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Special Report: The practical legal training option

Special Report: The practical legal training option

The abolishment of the articled clerkship system in favour of Supervised Workplace Training may weigh the scales heavily in favour of Practical Legal Training (PLT) course providers in Victoria.…

The abolishment of the articled clerkship system in favour of Supervised Workplace Training may weigh the scales heavily in favour of Practical Legal Training (PLT) course providers in Victoria. Kellie Harpley reports.

Victoria's Practical Legal Training course providers may be the winners from the changes to the Legal Profession (Admission) Rules 2008, which have abolished the articled clerkship system and replaced it with Supervised Workplace Training (SWT).

The changes to the rules came into effect on 1 July this year, but won't really be felt until next year when the next crop of graduates start their training. And while the SWT works along the same principles as articles, it contains additional requirements that make it a more onerous proposition for law firms to fulfill.

The state was a final bastion of articled clerkships, but with the move to SWT, it appears that most firms will elect to educate their graduates through an approved Practical Legal Training course.

All the top-tier firms in the state have decided to move to a PLT course, while most mid-tier firms have indicated that a PLT course was their most likely pathway.

For the national firms, it is a matter of taking one more step towards the national profession and bringing their Victorian office in line with their offices in other states.

Under the rules, a principal -to be called a supervisor under the new system - is only able to supervise one graduate at a time. The law firm is also required to provide a training plan and training diary for each of the graduates and at the completion of their training swear an affidavit that they are competent at a base level of skills.

Anita Kwong, CEO of The College of Law Victoria, says the national firms have overwhelmingly elected to put their graduates through a PLT course.

"In the last financial year we trained approximately 300 law graduates, who then became eligible for admission, and in the current financial year we will see growth of approximately 60 per cent and anticipate approximately 500 graduates."

She says that substantial growth will be handled relatively seamlessly, because the College has been recruiting additional staff and scaling up to meet demand. "These rules are another element in a plan to move to a national profession, so we have been preparing for this for a substantial period of time as part of our strategy," says Kwong.

Director of Victoria's Leo Cussen Institute, Judith Dixon, believes the profession, its education authorities and providers are in a settling in period. "This time next year everybody will have a clearer view of the changes and their effects. At this stage we see our role as assisting and reassuring the profession and graduates about the new regime, and developing the programs to suit them."

Dixon says the institute has amended the PLT course to provide four intakes next year - two online and two onsite -so they are ready for an influx, if it occurs. Also adding to graduate numbers expected at Leo Cussen and The College of Law Victoria is that the state's third PLT provider, Monash University, has axed its course.

Murray Paterson, learning and development manager legal at Freehills, says the abolishment of articles led the firm's Victorian office to make the transition to PLT to bring it in line with the system being used in Victoria and Queensland.

But he said that the opportunity to use a structured PLT course with a recognised provider was also preferable because firms going down the SWT path would be required to take on the responsibility of developing a graduate training program. "To make sure SWT meets those requirements, you have to invest quite a bit in those programs," he says.

"Law firms, at the end of the day, are not training organisations, they are businesses, and while we do very well with our legal training - that is applying knowledge to real workplace problems - it is not really our place to be a post-grad education provider," says Paterson.

For graduates the difference will be a more formally structured training program, Paterson says. "We already provide a lot of inhouse training for our graduates, so from day one we will be training them in our work practices, our cultural values, our practical skills. People have to move from being uni students to being workers and that requires a lot of new skills.

"Graduates now will have that structured training going on in the background on top of what we do with them internally."

Paterson says that the move to a PLT course was a logical step for the firm and that the change of rules just provided a convenient trigger for the firm to make the change now rather than later.

Ramona Saligari, national learning and development manager for Maddocks, says it was the onerous tasks required to ensure a law firm's SWT met the required standards that won Maddocks over to PLT.

"You need to sign off on a training diary for each individual in their rotations and as they complete tasks, and you have to swear an affidavit that they are competent," she says.

"You also want to make sure that the training meets some sort of standard and PLT does that. Signing up for a PLT program is going to provide a more consistent approach to training our graduates,' adds Saligari. "Everyone will have a base level of knowledge and we will then be able to build on that."

Saligari says the firm has been running all its training internally and has been more than satisfied with the results. However, "the standards of our graduates in Sydney have impressed us because they have come to us with their PLT training. There is a big difference in the level of training we have to give our graduates to get them up to that standard."

Victorian graduates at Allens Arthur Robinson will also be switching from articles to a PLT course. Sarah Mathison, Melbourne staff partner and partner in Allens Arthur Robinson's Intellectual Property group, says the firm's articled clerkships had been working incredibly well, so much so that the firm would have been unlikely to make any alterations to its program.

But with the abolishment of that system, the firm decided it was time to bring the state into line with the rest of its national offices.

"Some of the impetus for change [away from articles] originally was that people across the states were getting inconsistent articles experiences and not getting the training required. But we had a rigorous, structured training program that supported the day-to-day on-the-job training that people were getting through being articled to their principal.

"For us, the articles system was working well, we didn't need to fix something that wasn't broken, but when the system was abolished, it was an easy choice to broaden it out."

In terms of change within the firm, she said this move was also being used as an opportunity to assess the graduate program nationally. "We are in a position to make this a national program so we are looking at the best of PLT, and the best of articles and to make the national program as good as we can we are drawing on the positive elements from both of those systems."

"But there's not actually a lot of change that needs to take place because under PLT the graduates are still linked with a supervising partner. My hope is that the relationship the graduates have with their supervising partner will be akin to that which articled clerks had with their principals; one of guiding, mentoring and helping with professional development," Mathison says.

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