THE FATE of articled clerkships in Victoria — and possibly Australia — could be decided by law firms, the very ones responsible for turning record numbers of admission-seeking graduates away this year.
Spurred into action by Victorian Attorney-General Rob Hulls, the Law Institute of Victoria (LIV) last week wrote to firms urgently seeking their input on possible alternatives to the traditional one-year placements.
In an implicit acknowledgement of an articles crisis, caused by record numbers of law graduates and less places on offer from commercial Melbourne firms — which, by and large, have not enjoyed the most fruitful of times recently owing to depressed economic conditions globally — Hulls recently told the LIV he was ready to consider changes. An increased availability of practical legal training courses (PLT) is thought to be the most obvious option to short circuit a growing gap between those admitted and candidates.
In his letter, LIV chief executive John Cain writes: “Prior to responding to the Attorney’s letter, we are seeking views of the profession in relation to the future of Articles and the availability of practical legal training courses.
“We are acutely aware that different firms have different requirements and different approaches to Articles and the recruitment of graduates. What we are seeking from firms is some input and guidance on the different needs.”
In order to hear expediently as many responses as possible, the LIV has also arranged a forum, on 11 December, to which the profession is invited to submit its views.
Speaking to Lawyers Weekly a short time after the letter was sent, Cain said he was pleased Hulls had formally acted on concerns the LIV had been aware of “for some time”.
According to Cain, the current National Profession Project (NPP) and associated review of Victoria’s Legal Profession Act, made admission issues ripe for examination.
With fewer than 200 PLT places on offer from the Leo Cussens Institute and Monash University at present, firms bear the vast bulk of admission responsibility in Victoria. One option to alleviate the dearth of PLT is to lift constraints on what courses the State’s Council of Legal Education can approve, Cain suggested.
“In NSW, when you complete PLT you can’t hold a full practising certificate for two years. We need to give the Council wider discretion with a variety of safeguards,” he said.
Minter Ellison boss Peter Bartlett wanted the process to be more uniform — “the quality of articles can be patchy from law firm to law firm” — and felt that some level of consistency may be achieved via the NPP.
In response, Law Council of Australia secretary-general Michael Lavarch, who has been at the forefront of NPP negotiations, admitted the process incorporated harmonisation of admission but denied it was concerned with “the abolition of articles”.
He said general competencies for admission training, whether it be articles or PLT, would be standardised. “There’s nothing in the NPP that favours one over the other,” he added.
Oliver Mendelsohn and Susan Campbell, respective heads of La Trobe and Monash University law schools, agreed it was time that PLT take on a greater role.
“I don’t think the defenders of the articles system are very strong anymore . . . if the LIV is not actively defending it, then it is unlikely that things will persist the way they are,” Mendelsohn said.
Campbell felt that there was still room for articles, but believed that in-house training should be accompanied by onsite PLT to help ease the burden on firms.