THE LEGAL profession risks losing its distinct identity and may splinter unless it focuses on professional ethics and social responsibility, Australia’s top law reform officer warned last week.
Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) president Professor David Weisbrot told a breakfast function to mark the start of Law Week that the key to ensuring a healthy legal culture was improved legal education, and an emphasis on ‘soft skills’ such as communications, negotiation and dispute resolution.
The establishment of an Australian Academy of Law should be considered “as a high priority”. Judges, barristers, large law firm solicitors, small firm solicitors, professional associations, students and academics should be brought together to focus attention on issues of professional identity, ethics and public service, he said.
Despite the enormous amount of pro bono work undertaken, Weisbrot said public cynicism about the profession seemed to be at an all-time high. The management and reporting of the public liability ‘crisis’ was one example of this.
“The profession is under enormous pressure… the legal services market is vastly more competitive; the number of lawyers has grown rapidly; non-lawyers are moving into areas once reserved for lawyers; many areas of personal injury work have been ‘de-lawyered’; law firms have developed more ‘business-like’ structures; and the globalisation of legal services is now a reality,” Weisbrot said.
This growth and fragmentation brought challenges for the profession, he said, and without a focal point such as an Academy of Law, the legal profession could “dissolve into a multiplicity of ‘legal occupations’, with no-one taking responsibility for the whole”.
A report undertaken and published by the ALRC, Managing Justice: A Review of the Federal Civil Justice System, illustrated some positive developments on legal eduction, training and accountability, Weisbrot said. It suggested that “courts, tribunals and professional organisations had moved quickly to pick up many of the ALRC’s key recommendations”.
The Australian Government had facilitated the establishment of a National Pro Bono Resource Centre and a National Judicial College, Weisbrot said, and was currently refining its civil justice strategy.
Law deans have been enthusiastic about the proposed Australian Academy of Law but, Weisbrot said, it would need the support of the whole profession to become a real unifying force.