WHILE THE legal profession has welcomed the push for the introduction of uniform entry requirements for foreign lawyers wanting to work in Australia, commentators now urge decision makers to ensure the high standards of legal practice are not lost.
Foreign lawyers will find it easier to get work in Australia as Federal, State and Territory Attorneys-General push to achieve uniform regulation of Australian legal practitioners and foreign lawyers across all Australian jurisdictions.
“An overseas qualified lawyer who wishes to seek admission to practise the law of an Australian jurisdiction should have their qualifications and skills assessed in a same manner across Australia,” Federal Attorney General Philip Ruddock said.
The Law Council of Australia president John North said that his organisation has been working closely with the Federal Government to expand international legal services both ways. “That is, because the market is mature, Australian lawyers are increasingly looking to overseas markets and vice versa. The object behind the National Profession Act in regard to foreign lawyers is to make it uniform across Australia for entry and practising requirements,” he said.
But according to Michael Page Legal manager Oliver Cunliffe, there should possibly be a rigorous entry for foreign lawyers coming into Australia in order to maintain the high quality of legal practice in this country. In an interview with Lawyers Weekly, he suggested that Australian qualifications and those of foreign lawyers should be examined for comparability.
“This is a candidate short market and you don’t want to turn too many lawyers away, but on the other hand you want to be able to make it not too difficult for people with the right qualifications to come here,” said Cunliffe.
The Australian legal system is recognised as being a mature and professional market, argued Cunliffe, “which is why UK law firms come here and take Australian lawyers away”. The high standard of Australian lawyers is evident in the fact that “this is their first port of call, ahead of the US, Canada and places like that”, he said.
He suggested that for people coming from comparable systems, such as the UK, it should be easier for them to get here. “Whereas coming from different legal systems would be harder. Now that could be that the exam is naturally easier for them, because the style of law is similar, or you have to challenge the people outside that system a little bit harder. I think as it stands, is a reasonable system, but what I don’t understand is why you don’t have a standard in the country in the first place,” he said.
According to Cunliffe, having a fair and equitable qualification for all lawyers to be able to pass as recognition of their skills is “probably a good standardisation”. He said, however, that skills from some countries will be more transferable. “The UK is a better skills set coming here than the US, or Europe.
“The UK qualification is recognised as being close to the Australian one. The law degrees are the same … On an international basis, the process of converting from say a UK qualification to an Australian one is not that hard, but if you are coming from outside the Commonwealth you have to take the majority of your law degree again,” he said.
“If you have someone who has worked on the corporate group of Freshfields in the UK and they want to come here and they have worked on 10 major transactions, or you have someone from Sri Lanka, and they have worked on 10 major Sri Lankan transactions, they don’t even come in the same ballpark.”
Cunliffe supported the initiative under the National Legal Profession project. “I think the market here is mature and I therefore think it is ridiculous to have different state-based qualifications. I think people find it confusing when they come here that there are these different qualification levels. But generally speaking, there is an attractive market.”
Ministers have committed to further consultation through the Law Admissions Consultation Committee and the Council of Chief Justices, as well as their own admitting bodies.