APLEC, Friday pm, plenaries

by Paul Maharg on 12/11/2011

Your intrepid blogger ducked out of the next plenary session to sit in the pleasant courtyard of the UTS law school and catch up on postings and email; so for me the Stakeholders’ Panel was next up — ‘How does PLT fair from the other side?’ The Panel consisted of Michael Day, DPP, Vivien Swain, Magistrate, Chris Robson (General Counsel & Company Secretary, ClearView Wealth Ltd), and Phillip Salem (Chairman, Sparke Helmore Lawyers).

Michael Day discussed performance at the DPP. Looking for students who have an interest in public law and DPP in particular. Students were judged on application, eg electives in the subject. ‘Scary clever’, appropriately assertive, collegiate are his descriptions of students; but also lacking a sense of the administrative elements of the job.

Magistrate Swain addressed the quality of advocacy. Fairly functional descriptions of poor advocacy, not really asking why some low levels of advocacy are demonstrated. Observed that students need to know the Practice Notes before appearing, and asked for law schools to put on more practical sessions, eg on submissions and the phrasing of orgal argument, anticipating what questions the Bench might have on a matter. Curiously downbeat — cited lots of examples of poor practice, none of outstanding practice.

Chris Robson made observations on graduate a few years out. Inquisitiveness was essential, he thought, for in-house counsel; as was the ability to challenge. See things from the perspective of the client; project management skills are key, and lawyers are highly-valued for that skill. If it’s not there, it’s a material shortcoming. That includes the ability to ‘look wide before you look deep’ — good phrase. Also — ‘start with the end in mind’ — essentially another client-facing skill. And  avoid the tunnelling that students sometimes do in documents, where documents aren’t the end of the matter, often only the route to it. Relationship with a regulator in legal matters is a value-add — a critical component of deals. Risk management, linked to regulation, is also important — a series of dials, not a separate on-off. The risk tolerances of the business are set out, and a lawyer needs to set out for a client what are the levels of risk, particularly uncompensated risk. Finally, financial risk and reputation risk — there needs to be awareness of that, with its highly complex layers, eg tax, human, capital, regulatory risks, in the documentation and in the relationships with clients.  Chris’s contribution was quality stuff, and certainly gave me a lot to think about.

Finally, Phillip Salem talked of the usefulness of part-time jobs in law firms to students; some knowledge of industries relevant to the work of the firm they’re in, and commercial awareness; an understanding of professional behaviour, being competent and critical; the ability to write clearly and concisely. Consistent strengths of graduates include their confidence (based, he thought, on their prior work experience); legal research skills; good understand of procedure and commercial drivers. Areas where there are gaps in new lawyer performance — writing skills not as good as they could be (he meant grammar, punctuation, syntax); more could be done on advice writing. More training probably needed on mock court trials; the soft skills, particularly resilience, the ability to accept feedback and act on it.

At questions there was reference to the ‘crime against the apostrophe’, and other punctuation misdemeanours — cue eye-rolling from yrs truly. It was as if the Panel hadn’t read the research into student literacy, the sophistication of voice and audience awareness — which of course they hadn’t. Neither, it seemed, had those of the audience who agreed with them. There’s a need, it seems, for staff and practitioners to understand why literacy standards are as they are, and how they can be improved. Maybe a workshop for next APLEC, with key methods of addressing the issue & associated literature review?

Interesting session, and as a complete outsider to Australian professional legal educational culture it was fascinating to hear the issues foremost in the minds of leading practitioners. To some extent they are issues at the forefront of professional legal educators in the UK as well; and some of them are being addressed by the Legal Education and Training Review group.

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