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While measures have been taken to ensure there are options in addition to articled clerkships to gain admission to practise law in Victoria, now the students have to be convinced of the merits…

While measures have been taken to ensure there are options in addition to articled clerkships to gain admission to practise law in Victoria, now the students have to be convinced of the merits of the alternatives. Shaun Drummond reports

As the number of graduates hitting the Victorian legal market continues to rise, gaining admission to practise through the articled clerk system remains a difficult task. Following a wide ranging debate in the profession, most firms still appear to prefer to retain articled clerkships as the primary method for entering the profession, but there are signs that as firms nationalise their graduate training process, alternative measures are gaining acceptance.

John Cain, CEO of the Law Institute of Victoria (LIV), says the number of law graduates looking for work is likely to rise again for the next intake of articled clerks in 2007, particularly as graduates from Victoria University’s new law school begin to come onto the market in the next couple of years. “We estimate there are going to be 600 to 700 places for articled clerks for 2007. There’s probably going to be up to 1,500 graduates,” he says.

Even relatively small firms now receive hundreds of applications for only a few places. Cheryl Asquith, human resources manager at Monahan + Rowell, says after receiving about 800 applications for articled clerkship positions in January, they did an additional intake in the middle of this year and received another 500 applications for a handful of positions.

Some argue there is no clear evidence of a major shortfall in the number of articles positions available, particularly as many graduates won’t choose to practise in a law firm and no empirical study has been conducted to determine how many actually choose this path. Cain agrees many law students don’t intend to practise law, but says it is clear “most at least want to be in the position to be admitted”.

Steps have been taken to ensure that alternative methods to admission are available. Last year, LIV and the College of Law set up the College of Law Victoria through a joint venture, and launched the Victorian Professional Program, an online practical legal training course (PLT) largely similar to that offered by the College in NSW. After taking its first intake of students earlier this year, the course currently has 120 enrolments.

In addition to its onsite course, the Leo Cussen Institute’s Online Practical Training Course was approved by the Council of Legal Education in May last year and the first graduates were admitted to practise from March this year. As well, the Monash Law School offers its Postgraduate Diploma in Legal Practice, Skills and Ethics, which is now also online.

Cain says it is true to say that most firms in Victoria still prefer to retain articled clerkships but there are early signs the PLT route to practise is gaining acceptance. Corrs Chambers Westgarth for one has chosen to train its graduate intake through the College of Law’s PLT course, which is being offered in-house. The firm is using the College’s program on a national basis to ensure all graduates get a consistent level of training across the firm.

Some other large firms are keeping an open mind about whether to retain articled clerkships or not. Emily Gole, the graduate recruitment liaison at Allens Arthur Robinson, says they are happy with their articles program, but are examining the pros and cons of alternatives. “At this stage we do have all intentions to keep articles in place, but we do continually review that to ensure that is best for the firm as well as for the lawyers coming through.”

Deacons also says currently they prefer to retain articles, but may consider moving to alternatives. “If we were to change, we may consider a PLT system similar to NSW where PLT is completed prior to commencing employment and run a program that includes facets of articles including rotations and mentoring,” says Deacons’ human resources advisor Marie Nicholson.

But given the current preference for retaining articles, how much of a panacea will PLT be? Apart from students having to pay for the PLT course themselves, which adds to the already considerable burden of their university fees, as long as most firms are in favour of retaining articled clerkships as a primary route to admission, students feel they must gain a place at a firm as early as possible. To get a look in, as in other states, many of the mid and top-tier firms are placing a priority on their seasonal clerks to fill articled positions.

For the last two years this preference has been formalised under the LIV Articles Guidelines, which most of the major firms adhere to. In the latest guidelines, “priority offers” of articled clerkship, otherwise known as “priority picks”, can be made by firms to those who have held seasonal clerkship positions or performed paralegal work for at least 30 days in the two years preceding 8 February 2006. These offers must be kept open until 3pm on 6 March. Outside of this, articled clerkship offers cannot be made before 13 February next year.

Philip Tang, president of the law students’ society of the University of Melbourne says he believes more weight has been given to the seasonal clerkships since the number of law graduates has increased. But he adds that primarily, it is intended as a way to ensure law firms retain the most talented graduates as well as keep their costs down by reducing the time taken to appoint graduates by not having to interview candidates for articled clerkship twice.

Deacons says it receives about 1,000 applications for the 15 to 18 articled clerkships the firm usually runs each year in Victoria. However, Nicholson says, the priority offer system “could affect these numbers going forward”.

Tang says, however, the pressure to get a place early at law firms to some extent works against efforts to relieve pressure on the articles system by getting law students to consider careers outside of the major firms and outside law firms altogether. According to a recent survey of articled clerks by LIV, the number of law students doing articles at suburban and regional practices combined only totals 15.5 per cent, with 51.3 per cent doing their articles at firms with more than 20 partners.

“With this whole hype about the priority picks system, not a lot of students are [considering] the other opportunities that are available,” Tang says. “Because they are focusing so much on the priority picks system they are not focusing on other job opportunities that are out there [such as] getting an articled clerkship at a smaller firm.”

PLT courses also don’t carry the “prestige” of getting an articled clerkship at a top-tier firm. “My experience at Melbourne University is that most students do see a [PLT] course as inferior to obtaining an articled clerkship.” As well, unless the course is offered in-house by a firm, a PLT course adds an additional cost to a law student’s already high university fees, he says.

Ultimately, while the expansion of the PLT option will provide more opportunities to allow graduates to be admitted each year, it won’t affect the number of positions for first-year lawyers actually available at law firms once graduates have completed their training. “It still comes down to the number of overall positions available in firms and other legal organisations, regardless of how the lawyers become admitted,” says Nicholson at Deacons. “This is not something that is Victoria specific; there are similar situations in every state in Australia, and this is regardless of whether it is PLT or articles that are offered.”

Getting students to look for graduate positions outside the big city firms is one way to widen the available positions. Cain argues that the PLT courses now on offer are more suited to suburban or regional practices as they have a fully qualified applicant to take on. The fact that they are now available online also means they can be completed from anywhere in the state either part-time or full-time.

“We have a regional young lawyers group and we’ve seen growth [there] in recent years,” he says. Opportunities in regional centres to do similar work to that of the metropolitan firms are also increasing. “You take a town like Bendigo, which is now the [headquarters] of the Bendigo Bank. That means the opportunities there for lawyers is vastly increased.”

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