Alternative Law Journal
It's so much easier to assess how you're doing and how to improve what you're doing, if you actually know what it is that you're doing. The extent to which this is true of Australian law school is explored by several contributors to this issue of the Alternative Law Journal.
For an increasing number of our students, enrolment in a law degree is a product of attaining the requisite tertiary entrance score and having to choose between law and medicine. Despite the proliferation of law schools, demand for law places is such that the academic calibre of students currently enrolling is very different to that of even the recent past. The fact that today's law students are academic high flyers and not necessarily committed to pursuing a career in legal practice, has significant implications for law schools.
That most Australian law graduates will never, or only briefly practise law, has received little attention. Perhaps this is because we remain preoccupied with struggling to adapt curricula and teaching methods to better equip law graduates for contemporary legal practice.
In recognising the extent of the 'disconnection' between the law school curriculum and legal practice outlined in David Weisbrot's article, it' may be worth considering why, in the face of glaring evidence, required reforms remain elusive. Perhaps it is because as lawyers steeped in precedent, we tend to teach our subjects the way we remember them being taught - equating 'the way it has always been' with 'the way it needs to be'.
What are the desired outcomes for our courses and teaching? Do we ·seek to equip our students for legal practice? If so, what of the students who don't intend to practise law, or who are increasingly likely to fail to secure such employment? While it may appear that the educational requirements of those for whom the LLB is a ticket to legal practice, and those for whom the LLB is the new BA, have little in common, arguably a legal education which best prepares students for careers in the changing and increasingly diversified field of legal practice will also best meet the needs of students who seek the benefits of a legal education without wishing to practise law.
In outlining how values, ethics and practical legal training may be integrated into a law curriculum to produce better lawyers, Paul O'Shea highlights the artificiality and inappropriateness of distinguishing between skills and knowledge training. Removing this distinction allows the focus of legal training to move away from an over-emphasis on doctrine toward factors most valued in legal work. While a move away from a doctrinal focus may enhance the study of law as a foundation course for a wide range of law related careers, additional reforms, such as the integration of generic and professional skills into the law school curriculum advocated by Rob Guthrie and Joseph Fernandez, may be needed to prepare law graduates for employment opportunities beyond legal practice.
Inquiries as to employer expectations of graduates will also need to extend beyond the legal profession to encompass community, private sector and government employers. By continuing to largely ignore potential non-law firm expectations, law schools limit their ability to assist students to identify and prepare for alternative career paths to the law firm.
Legal practice continues to monopolise the focus of most law school classes, career advice, assessment, and presentation of role models. The message thus sent out is that a law graduate's success is to be measured by the size and prestige of the law firm that offers them employment, their starting salary and partnership prospects. Employment beyond legal practice or further study in areas corresponding to students' diverse interests, skills and potentials appear to be deemed less important and treated as back-up options. Do we really want or seriously expect our most gifted school leavers to necessarily find fulfilment in legal practice? Will the incorporation of pro bono work produce critically and community minded law graduates, as Tracey Booth suggests? Should we really be surprised that so many of our graduates leave legal practice within the first couple of years?
Promoting awareness of alternative career options may also enhance the long-term wellbeing of our graduates, and perhaps address the disturbing reality that lawyers regularly top dissatisfaction with work surveys. As Judy Allen and Paula Baron suggest, the law's deleterious impact on wellbeing may well begin at law school.
No discussion of legal education would be complete without an examination of tertiary education reforms which are beginning to influence subjects studied and career choices, and which as Jodie Jansen argues, have serious implications for access to justice and lawyers' participation in civil society.
A consideration of the above issues may not lead to agreement on legal education reform, but it is likely to help establish the context and to identify the questions that need to be asked.
DANIEL STEPNIAK teaches law at the University of Western Australia.