How courts and universities can better prepare new lawyers for the real world

How courts and universities can better prepare new lawyers for the real world

18 October 2021 By Naomi Neilson
prepare new lawyers

For most graduate lawyers, walking into a courtroom for their first appearance can be an overwhelming and stressful experience, no matter the support they receive from their workplace and managers. However, if universities adjust and with some more support from the courts, this first time could be a lot easier, one lawyer shared.  

Other than fashioning an L-Plate onto the suits of new lawyers, family lawyer Angela Powditch said she wishes there was some way to let magistrates, registrars, and other court staff know when they have a first-timer in the room. More than that, she wishes there was some way to prepare new lawyers while they’re still studying.  

Ms Powditch’s told Protégé that her first time appearing for a matter was an overall positive experience. For one thing, she said that she was fortunate to run into a friend from university who had graduated a year before she did. After finding out that Ms Powditch was there alone, the friend said that she had a partner with her when it was her first time, so she would “stay in the back of the court as your moral support”. A similar support was found in the magistrate hearing the matter.

“I stood up at the bar table and was about to mention my matters. The magistrate looked at me and said, ‘oh, Ms Powditch, have you appeared in front of me before?’ I said it was my first appearance, she smiled and welcomed me. Then I announced my first matter. The defendant did not make an appearance. The magistrate then said, ‘well, there you go Ms Powditch, you just won your first case’. I smiled and laughed and said ‘fantastic’,” Ms Powditch told Protégé of this first experience.

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“I found my first appearance nerve-wracking. But I can honestly say the collegiality of the profession had a positive and lasting impact on me.”

Although Ms Powditch’s first time appearing was a positive experience, for some new lawyers this may not be the case. Often, magistrates and registrars themselves can be hard to approach due to their own circumstances. On this, Ms Powditch said that with the workloads and difficult people they deal with, “I truly am in awe of them”.

For those new lawyers that may not have the same luck, Ms Powditch said she thinks it would assist if the judiciary were made aware if they were under 2 PAE.

“Perhaps making mention of it when you announce your appearance so that if you are particularly nervous or if you take extra time to respond to a question, they will understand why. It’s not that you’re unprepared, it’s that you’re new. It’s not that you’re asking for special treatment, just consideration. This could ensure justice is served, proceedings are conducted efficiently, and new lawyers feel supported.”

Law degrees could also be altered so that new lawyers are graduating from university with practical experience that will benefit them in the real legal world. Ms Powditch said that TAFE, for example, has practical elements of courses which universities could mirror. She also shared that her partner, an electrician, remarked that if he had followed the same method that law schools employ that is doing the course and going out onto the job, “I would have electrocuted myself”.

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“I think law degrees in Australia should be more practical,” Ms Powditch explained. “I feel like it’s ‘here’s the sheet music, this is how you play the piano’, and then you’re up on stage, and off you go. You are left thinking, ‘I actually haven’t played the piano before’. So that’s why I think there should be a compulsory unit added to the Priestly 11 so that students have greater practical experience before they are admitted, other than that undertaken during PLT and GDLP.

“Perhaps there could be an option to specialise from the start of the degree if you knew which area of law you wanted to practice in?”

Ms Powditch, whose career started after a “shocking and damaging” end to her marriage, has used her experience to help others. Although now a mother of four with the support of her partner and family, Ms Powditch’s start in the legal profession was as a single mother of two very young children. This has meant that, at times, it was hard to commit to certain things – much like it would be for many new lawyers – so the idea of clerkships and extra work experience is not always achievable.  

“A lot of people say to just go out there and get a lot of experience, but often people have health issues, caring responsibilities or family commitments for instance which makes it impossible to gain the work experience they desire. For me, it was that I was a single mum with two very young children doing a full law degree full-time with no family close by,” Ms Powditch shared.

When it comes to starting a legal career, Ms Powditch advised new lawyers to be “open about your situation when you negotiate your work contract”. This means setting boundaries on hours and starting “as you mean to continue”.

“I have told employers that I am flexible and can work from home, but only for a certain number of hours per week. I know lawyers who take calls from clients at 10pm on a Saturday night. They have told me once they set up that expectation, and it’s almost impossible to change so they feel pressured to answer the call.

“Those kinds of comments from seasoned lawyers has cemented my need to keep the boundaries I set because I can’t fall in a heap, I have to keep going.”

Ms Powditch also advised that new lawyers are honest about their experiences when they need help and, importantly, to not wait for the help to be offered.

“It’s really about being proactive. I set time each week with the principal solicitor to do file reviews and called him daily when I had questions and needed support. If you feel there may be expectations on you that you can’t meet due to your workload or lack of experience, speak up and regularly!” Ms Powditch said.

As for lawyers who are overwhelmed with the legal profession’s expectations and are struggling under their own, Ms Powditch shared that there is a lot of value in switching their mindset from perfectionism and into something more positive.

“I often suffer from the curse of perfectionism,” Ms Powditch said. “I’ve learned from 16 months PAE and speaking to seasoned lawyers, there are going to be some fumbles, whether that’s in court or with a client. However, as my kids learned at preschool, mistakes are a sign of learning. So that’s why in my career as well as my personal life, I remind myself that it’s about progress, not perfection.”

How courts and universities can better prepare new lawyers for the real world
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