Becoming a lawyer

Hmm, how to make a good lawyer? This is an old bugbear of mine from way back. There are two facets (1) the way in which law is taught at law school and (2) the means of qualifying as a lawyer.

In terms of how law is taught, my comments and experience have been shaped by the law school I attended, and I imagine that other law schools are different or have other methods of teaching. However, apart from a few notable exceptions, I found that the way in which law was taught was piecemeal, and had little to do with actual situations which come up in practice.

  • At the start of the core subjects an overview is really important. Some lecturers skimmed over the basics of a subject, and then homed in on some peripheral and highly unusual area in which they happened to specialise, but which was unlikely to ever come up in practice. So in some subjects, I ended up with a conglomerate of principles which don’t really seem to fit with each other, let alone any other area of law (I still don’t really “get” contract, it’s just a jumble of strange principles rattling around in my head).
  • No one ever taught us to write a legal essay. I worked out how to do it purely by accident, which was lucky.
  • I never quite worked out why I did well in some subjects and not in others. It seemed to be luck as much as anything else (apart from the time I went stir-crazy and turned an essay around so the conclusion was the introduction and vice versa).
  • I emerged from law school with almost no practical skills – for example, I couldn’t draft a simple contract. Seasonal clerkships didn’t help me gain practical skills.

I guess my criticisms come down to two basic points.

  1. First, I think it is really helpful if you get an idea of the basic structure and workings of the law. I am a “big picture” person, and like to have an idea of how everything fits together before I leap in. I think it is ideal if law is taught in a way which concentrates on an overall picture as well as nitty gritty details. The nitty gritty is always changing anyway; the important thing is to get the basic principles sorted out. Of course, detail and those weird liminal principles are also very important in law (and of interest to a nerd like me) but they make much more sense in a larger context.
  2. Secondly, I think the way in which law is taught lacks an emphasis on practical aspects. The fact of the matter is that Law is a vocational degree, and even if you don’t intend to practice, I think it’s important to have some clues! Further, I have tutored in five or six subjects, and found that a subject made much more sense if you explained how things worked practically. Often, by looking at the practical realities, it became clear why the law was decided in the way it was.

Which makes a nice segue into my next topic. I have long thought that perhaps a Leo Cussen style course could be worked into the law degree instead of articles (preferably not making the course any longer). As you have probably guessed, I’m not the world’s biggest fan of articled clerkships. I also think that it is good to get experience in a variety of legal jobs. Perhaps instead of articles, practical experience could include two or three of the following options:

  • Solicitor
  • Corporate Counsel
  • Judge’s Associate
  • Government legal advisor
  • Community Legal Centre
  • Legal Aid
  • Barrister

There is more to being a lawyer than simply working as a solicitor in a firm, and I think our system should recognise that by allowing experience in any of the above roles to qualify one for practice.

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4 Comments

Filed under law, legal education

4 responses to “Becoming a lawyer

  1. Fred

    I think incorporating legal aid/community legal services into the Articles process would be fantastic, if only because a lot of the people coming out of law school need a reality check, and this would be invaluable experience to make them more rounded people.

    The problem is, of course, $$$. This is already an issue with Leo Cussens – it is difficult to see how one might voluntarily choose to pay $$, instead of being paid $$, no matter how much better the legal experience gained may be. Plus community legal services already have extremely limited funds, so it’s unlikely they could assist in taking on a series of trainee lawyers in paid positions.

    I think the answer would potentially be for a private firm (or government department/court) to take on an articled clerk and sponsor them (ie pay their wages) to have rotations at these other places, as well as a rotation at the firm/department. Let’s face it, surely this would be a more interesting (and worthwhile) experience than rotating from Tax to M & A to Major Projects, etc…!

    Plus this way we get trained lawyers AND we help the community in the process – and show the world we’re not all evil!!

  2. Legal Eagle

    Yes, the money is always the problem! I must confess that when I didn’t get articles first time around, I didn’t do Leos because I didn’t have the money. The advantage of making it part of the actual degree itself is that it would at least be covered by HECS, but I’m not sure how it could be done without making the degree even longer.

    It’s a great idea to have firms sponsoring people to work at a community legal centre during articles…I wonder if they’d be up for it. If you do your articles at a big firm, you might get very little contact with real people, and it all seems very abstract. It’s really important to remember that being a lawyer is all about having an effect on real people!

  3. Legal Eagle

    Yes, ideally you want to cater for both the “what ifs” and the “what’s the practical answer” students. I think it’s actually important to think about both policy and practicalities in a law degree. Personally, I love both the theoretical side and the practical side, but then I am a nerd!

  4. Pingback: Becoming a Lawyer - Part II « The Legal Soapbox

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