THE claim that ‘Law Schools are failing us’ (The New Lawyer 24 August), is misleading; the article would be better titled ‘US law chools are failing US lawyers, says US law firm marketing expert’.
Little in the article has to do with legal education in Australia, although similar sentiments are expressed from time to time.
The author’s principal complaint is that US law schools do not teach “the business of law”, leaving law graduates unprepared for the “dog-eat-dog environment” of private law firm practice. He calls on practising attorneys to “demand a better trained workforce of young associates”.
I don’t know the merits of the author’s claims in the US, but to the extent that the same claims are made in Australia, they are misconceived.
This grievance comes from one side of a debate over the role of law schools, the side of the practising profession, for whom law schools can be seen as professional training grounds.
Professional training for legal practice has a much longer history than does university education. As recently as the 1970s there were more practising lawyers in Australia who had been admitted after a period of apprenticeship than had law degrees. Law schools have come late to a profession with closer historical ties to medieval English professional guilds than to medieval English universities.
But against the expectation that a law school will produce practice-ready lawyers is a widely held expectation that law schools will produce mature, reflective, ethical, socially conscious lawyers.
These two conceptions of a law graduate are not mutually exclusive, but it is the nature of a university to be more concerned with the latter – a broad and life-preparing education – than the former.
The relationship between the practising profession and law schools in Australia is different from that in the US. The legal profession in Australia probably has the same hope that they will be able to employ practice-ready graduates (and minimise their own costs in developing young lawyers’ skills and sensibilities).
But it also understands that articles and during the formalised remnant in graduate legal training courses, rather than at university, are where law graduates are prepped for practice.
Law schools in Australia provide undergraduate education to young people straight out of high school. Students concurrently undertake a degree in another discipline. A great many law students do not practice law, and if they do many do not go into private practice.
The (commercial) practice orientation of the mandatory law degree curriculum is significant recognition of the legal practice destination of many law students.
There is, as well, a diverse range of elective subjects and placements, internships and exchanges with a wide range of legal institutions. These complement an intellectual ethos that is as concerned with educating law students for life as it is with producing a “well-trained workforce of young associates”.
As with so many things, a discussion about the role of law schools in Australia ought to clearly distinguish the US experience, if it is worth reporting on at all.
Simon Rice teaches law at the ANU College of Law.
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