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Under construction: the practical pathway to legal admission

Under construction: the practical pathway to legal admission

The abolition of articles of clerkship in Victoria in July 2008 marked the end of an era for the Australian legal profession. Now, as employers weigh up the merits of supervised traineeships…

The abolition of articles of clerkship in Victoria in July 2008 marked the end of an era for the Australian legal profession. Now, as employers weigh up the merits of supervised traineeships versus practical legal training (PLT), a clear preference for PLT is emerging, writes Laura MacIntyre

Last financial year, 300 students enrolled at the College of Law in Victoria. This year, more than 500 are enrolled.

"I've found that people are pretty comfortable with what's happening, they've accepted that the world has moved on [from articles]," Mallesons learning and career development manager Laura Johnston

"I personally think it's very important there is competition in this market, as in any market," Dr Allan Chay, director of the legal practice unit (QUT)

"What will happen is that the number of positions available in work experience placements will be limited, now that's the risk area for students," Neville Carter, group managing director of The College of Law

The new wave of graduates entering Victorian law firms this week are the first intake since the abolition of articles in July 2008. Following the recommendations of the Campbell Report in 2007, these graduates will be trained according to the national competency standards, either though a supervised traineeship, or practical legal training (PLT) with an accredited provider.

The changeover from articles has undoubtedly created opportunities for practical legal training providers, and so far, The College of Law appears to have benefited most in a commercial sense from the transition, signing up the top tier firms for 2009.

The impact has been immediate. Last financial year, 300 students enrolled at The College of Law in Victoria. This year, in excess of 500 are enrolled, the bulk of which are from firms and cooperative arrangements with the top-tier law firms and several mid-tiers.

Victorian College of Law CEO Anita Kwong says that top-tier firms have voted with their feet, while several mid-tier firms are also likely to come on board in the near future.

"This year, because it's all been so new, a lot of firms still aren't sure what's going on. I think is has becomes public knowledge that leading firms are using the College program, in the following year more mid-tiers will see the value," she says.

At Mallesons Stephen Jaques, 42 graduates started at the firm in Melbourne on 9 February. Mallesons' Melbourne learning and career development manager, senior associate Laura Johnston, says the firm had opted for the college because of its ability to deliver consistent training for graduates across the firms' national offices.

"Particularly from a training perspective, we are looking to provide a consistent foundational graduate training program across the board, across all of our centres, and currently all of our centres are doing PLT within Australia."

Johnston has been working on the transition from articles for more than two years, consulting closely with the partnership to develop the current collaborative approach. She says the response from both groups has been largely positive.

"I've found that people are pretty comfortable with what's happening. They've accepted that the world has moved on [from articles] and I think it's been a positive transition for us," she says.

"I think [graduates] are actually looking forward to getting the solid foundation, to have that certainty as to the competencies that will be covered off in a practical application through a PLT course with the college."

Comparing apples and oranges?

The Leo Cussens Institute is The College of Law's main competitor in Victoria. However, Leo Cussens managing director Elizabeth Loftus says the agreement forged between The College of Law and the top-tier law firms won't have any negative commercial impact for the Institute.

"Both our onsite and online courses are full, so it's not impacting on our market," she says.

"I can't comment on what arrangements the top-tier firms have got, but a number of the national firms have traditionally relied on articles of clerkship so they've not been a traditional market for our PLT students. Although they are, nonetheless, employers of our graduates in the longer term."

So, while the two providers are direct competitors, they have targeted discrete segments of the legal education market. Similarly, the online ANU workshop training platform doesn't currently have any arrangements with law firms for provision of in-house PLT.

This has allowed all three providers to gracefully bow out of head-to-head competition, for the time being.

The limited number of providers in Victoria is in stark contrast to the abundance of options for students in Queensland, and to a lesser extent, New South Wales.

Dr Allan Chay, director of the legal practice unit at Queensland University of Technology (QUT), says the level of competition in Queensland offers benefits students by improving the quality of the training products on offer.

"I personally think it's very important that there is competition in this market, as in any market. My experience has been that, at QUT we've always had competition, whether it's from the articling system, from new providers coming in - we've had Bond in the market, UQ was in, Griffith is here, College of Law and ANU," he says.

"I think for Queensland students the competition works well because everyone has been looking to improve their products and see where they can value-add, so I don't think anyone here has sat still."

Customisation

In addition to assessing the benefits of online versus onsite content delivery models, law firms are now comparing providers based on of the level of customisation they can offer.

Mallesons has worked with The College of Law since 2001 to develop its customised training program.

"The college has helped us develop a customised program that is tailored to Mallesons' practice, so that means that not only are they completing the competency requirements for admission, but they are also able to access material that is relevant to the commercial environment at Mallesons," explains Johnston.

Dr Chay says that QUT has also been exploring the possibilities offered by customised courses.

"I think there could be a future in customised courses, where we'll provide PLT training that will be tailored to the particular firms' requirements, while still meeting the national standards and also, perhaps, providing some wider or further training."

In particular, he says the emphasis placed upon transactional work by the national skills competencies standards doesn't necessarily provide the skills needed for all types of legal practice, including skills such as communications, advocacy and client interviewing.

WA next in line

In Western Australia, admissions are still made under the auspices of the legal practice board, under the articles training program.

The work-around solution for some firms has been to work through the Mutual Recognition (WA) Act 2001, which allows employees to complete training interstate and be accredited via mutual recognition.

The College of Law is awaiting confirmation of regulatory changes that will allow it be become the second accredited provider in WA. It remains to be seen how the new regulations will affect the legal education market in the state, according to the group managing director of The College of Law, Neville Carter.

"We are confident about being accredited in WA very soon, and we've had strong indications from the regulator that will happen. We are not yet accredited, but if all goes well we will offer our programs from mid-March," he says.

"It is very hard to predict what will happen there. Again the large firm sector will look to organisation like the College (of Law) to provide a consistent national approach, but what will happen as students choose between the traditional WA method and now traineeships and the college method, it's very hard to call."

Carter says this also remains an open question for the rest of the states, as firms and students test-drive the new training options.

"I think that the profession in Victoria will take a little time to have a look at the new procedures and decide which way they wish to go, that many firms will continue to take on trainees the way they used to take on articles of clerkship, and it will be a year or two really before we see how the profession at large will respond."

Crunch time

As the legal job market tightens, it seems inevitable that there will be an increase demand for placements in practical legal training programs.

However, if law school exit numbers remain steady, there are unlikely to be enough work experience placements to go around. According to Carter, this will pose an additional challenge for PLT providers whose students need to complete a 15 or 30-week work placement in addition to their PLT courses in order to qualify for admission.

"What will happen is that the number of positions available in work experience placements will be limited. Now that's the risk area for students and the College has got to find ways to help students in that position," he says.

Even if they do obtain their legal qualifications, Carter predicts tough times are ahead for new entrants to the legal industry.

"Things are happening to law students which are not good. Work placements aren't available the way they were, which is often an avenue into employment, the jobs aren't available the way they were on the other side, and there's just an overall lack of dollars in the legal services market."

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Under construction: the practical pathway to legal admission
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