A virtual workplace is getting closer to reality all the time, and a pilot group of students at Queensland University of Technology are the first to enter the online office, reports Laura MacIntyre.
In July, project partners from QUT launched a comprehensive online work experience program for law students, one that could potentially provide a better quality learning experience than a real life placement.
The QUT virtual work placement pilot program is the result of a year-long collaboration between QUT Senior Lecturer Tina Cockburn, Adjunct Professor John Swinson, Eva Scheerlinck of Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA) and the NGO Bridges Across Borders.
The project developed as a solution to the high demand for law based work experience placements. Now, more than ever, on-the-ground work experience is essential for law students, but, as Cockburn explains, supply is strictly limited.
"A big problem with placements is, of course, that there are limited physical placements available for a range of reasons - particularly just physical work space," explains Cockburn.
"[It is] also the fact that, especially in undergraduate legal education, students weren't offered, except in the clinical programs, an opportunity to have their work experience give them academic credits."
The project will be divided into three streams - two with a community law emphasis, and the other a simulation of the corporate law firm.
Students in the community law streams will have the opportunity to research submissions on human rights and international law that will be used in ALA and Bridges Across Borders final submissions.
The virtual law firm will be run by Swinson, who is uniquely placed to teach the online subject, having experience as both an academic and a senior partner at Mallesons Stephen Jaques, one of Australia's largest law firms.
He will be acting as the head partner of the virtual office during the three-week selection process, and for the next ten weeks of the project.
In practice, Swinson explains, it's becoming harder and harder to draw a distinction between the virtual office and the modern law firm.
"If you look at the way a law firm is working, a lot of communication with clients and between people in law firms is via electronic means. We use email a lot, as you'd imagine, we have instant messenger which we use between clients and other lawyers at the firm. You email documents around, and have a telephone discussion if need be."
"Ideally you want every law student to see what reality is like, because otherwise it's like studying to be a carpenter but never being allowed to use a hammer," he says.
"So what QUT came up with was doing a virtual placement where a number of legal organisations who employ lawyers do a project with law students simulating what it would be like working for them - but in a virtual environment."
The concept of a virtual work placement is a world away from the gruelling rounds of seasonal clerkships that students traditionally submit themselves to in the final stages of their degrees. After all, isn't the hard graft of a law firm clerkship the part that involves turning up in the office every day before 9am, dealing with office politics and demanding partners, or worse, photocopying endless reams of
paper or labelling discovery documents?
But while he appreciates the benefits of an on-the-ground placement, Swinson anticipates that the quality of work assigned to students in the virtual placement will be much higher.
"Students will actually get an experience of what it's like to be in a law firm. So you miss out on some of the social aspects of being in a law firm, but you get the real work and, from a substantive point of view, we think it will actually be better than people would get on average in an actual placement.
"It also allows access to external students, part-time students and people who have scheduling issues who can't do a nine-to-five job," he says.
The technology developed by QUT will allow students to interact online through forums, the university's Blackboard program and a customised version of SharePoint. Students will also keep time sheets and work journals.
In the first week of the pilot more than 186 forum posts had already been made by students: "It's fantastic the level of engagement, and the way that they're working with each other," Cockburn says.
The program is ostensibly part of the QUT academic program, but has scope to be rolled out at firms and universities nationally as a recruitment and training tool.
"We suspect that a lot of the law firms will want to get involved because it's a good way of connecting with the students," says Swinson. "Secondly, firms will get to see who the best students are."