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The ‘practical’ in PLT under fire

The ‘practical’ in PLT under fire

PRACTICAL LEGAL training is well and good in theory, offering students an insight into the legal world before they actually enter it. The experience, however, varies for those who do it, with…

PRACTICAL LEGAL training is well and good in theory, offering students an insight into the legal world before they actually enter it. The experience, however, varies for those who do it, with some claiming it is a waste of time and a great expense.

In a report on practical legal training (PLT) this week, Lawyers Weekly reveals that some students feel that a $6,000 fee could be lessened and considerable time saved if PLT was actually more practical, with more hands-on hours. One student, who wanted to remain anonymous, said his PLT course offered him little that he could not have picked up in a law firm.

Now working part-time in a firm, our source said he is being exposed to many things he did not encounter during his PLT. “You can only learn so much in the theoretical sense. On my first day of work I had to write an affidavit for a man who’d punched his wife out. It was totally different to be doing this on real cases. If I hadn’t done college, I don’t think it would have been that much different. Maybe I would have had to ask the partners a couple more questions, or looked at a few more websites. But I don’t think that’s enough to warrant a $6,000 fee,” he said.

“I drafted forms and affidavits in college. But I didn’t get a real idea about what it was about until I worked, and got this job. Maybe that says I wasn’t sufficiently involved in the learning process. But I still maintain that you have to be in the law to learn from it,” he said.

It would be more useful to have internships within law firms, so that students can really understand what it is like to work in private practice, our source claimed. “I think three internships would be much more effective. Many people I study with agree with me. Most of my peers online think [the course] is a real hassle.

“You can’t teach practical application in an educational institution. Universities should have a system where you can do many internships… When it is taught by professionals, rather than on the job, you are losing an essential part of the learning process,” he argued.

“My solicitor friends say that some things are quite important to do in college, such as trust accounting. But, on the whole, it isn’t the kind of diploma that is giving you a great deal of hands on knowledge. Ninety per cent of what I have learnt so far I learnt through work experience,” he pointed out.

Stephanie Booker, another PLT student, questioned whether ‘practical legal training’ is an accurate term. “[My course] certainly taught me where to look for things that I may need — rules, areas of law... As for helping me to apply these rules, there is a huge difference between the reality of my workplace and the comfort of my PLT course. For example, I find that the way I draft letters for [my course] is not acceptable in my workplace, and vice versa.”

According to the College of Law, a PLT provider, some excellent training does take place in law firms, but it cannot be relied on.

“No doubt some top quality training takes place on the job in law firms,” said Katherine Mulcahy, director of programme development at the College of Law. “But that can vary considerably. It’s very difficult to assure the quality of training if it is taking place in diverse workplaces.”

She noted that students could be exploited as extra labour without any emphasis on training. As the experience of training providers in the United Kingdom has shown, systems of approval and records can become an expensive and bureaucratic nightmare for employers.

“If the system is difficult for employers to administer, it won’t do. Already in Australia, Victoria in particular, there is a shortage of employers willing to take placements,” said Mulcahy.

“Like any course, you will always get students saying they didn’t learn anything. But in the end, we’re preparing people for the beginning of their career. They will hopefully continue to learn.”

Andrea Linko, another former student, explains in the Lawyers Weekly report that she found her PLT course to be very useful, however.

She found her course to be very interactive, and enjoyed the fact that the students were regularly assessed and that she was told how she could improve her skills. “We had optional seminars at lunchtime if you wanted to go the extra mile. There was also great opportunity to network, with 130 students from all different places and the practising barristers and solicitors who sat in on our mentoring groups. I’ve kept in touch with about 30 or 40 people from those groups.”

Linko argued that she would not have been well prepared for her role as a solicitor had she not attended her PLT course. “You can’t really fathom what is expected of you until you have the proper training,” she said.

See Degrees of Practicality for the full report.

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