ALT Annual Conference 2014 Day 1

image I am at Leeds in England for the Association of Law Teachers’ Annual Conference. My attendance is supported by funding through Deakin University’ Higher Degree by Research Program, and ALT’s Stan Marsh Bursary. The conference venue is Leeds’ Queens Hotel, which is an Art Deco marvel. I’ve been made to feel welcome by the conference organisers, particularly Beckie Huxley-Binns and Jess Guth (thank you!). People are very friendly here in Leeds, which is nice after 35 hours travel with no sleep (delayed flights and missed connections etc).

Day One of the conference was opened by Rebecca Huxley-Binns with passionate (and often funny) remarks around the conference theme of “responding to change”. “Change”, here, is in the context of the recent Legal Education and Training Review and the ensuing reforms. Rebecca observed how personally felt some changes are, with responses analogous to Kubler-Ross’ description of stages of grief, and “genuine fear of what’s coming.” Rebecca called on law schools to “articulate their raison d’etre”, to declare what they stand for, to “embrace change”, and realise new opportunities for the future of legal education.

Pat Leighton, Director of the Legal Education Research Network (LERN) spoke to “The Urgency of Research for Legal Education” at the first keynote address. Pat described knowledge gaps in legal education, particularly around effective understanding and delivery of legal education, which is exacerbated by failures to take note of existing research. Pat identified policy and law-making as key areas neglected in legal education research, and noted the paucity of research regarding professional legal education. She described LETR as a usefully generative early stage report, that flags areas needing attention in future research. In other words, LETR is a preliminary report rather than a conclusive set of findings. Pat recommended that legal education researchers “find new friends” through interdisciplinary work, to generate fresh insights about research areas, methodologies and methods. These could include revisiting existing data to undertake secondary analyses. Pat described LERN’s facilitative role in legal education research, and urged attendees to engage with LERN’s resources. (I know I will).

We split up for parallel sessions (3 streams), and I attended sessions by Egle Dagilyte and Peter Coe from Buckinghamshire New University, and Kumari Lane from Birbeck College.

Egle and Peter’s session was entitled ‘Professionalism in Higher Education: Important Not Only For Lawyers’. They identified “narrow” and “broad” definitions of “professionalism”. Narrow definitions were aligned with conventional legal education and trajectories, whereas broad definitions were associated with new or evolving legal education trajectories, including unreserved legal practice. Both versions require lawyers to acquire skills, values and certain professional attributes. Here, some attributes were illustrated by fact situations involving early lawyers confronted with novel situations and dilemmas, without supervisor support. Individuals’ capacity to react appropriately was linked to professional attributes that ought to be acquired through legal education. There was some discussion of how lecturers ought to role model professionalism in their teaching and interactions with students. The concept of acquired embodiment of professional attributes is an ongoing preoccupation in legal education. I recently read similar discussions in the 1970s Bowen Report and Brown Report regarding professional legal education in New South Wales. In my opinion, embodied attributes take time to acquire, and appropriate learning conditions are necessary to support this. I am interested to see where Egle and Peter take their research.

Kumari’s presentation was about her research on using online discussion groups for teaching and learning. She found that most students agreed student-student interactions supported their own learning, but lecturer presence was important for guidance and support. Kumari passionately supported online discussion forums as a teaching medium, however she noted that they required substantial support and do not run themselves. Kumari remarked on the difficulty in persuading the organisation to include discussion group activities as assessable work, and the impact this had on student participation in the online discussions. This project looks interesting and I hope Kumari gets support to develop it further.

In the second parallel sessions I attended presentations by Lars Mosesson, Chloe Wallace and Cath Sylvester.
Lars (from Bucks New University) spoke to ‘Responding to What? Busy Chasing the Buzz’. Lars questioned assumptions about what has really changed in legal education, and asked if lecturers were any better at their work than in the years before legal education reforms. It is important to question what changes are proposed, the motivation for those proposals, and identify who is behind the proposals and who stands to benefit from change. It is also important to assess the effectiveness of changes brought about by the reforms. Lars questioned whether there ought to be compulsory CPD for law lecturers. Some in the audience appeared to support professional development for law lecturers, but balked at the proposition of compulsory CPD, with at least one person remarking that it could be counter-productive.

Chloe (from University of Leeds) presented a very interesting theory session, around “connectivism” (Bell 2009; Siemens 2011) and successor theory, in contrast with behaviourist and post-behaviourist theories. Chloe remarked on a “default to behaviourism” and cited legal education’s preoccupation with “thinking like a lawyer” as an example that could fall prey to the default to behaviourism. I am a keen reader of education theory and aware of Siemens’ work but would like to learn more about connectivism and the network theory approach to learning. Not often you see a good theory session at legal education conferences.

The final presentation of the day by Cath (from University of Northumbria) concerned “Measuring Competence In Legal Education: A View From the Bridge”. Cath spoke to a “richer concept of competence” and drew on Miller’s Pyramid (1990) and de Vleuten’s utility index (1996) to discuss how to test for competency in a regulatory environment pressing for “robust” and “rigorous” assessment. It’s a real issue, I agree, particularly in practical legal training, where it can be difficult to reach consensus between assessors about what “competence” is for a given task or practice.
A really good first day at the conference, stimulating and inspiring.


Map of Revised National Competency Standards for PLT

NCS 2015 PNGI recently posted about the revised National Competency Standards for Entry-Level Lawyers that apply to Australian practical legal training (PLT). The revised standards take effect from 1 January 2015.

I mapped the revised competencies and the ‘lawyer’s skills’ elements. Clicking on the thumbnail at left will open a full size picture. The map provides an “at-a-glance” summary.

For simplicity, I have not include all the elements or performance criteria for each competency. I have included the ‘lawyer’s skills’ elements, because often attract attention in discussions about the competencies.


Revised PLT Competency Standards from 1 January 2015

The Law Admissions Consultative Committee (“LACC”) has posted a copy of the revised Practical Legal Training National Competency Standards for Entry-Level Lawyers (“NCS”).

The LACC website advises that the revised NCS will take effect from 1 January 2015.

Disclaimer: Always check with the relevant PLT provider and Admitting Authority about what is required for satisfactory completion of the practical legal training requirements for admission, before you commence PLT.


The background section in the revised NCS states ‘[w]hichever form of PLT is now followed, all intending practitioners are required to demonstrate that they have attained prescribed competence in the Skills, Practice Areas and Values summarised in item 3 set out in detail in item 5’. This applies to those undertaking supervised workplace traineeships and articled clerkships, as well as those undertaking PLT.

New Optional Subject

Listing of ‘Skills’ component and the ‘Compulsory Practice Areas’ component appears to be unchanged. The optional practice area components were formerly divided into two groups of electives, these are now grouped together, and include a new ‘Banking and Finance’ subject. Trainees can chose from any two optional practice area components.

Commencement of PLT

The revised NCS clarifies the situation with concurrent academic degrees and PLT. An applicant can undertake PLT integrated with the academic degree of at least 3 years full-time study (apart from the time required for the PLT component) AND (this is important) the integrated program is recognised by the Admitting Authority for the purposes of admission to the profession.

For those not undertaking an integrated program, an applicant can commence PLT if no more than 2 subjects of the academic degree remain uncompleted, and neither subject is one required for admission (presumably this means they must be electives), for which the applicant must be enrolled while undertaking PLT, AND the applicant has prior permission from the admitting authority to commence PLT.

Those undertaking supervised workplace training must complete their academic degree before commencing PLT.

Australian Qualifications Framework

The NCS takes into account the requirements of the AQF for Level 8 graduate diploma awards, such as the Graduate Diploma of Legal Practice. The training load must be consistent with the AQF requirements plus 15 days workplace experience.

Where the PLT is not undertaking toward a graduate diploma, training must be of at least 900 hours duration, comprised of 450 hours programmed training plus 15 days workplace experience.

For supervised workplace training, 12 months full-time work is required plus 90 hours of programmed training.

Level of Training

The NCS continue to require that PLT be undertaken as a post-graduate level of training.

Resilience and Well-Being

It is heartening to see the inclusion of clause 4.6, which requires training provides to educate and inform applicants in resilience and well-being matters.

Clause 2.2 – Interpretation of Competency Standards

This sets out more specific details for interpreting the competency standards “elements” and “performance criteria”. It expressly contemplates the use of simulation, and requires documentation for critical reflection activities.

Competency Standards Generally

I have not yet compared the Elements, Performance Criteria and Explanatory Notes with the previous NCS, and hope to do so in future.



‘Test Out the Scaffolding’: A Qualitative Comparison of LLB Threshold Learning Outcomes and the PLT Competency Standards for ‘Lawyers’ Skills’

This is one of my working papers, not yet published. I’m linking to it here because it might be of interest to PLT practitioners and I’m keen to have some feedback on the ideas expressed in the paper.

Threshold Learning Outcomes (‘TLOs’) for the Australian bachelor of laws and National Competency Standards (‘NCS’) for post-graduate pre-admission practical legal training include learning objectives for lawyers’ skills as part of a legal education continuum. How do behavioural learning objectives for ‘lawyers’ skills’ specified in the TLOs and the NCS compare? This practitioner-initiated qualitative study borrowed from a ‘grounded theory’ approach to analyze the TLOs and NCS learning objectives for lawyers’ skills. The study produced insights that might inform PLT teachers’ scaffolding around graduates’ intellectual competencies as part of practical legal training in lawyers’ skills.


Scaffolding from Threshold Learning Outcomes to National Competency Standards

IDocCovers am revisiting the data from a qualitative study I reported at APLEC 2012 in Hobart. The APLEC conference presentation looked at potential ‘gaps’ in the learning continuum from law school to practical legal training, by examining the threshold learning outcomes for the Australian bachelor of laws degree and the national competency standards for entry-level lawyers. With the benefit of some further study in grounded theory and coding strategies, I am digging further into the two documents, from the point of view of a PLT teacher. For example, as a PLT teacher specifying the conditions under which a learning task must be performed, what can be assumed about law graduates’ foundational intellectual competencies material to the task? I hope to produce an article about this work in the next month.


Law Institute of Victoria – Inaugural Law Graduates of the Future Forum

The Law Institute of Victoria’s ‘Future Focus’ committee, has conducted research under the heading of ‘The Law Graduates of the Future’. This has involved a survey of law graduates and employers during 2011 and 2012. Being unable to attend the inaugural forum in Melbourne, I am looking forward to seeing the material that was presented there and hearing/reading reactions to the presentation and discussion. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you did attend and would like to comment. I noticed that  the LIV’s President Blog, mentioned some interesting issues, including an ‘expectation gap’

between what universities and practical legal training providers are producing and what law firms believe they need from graduate employees

and that graduates tended to rate their skills more highly than their employees.
I have not seen the survey questions or a summary of the responses. I think it is important to look closely at those before commenting on the above finding.
I also notice that the LIV President’s Blog states:

I hope that this will be an opportunity for all of those involved or that have an interest in the legal profession to work together to ensure we are creating “work ready” lawyers that are well placed to address the challenges that lie ahead for the legal profession.

I am interested to learn more about what “work ready” means in the context of the Future Focus committee’s work. I observe that the national practical legal training competency standards for entry-level lawyers (NCS) uses different language, and a comparison of the language used during the 2006 Legal Education Review (the Campbell Report), the NCS, and that used by the Future Focus committee might be interesting.


APLEC 2012 Day 2 – 10 November

I missed the first plenary session, unfortunately, because I was setting up my poster presentation based around my survey of PLT teacher qualifications and teaching scholarship outputs.

The first parallel session I attended was Tony Cibiras’s, ‘What does the Australian Quality Framework mean for Practical Legal Education?’. Tony provided an introduction to the AQF and the implications that has for the existing graduate diploma of legal practice offerings, particularly in relation to equivalent full-time student load weightings. But the discussion really became interesting around the issue of non-formal recognised prior learning. That is, where applicants could claim advanced standing on the basis of professional work experience, rather than academic qualifications. The discussion highlighted the fact that this would be an administrative challenge for PLT providers, given the infinite possible varieties of claims that would need to be evaluated. Also, it would be interesting to see how the regulators approach accreditation of PLT courses that propose to include RPL as part of the course design. It was recognised that the VET sector has already met the challenge of RPL, and that we might learn a lot from that experience. Also, the portfolio approach to course design might represent a way of resolving differences between full-course students and those who successfully claim RPL for part of their PLT.

The second session I attended was presented by Moira Murray and Margie Rowe, ‘Teaching and learning in teams in a Professional Practice course’. The presenters made some introductory comments and then opened up the session to a discussion format, and this was very successful. In essence, students were working in teams in virtual firms, charged with producing items of work; I think this was along the lines of John Harvey and Paul Maharg’s simulated practical learning environment (SIMPLE) design. Lecturers also worked in teams to manage the activities and to interact with the students and the virtual law firms. Issues about unsatisfactory participation and ‘dysfunctional’ firms, were discussed. The presenters noted that while these problems did not often occur, when they did arise they needed prompt action by the lecturer. This is consistent with my own observations in my online discussion research that it is important to have a lecturer’s (available, non-intrusive) teaching presence in the virtual environment. It was good to hear about the experience of using virtual firms and the benefits of collaboration in both the student and teaching domains.

After morning tea we attended a plenary panel session, chaired by His Excellency, The Honorable Peter Underwood, AC, Governor of Tasmania, with The Honorable Justice Alan Blow, OAM, Magistrate Peter Dixon, and Professor Peter Lyons. The subject was, ‘Advocacy Training’. It was interesting to hear different perspectives about what was important in advocacy training (although I was surprised that communication skills did not get much of a run). The ability to empathise was mentioned more than once. I was a bit dismayed that when the topic of whether advocacy could be taught by ‘online learning’ was discussed, there appeared to be a widely-shared misconception that advocacy was being taught by wholly online courses, rather than through blended program designs, that involve online instruction, together with face-to-face coaching, feedback, and assessment. The senior observers in the room seemed a bit surprised when I explained that ‘online learning’ is a bit of a misnomer in relation to the programs actually supplied in Australia, and that most, if not all, programs are blended programs.  It seems we have a long way to go before most of the profession understand how blended program designs actually work.

Associate Professor Allan Chay provided the closing remarks, and rightly observed, I think, that this was one of the best conferences ever in terms of the number of attendees, and the variety and quality of presentations. In my view, the outlook for scholarship of teaching in PLT is looking good – something I did not really believe 12 months ago!

These conferences are incredibly valuable learning experience and I encourage PLT teachers to get involved with them. I think the University of Tasmania Law School and the Centre for Legal Studies provided an excellent conference, and the organisers (including Naomi Bryant and her team) should be congratulated.



Presentation in November – APLEC 2012 – Hobart

‘Skills’ in LLB Threshold Learning Outcomes and Competency Standards for Entry-Level Lawyers – a Comparison using CAQDAS

I am presenting a brief paper at the Australasian Professional Legal Education Council conference hosted by the University of Tasmania Law School from  8 November 2012.  The abstract follows:

This study analysed the Threshold Learning Outcomes (“TLOs) specified in the Bachelor of Laws Learning and Teaching Academic Standards Statement December 2010, and the Competency Standards for Entry-Level Lawyers for Practical Legal Training, as updated by the Australasian Professional Legal Education Council and Law Admissions Consultative Committee in February 2002 (“Competency Standards”). Qualitative analysis was undertaken using the NVivo computer assisted qualitative data analysis software (“CAQDAS”), to investigate how skills were categorised and defined in each of the documents. The data were then analysed to compare the respective categorisation and definition of skills, and to identify potential complements, overlaps, conflicts, gaps, or blind spots, between the TLOs and the Competency Standards. The findings, and the methodology adopted, might provide insights for future instructional design, content, and delivery of Practical Legal Training programs, and for future reviews of the TLOs and Competency Standards.


Mapping the PLT Competency Standards

I have created some maps of the current Australian Competency Standards for Entry Level Lawyers adopted for Practical Legal Training Programs.

See more!

Competency Standards Overview Map