AUSTRALIA’S FIRST national institution dedicated to the study of the legal profession will have its work cut out examining how to keep corporate pressures from eroding professional duties, said Australian Law Reform Commission chairman, David Weisbrot.
Even though it was “probably needed 30 or 40 years ago”, he said we “now desperately need to rethink and rearticulate the core ethics and principles that bind lawyers together”.
Some of the big changes that were threatening these included increased competitive pressures altering the nature of lawyers’ relationship to their clients, including the burgeoning number of in-house lawyers and the tendering out of legal services.
These changes also meant the relevance of legal education to the reality of practising law had to be examined.
“It will be the one institution that brings together all the various strands of the legal profession,” said Weisbrot, a founding fellow of the academy.
“There’s not a lot of empirical research about the Australian legal system,” he added. “A lot of it is still done [following] the difficult case; the notorious case.”
Around 100 of Australia’s top lawyers, judges and law officers attended the launch of the Australian Academy of Law last week and a subsequent forum Government House in Brisbane, including High Court Chief Justice Murray Gleeson, and Attorney-General Philip Ruddock.
Some at the forum suggested there should be further research into deterrents in sentencing, and what kind of deterrents actually work.
Other “recurring” themes at the meeting included the “gross” underfunding of legal education, and how best to teach ethics in law schools.
“If the context of practising changes very dramatically, and everyone agrees that’s the case, then you also have to look at all of those issues about how we train lawyers,” Weisbrot said.
“And we know that probably 30 per cent, 40 per cent, or 50 per cent of people graduating in law schools don’t practice in the traditional way any more.
“[It was said] ethics shouldn’t be taught just as a subject where you have somebody standing up in front of the room and pronouncing what the ethics are. It would have to be something that you learned in context.”
Firms were now representing many more clients due to tendering for legal services becoming more common. Work is also awarded according to individual lawyers or practice groups rather than by firm. This meant conflicts of interest had become a more difficult issue to manage, he explained.
Some at the forum suggested their needs to be more practising lawyers brought in to law schools to explain how they dealt with these conflicts.
“And everyone agreed that we needed much more interaction between academics and practising lawyers and judges,” Weisbrot added.
Other suggestions included judges spending a semester teaching, or contributing to teaching, at a law school and being given time off to conduct research for educational institutions. Weisbrot said this was the practice in the UK, where the Institute for Advanced Legal Studies paid the court to find a replacement so a judge could take time off.
There are signs that lawyers themselves are well aware of some of the concerns mentioned by Weisbrot.
In a recent interview, Michael Rose, the new managing partner of Allens Arthur Robinson, told Lawyers Weekly one of his priorities was to reaffirm his lawyers’ professional obligations and independence.
“I want to make sure the competitive environment in which we work doesn’t corrode the professional environment which is so much a part of the satisfaction that lawyers have in their working lives,” he said.
In the end, he said lawyers who do more than just facilitate client’s plans will be more highly valued. “[It is] the idea that occasionally their lawyers will stand back from what they’re doing and say to them: ‘I know you want to do this. But I need to give you this advice and you need to listen carefully to this advice’.”
At present the academy has no physical presence beyond its foundation fellows, which number more than 100. But it is hoped federal funding will help set up a secretariat at the Australian National University.
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