’. He provided an example incorporating these approaches via a personal injury negotiation project using an online simulation of professional practice.

Please do see the  Slideshare version of Paul’s presentation for a more details.

Paul has written two interesting books on legal education, ‘Transforming Legal Education‘, and ‘Affect and Legal Education‘. He also very kindly commented on my presentation in his blog.

(Maharg, P 2011, ‘Kindergartens for civic and critical professionalism: a transformative vision for law schools’, paper presented to Australasian Professional Legal Education Council (APLEC) Conference, University of Technology, Sydney, 11 November 2011.)

Wilson Chow, Dr Firew Kebede Tiba, Julienne Jen & Dr Keith Hotten, Faculty of Law, Hong Kong University – “Is e-learning a boon to provision of professional legal education or a mere fad?”

Wilson Wai-shun Chow, Associate Professor from the University of Hong Kong, provided this presentation.  He observed that the use of information and communications technology (ICT) in legal education is increasing to provide teaching and learning through simulating real life legal practice.  In Hong Kong, law graduates are finding it increasingly difficult to gain real life experience through work placements. Hong Kong University’s Post-Graduate Certificate in Laws program is exploring  simulation of legal practice by drawing on Edgar Dale’s Cone of Experience. I liked Wilson’s reference to the Chinese proverb: “Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.”

Wilson observed that it is important to adapt the use of ICT and simulation to local contexts and on a case-by-case basis.

(Chow, W, Tiba, DFK, Jen, J & Hotten, DK 2011, ‘Is e-learning a boon to provision of professional legal education or a mere fad?’, paper presented to Australasian Professional Legal Education Council (APLEC) Conference, University of Technology, Sydney, 11 November 2011.)

Michelle Hall Collins and Rachel Oldham-Ormiston, Institute of Professional Legal Studies, New Zealand  – “Interaction in Action”

Michelle and Rachel sought to ‘draw together the important and interrelated concepts of change, interaction, adult learning and PLT’, and focus ‘on the application of those concepts to 2 “technology tools”, namely an electronic file, and a software application.

The used two example subjects on which to base the presentation, Law Office Management, and Negotiation.  They provided a summary of what the subjects contained and how the electronic file and the software application were used to deliver instruction and to assess the students.

The software application appeared to me to be a robust learning and content management system, and the electronic file appeared to be a metaphorical device for delivering the learning content and storing the students’ work.

The software application allowed teams to meet online when working on a negotiation activity.

The presenters stated that initial trials of the software well well received and appeared to be adapted to the contexts and attributes of young adult graduates.

(Hall Collins, M & Oldham-Ormiston, R 2011, ‘Interaction in Action’, paper presented to Australasian Professional Legal Education Council (APLEC) Conference, University of Technology, Sydney, 11 November 2011.)

Ethics and Good Faith in Negotiation written by Steve Lancken, ADR practitioner and mediator, The Trillium Group.  Judge – Justice Julie Ward, Facilitator – Professor Paul Redmond; Ethicist – Associate Professor Simon Rice; Lawyers – Daniel Petrushnko, Cymbeline Johnson, Nicholas Poynder; Mediator – Steve Lancken

This 90 minute session demonstrated a role play activity involving mediation and settlement of an unfair dismissal claim. The participants gamely wrestled with various (very recognisable!) ethical dilemmas arising during the course of the mediation and in relation to settlement negotiations. I thought the approach was very interesting but I think I would have preferred a faster tempo (this could have made ethical decisions a little more challenging) and a shorter overall running time.

Stakeholders’ Panel – How PLT fares from the other side? – Allan Chay, QUT (Facilitator);  Vivien Swaine (Magistrate); Phillip Salem (Chairman, Sparke Helmore Lawyers); Chris Robson (General Counsel and Company Secretary, ClearView Wealth Limited); Michael Day (DPP)

This was a very interesting session with the participants describing their experiences and perspectives and expectations of recently admitted young lawyers.

The main criticisms involved poor court etiquette and writing and drafting skills, “grammar does matter!”. However Phillip Salem and Michael Day commented positively on the academic intelligence and good character of young lawyers. There appeared to be a consensus that young lawyers are often surprised by workloads and the commercial pace of delivering product in legal practice, and that young lawyers benefit from having a positive approach to receiving critique of their work.

In relation to court etiquette, I overheard a few PLT lecturers saying that they do focus on the importance of court etiquette during advocacy training, however this message might not be sufficiently retained in the transition to practice. Something for us to work on.

Professor Sally Kift, Faculty of Law, Queensland University of Technology – Academic Standards: The national context and ramifications for legal education

I attended Sally’s presentation on this topic at ALTA 2011, and it was well worth attending this session too. Her grasp of the new national framework for regulating legal education in Australia is superb; she is able to explain it plainly and comprehensively, identifying the gaps and blind spots so far as they affect PLT.

The take away message was “Know your Regulator”  regarding the standards and the academic requirements for admission.

The presentation was a timely reminder that we need to get to know and understand the role of TESQA and the Higher Education Standards Framework.

(Kift, S 2011, ‘Academic Standards: The national context and ramifications for legal education’, paper presented to Australasian Professional Legal Education Council (APLEC) Conference, University of Technology, Sydney, 12 November 2011.)

Paul F. Wood, Executive Director, Legal Education Society of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada  – National Standards for Admission in Canada

Federation of Law Societies of Canada has a number of standards projects including National Standards for Admission in Canada, which involve issues such as requirements for Canadian Common law degree; Assessing International Credentials; New Law Degree programs; Good Character;  and Competency Standards.

(In relation to Assessing International Credentials, it was surprising to learn that only 1 in 10 students get a seat in a law school – so many Canadian students are overseas qualified and then seek admission in Canada)

Inputs for framing the Competency Standards include law societies; experts in credentialing; a focus group of new lawyers; and survey of 5000 lawyers (to validate the framework) to identify and frame foundational knowledge, skills, and tasks.

Other factors to consider are that psychometrically defensible assessments (are you testing reliably?); weighted criticality and frequency; a grading rubric for each competency, and the notion of Recognised Prior Learning (RPL).

Elizabeth Loftus, Secretary, APLEC – What is happening around PLT?

Elizabeth foreshadowed that the Victorian Council of Legal Education revised Standards Report will be circulated soon.  Apparently there are several changes from the first version produced by Chris Roper in 2008.

A review of the competency standards for entry level lawyers is underway and and APLEC discussion paper is to be released to wide list of stakeholders  with responses to be submitted by 28 February 2012. Several topics have been flagged for consideration for revision, including awareness of pro bono; statutory interpretation; parliamentary privilege; more commercial elective subjects; the ability to undertake more than one elective from a group (eg family law practice and criminal law practice); lawyers’ wellness and resilience; and changes to the trust accounting subject.

Elizabeth urged that it is important for individuals to have input into the review of competency standards and to express their view.

The Law Admissions Consultative Committee (LACC) is considering pre-admission disclosure guidelines (I think clarity in this area would be welcomed by many).

Another interesting topic is the issue of the duration of Law Degrees within the context of the new higher education standards framework (this issue might also be important in relation to Juris Doctor and Graduate Diploma/Certificate of legal practice type accreditation).

Other issues needing attention include international admission requirements, and the National Legal Profession Reform with implications for admission procedures in affected states.

Finally, Elizabeth encouraged the conference participants to consider what do stakeholders want on the agenda for APLEC in the future?

“Benchmarking” with:

Associate Professor Ian McCall, Director of Professional Legal Training Program, University of Wollongong

Dr Romi Lawson, Teaching & Learning Coordinator UTS Business School

Professor Geoff Scott, Executive Director Sustainability & Professor of Higher Education, University of Western Sydney

This was, for me, an intense session given that I am new to the principles and practices of benchmarking in higher education.  It was very useful to have attended Sally Kift’s seminar on the previous day.

Ian McCall

Ian McCall provided a useful introduction to benchmarking within the context of APLEC’s jurisdiction of Practical Legal Training, asking  what is the APLEC position on benchmarking? This question is appropriate  in respect of the standards of legal education in Australia and in the context of the requirements of the legal profession and the regulators. The current practice is that PLT providers submit an annual accreditation statement to the admitting authorities within their jurisdiction. Reasons for the pursuit of benchmarking include the globalization of professional legal education and practice, and the expectations of stakeholders including the government, the profession and the international legal market.

Ian speculated the new quality agency, TESQA, might be more vigorous in respect of benchmarking and he observed there are many methods and types of benchmarking; he made reference to his own paper regarding ACODE and the benchmarking guidelines.

Ian said that there are questions to be asked – should APLEC be proactive re benchmarking, what are the comparative standards, should there be tailor-made benchmarking for APLEC, what kinds of benchmarking instruments we already have,  eg existing or future competency standards?

Ian observed that there are practical implications flowing from such questions, including ‘must haves’: clarity of outcomes to achieve, funding, and workloads. Regarding the last item, Ian said that this can be an exhausting exercise and this must be factored in expectations. Also, different organisations do things in different ways and this should be considered with the question of compliance with institutional benchmarking requirements and weighed against tailor made models of benchmarking.

Ian reminded us that the main objective is to seek to attain the highest of standards in teaching, learning and assessment.

Romi Lawson

Romi observed that benchmarking is just one piece in a jigsaw, that it is interdependent with other part and will not work if other parts not working.

To begin with benchmarking, Romi suggested that we ask: ‘What are benchmarking’?, ‘How are we benchmarking?’, ‘Who are we benchmarking for?’, and ‘When should we benchmark?’. It is also important to bear in mind the goal of continuous improvement.

Romi observed that it can be difficult to obtain consensus as to what is a valid assessment task, that in identifying assessment tasks it is important to aim for concision so the assessment task is not overburdening, that it is important to achieve shared understandings in defining an appropriate standard of work, and that it is also important to engaged benchmarking providers outside the direct participants.

It is important to consider how the benchmarking instrument will be used.  The instrument can provide a platform for students’ flexible demonstration of competency but must have a direct relationship to the program of study if it is to be valued by students and staff. It should be framed to be authentic to the discipline and stand alone testing is preferable.  The technical aspects of benchmarking need to be right and it is important that the systems work effectively en masse.

Romi referred us to Assuringlearning.com, which is a website for: Hunters & Gatherers: Strategies for Curriculum Mapping and Data Collection for Assurance of Learning (An ALTC Funded Project). This provides an interesting example on the subject.

Geoff Scott

Geoff provided us with an energetic session, that focused on practical approaches to establishing benchmarking. It was a wide-ranging session and I not have captured it in its entirety here but what follows are my own impressionistic account.

After providing us with a summary of what’s happening against the background of the establishment of TESQA, he observed that TESQA will have a particular concern for non-self-accrediting providers.

As Geoff describes it, TESQA’s job is to assess proportionate risk with reference to 5 standard areas that provide focus for benchmarks:

  • Accreditation Standards
  • Qualifications Standards
  • Learning and Teaching Standards
  • Information Standards (My University Website)
  • Research Standards

TESQA will be looking at outcomes and we should consider how do we know when we have valid outcomes.

Geoff encouraged us to ask harsh questions about whether what we’re focusing on is valid, and about whose voice counts? Grads, govt, parents, industry, academics?

In relation to PLT – we need to decide how to validate outcomes as a benchmarking project and how to track teaching and learning quality comprehensively.

Benchmarking should be based on standards and be evidence-based, it should be more than processes; it is important to identify solutions to agreed gaps, share good practices. This can be done by process benchmarking and comparing similar processes with similar organisations

Impact in teaching and learning is derived from overlaps between Design / Support / Delivery factors, and impact is defined by validation of outcomes, retention of students, assessment quality, student progression, employability, and further study. (Geoff suggested we look at the University of Western Sydney’s academic standards and assessment framework for learning and teaching as an example.)

It will be important to ensure we use valid measurements. This can include testing student capabilities. Geoff observed that emotional intelligence will become a more significant in addition to students’ diagnostic intelligence. This might involve assessments such as watching the law graduate on placement when things go wrong and how the graduate responds in that situation.

Geoff suggested setting up electronic tracking systems to manage benchmarking workloads, engaging an external diagnostician to interpret the data, and taking care to engage staff with the benchmarking project.


I was a self-funded attendee at APLEC 2011 and as the conference approached I began to question the benefit of attending given the personal expense and time. However, having attended I am very glad I did so because I learned a great deal from the other presenters. It was also an excellent opportunity to meet fellow travellers and to network with existing connections.  I was also very pleased to receive positive feedback and encouragement for my own work from both Australian and International presenters.

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