I accepted an invitation to be a panelist at “Law Graduates of the Future” forum in Melbourne this morning. My co-panelists were Richard Besley, CEO of the Secretariat for the Victorian Council of Legal Education and Board of Examiners, and Vicki Kennedy, proprietor of Spring Legal, a legal career service. I was unable to stay beyond my session, so hopefully someone will report on the forum elsewhere.
The central topic for this morning’s session concerned the perceived “oversupply” of law graduates, and what should be done to better understand the current situation. This is not my area of expertise, but I sought to offer some insights from the pre-admission practical legal training perspective. What follows are my notes for a 5-minute presentation each panelist was asked to give before moving into questions and discussions.
My research focuses on institutional practical legal training in Australia (PLT). Institutional PLT is a mandatory requirement for admission to the profession, and must also include a work experience component. The research studies policy and regulation in PLT, and lawyers working as PLT practitioners. The research data includes interviews with 36 PLT practitioners around Australia. During the interviews, some interviewees made comments relevant to today’s discussion —
Most interviewees agreed there was a professional responsibility to the courts, the profession, and law graduates — to make sure law graduates achieve learning outcomes specified in the National Competency Standards.
A law degree is a prerequisite for undertaking PLT. Some interviewees said they encountered law graduates needing remedial support with foundational legal skills such as reasoning, research, writing, and drafting simple documents. Interviewees observed that law degrees involve 3-5 years full-time study around foundational legal skills, whereas PLT has about 15 weeks full-time (~30 weeks part-time) to teach professional practice skills, values, and practice areas, under the National Competency Standards. I notice the Law Admissions Consultative Committee (LACC), as part of its submissions to the Productivity Commission “Access to Justice Arrangements” inquiry, commented that it was unreasonable to expect PLT to undertake such remedial work, given time and costs.
Work experience is a mandatory part of PLT admission requirements. Some interviewees said parts of the profession should “step up” to give work experience opportunities, and good quality work experiences. Some interviewees said many graduates employed at law firms were not allocated adequate time to undertake PLT coursework as a constructive learning experience, so that PLT coursework becomes a “tick-a-box” activity.
Many interviewees perceived law graduates were under enormous pressure – having spent years of study to complete a law degree, then complete PLT, whilst working to support themselves. Interviewees said many graduates were anxious about employment opportunities, and keenly aware of competition for these.
The interviewees’ comments are consistent with comments in reports from overseas. The “Legal Education and Training Review” in England and Wales, and the American Bar Association’s “Task Force on the Future of Legal Education”, explored new and possibly controversial approaches, with attention to the stratification, specialisation, breadth, and depth, of legal education. They expressly encouraged regulators to adopt flexible approaches to legal education and training. They contemplated new restricted and specialised education and qualifications that depart from a generalist approach, in response to changes to business structures, business procedures, and information communications and technology.
Rapidly emerging areas of computational and analytical methods in legal practice, including the use of big data, and decision-making applications, will re-shape some areas of practice. Practice innovations include outsourcing of procedural components of legal work. These changes respond to clients seeking set-price legal solutions. What legal practice “will look like” is changing for present and future law graduates.
It seems 19th and 20th century concepts of a lawyer are continuing to fragment. Change complicates and nuances questions about an “oversupply” of law graduates. Change has implications for clients, policy-makers, regulators, educators, and employers, in the legal field. We need to learn more about these implications, to anticipate and respond to them.
I support the proposal for in-depth research that asks questions about the “state of play” for established AND emergent factors in law graduates’ education and employment. This research needs to dig deep to elicit qualitative insights. I notice that a recommendation in the Productivity Commission’s “Access to Justice Arrangements” report called for a ‘holistic review’ of all stages of legal education. There seems to be shared interests in further investigations.