Practical Training for Law Students (AKA – where have articles of clerkship gone)

Practical Training for Law StudentsI had a very interesting conversation recently with somebody who has an important role in the training that is given to law students and graduates.  I was lamenting the loss of articles of clerkship, because (in my experience of them) they were far superior to what is now charitably called “practical legal training”.

This person made a number of interesting comments about the situation which gave me food for thought.

And so the topic of consideration for today is this: were articles of clerkship superior to the current system or not?  More importantly, what can be done to improve the situation of training beyond its current status.

Articles of Clerkship for Law Students

For those not accustomed to the phrase, I will briefly explain.  Article of Clerkship (when I did it) was a 2  year full time training program that young graduates completed as a pre-requisite for their admission to legal practice.

I am uncertain whether this system exists in other countries still or not, and I haven’t looked it up in preparation for this post because, honestly, if I did that for each jurisdiction that my readers come from it would take far too long.

Suffice it to say that I did articles of clerkship.  Given the timing of my admission to legal practice, I did have an option to do a course, but young married people generally want income rather than expenses, and so I chose the path that came with the former rather than the latter.

Practical Legal Training (or PLT) for Law Students

Practical Legal Training is a course offered by a number of institutions (such as College of Law) which, in essence, sought to replace articles.

It does so by offering a course based method of learning, assignments, exams and the like.  The courses are, naturally enough, accredited by the various admission boards around the country and so are generally regarded as providing what a young graduate needs in order to be admitted as a lawyer.

They Couldn’t Be More Wrong

Let me start by saying that I don’t hate the College of Law, their equivalent competitors, or what it is that they are trying to achieve.

That said, I have found it best to avoid thinking of PLT as a replacement for articles, because it simply isn’t.  PLT is a short cut to get admitted lawyers who can bill more dollars, more quickly, than articles could provide in the past.  The real situation is, however, that a roughly 6 month set of coursework with limited required time in a law firm cannot possibly replace 2 years of full time practice.  There’s no way.

What was Wrong with Articles then?

One of the things pointed out to me by my discussion partner on this topic was that although my articles was a great experience, many people did not experience articles that way.  Further, in fact, some people received terrible training during their articles, and poor management and mentoring.

The downside to articles was that there was no metric – no measure by which it could be established that the senior practitioners (they were called “masters”) were actually doing their jobs when it came to training their clerk.

The corollary of this in terms of PLT is that it does offer consistency.  We now know, with precision, what our graduates have learned and that they have a basic competency level in various areas.

But What Comes After the Law Students Graduate?

This was the fascinating part of my discussion (well – one of many), because really it focuses on what this site is all about.  With PLT not providing, and not able to provide, what articles was capable of if done correctly, who exactly takes the responsibility for training recently admitted lawyers in the skills that they would have learned had they done articles?

The fact that young lawyers are “admitted” doesn’t mean that they are capable of practising law any more than me being able to turn my stove on makes my competent to replace all the wiring in it (my oven broke recently, so this is a bit of a sore spot).

The problem is that nobody is taking responsibility.  Law Firms (sorry guys) don’t – they don’t care about these skill sets that are missing, because all the senior lawyers are too busy billing clients to worry about training junior staff properly.  We give, at best, a token nod to training through in-house legal education.  However, by and large the quality is poor because the practitioners don’t devote the necessary time and effort to it.

So What’s the Solution?

Law Firms and individual senior lawyers need to take responsibility for coaching, training, and mentoring junior lawyers.  We have abrogated our responsibilities to the College of Law and other institutions and it’s frankly quite pathetic.  No longer are we an industry where we are really looking to get the best out of our young lawyers through the benefit of our wisdom on career choices and practical skills, but rather our focus is not simply on the economic side of legal practice – how can we get graduates billing more, faster, and then we ourselves get back to the same.

If you’re a senior lawyer reading this – please take it on board.  Man up (it’s a term – live with it irrespective of your gender) and take some responsibility for the next generation of lawyers.  Sure there’s people like me and sites like this (well – not too many, because I like to tell myself that I’m unique) – but what are you doing personally to help?

If you’re a junior lawyer and you feel left in the lurch more often than not – then tell somebody.  Tell them you’d love to be part of a mentoring program, or take on a coach, or suggest some skill building activities.  Don’t complain – do something useful and make a proposal.  You never know what could happen…

Happy Lawyering!

  • Great article.

    Living as a graduate in the UK I can say that they still have the articles system here.

    What seems to happen is that those who do their articles or ‘training contract’ at a city/corporate firm end up in demand, whereas those who do training contracts elsewhere have less opportunities. The PLT supporters may argue that the PLT system removes this bias, and perhaps it does, but as you say in your article the PLT does not replace 2 years of experience.

    Here, despite being an admitted Australian lawyer (i.e. finished your PLT and admission ceremony) you would be viewed as having 0 experience. And it is true because you don’t have any experience. Contrast this to every admitted UK lawyer who is viewed as having at least 2 years. PLT-based admission would be a disadvantage here.

    In regards to poor training, I’m not sure that the worries are that well founded either. Articles/training contracts are freely available online from the Solicitor’s Regulation Authority. If you look at them, it clearly states that the master is contractually bound to provide at least 3 areas of training to the trainee – with a mix of contentious and non-contentious work. (Side note, does this standard of training ring any bells about graduate schemes at large law firms back in Australia with rotations?). In addition, if the master cannot provide these three areas then the trainee must be seconded out to another firm that can. Because of these requirements I have overheard some smaller firms state that they simply can’t take on trainees.

    Finally, as you described above, it seems clear that firms are unwilling to train (in any country, really). It is understandable. Under the current system a firm could merely choose the most experienced and best performers amongst a large cohort of graduates. So the solution, for people like me, is to seek and self fund unpaid work experience and pray that the accumulation of menial unpaid work will eventually catch the eye of an employer. Pray too that the volunteer, work experience, internships and underemployment actually align closely with what you will be asked to do in practice.

  • I get the general gist but we’ve still got training contracts and the likes of CoL are only offering what used to be the Law soc finals.

    Will be interesting to see whether apprenticeships really take off – they more closely resemble the old articles model and place a lot more emphasis on firms to do the training.

    • Hey there Chris (great name btw) and thanks for the comment. I’m curious about your thoughts on the training contract – how much protection do you think it offers a graduate in their training? Obviously the variance between firm and individual solicitor will be significant. So for some, a wonderful experience – others less so.

      College of Law does two things – it mitigates the risk but offering a consistent experience. On the flip side it removes the opportunity to get real experience. With your experience at Consult Capital and as a lecturer, what’s your feel – is there greater benefit in the structured side by virtue of the consistency it offers, or should emerging lawyers more be learning from practising lawyers despite possibly fluctuations in the quality? For my part I’m in favour of the latter – but I think we’ve got to find a way to make sure our senior lawyers are really taking responsibility. If they choose not to, I’m not convinced a training contract will over any protection to the poor schmuck whose training was a nightmare.

  • I am a graduate in South Africa and this holds true to our jurisdiction as well. Doing the six months PLT course for us does not totally excludes you from doing your articles, it only articles to a period of one year.

  • I am three short hours away from completing my final law school exam so will be soon diving into my PLT.

    I have already volunteered in legal roles extensively throughout my degree and watched peers go through PLT, and what I have heard through these sources has not convinced me of the PLT’s success as the articles’ replacement.

    Among my peers who have already completed PLT, the same stories of graduates doing drudge work with no real mentorship abound. It can seem like just another bit of ‘paperwork’ to get the tick of approval at the end – since apparently 3 years of postgraduate law study is insufficient.

    I fear some firms do use the process to get free help with no real intent to train their graduates, but still dangle the phrase “this may lead to a paid position” in their PLT-placement advertisements.

    I have come through postgraduate law from a professional background, so the constant expectation to ‘volunteer’ and the lack of recognition for my past experience can be irksome. Also, it does not appreciate that a growing number of graduates through the Juris Doctor qualification have families to support, bills to pay, and food to put on the table (my law school lives in blissful ignorance that we do not all live with wealthy parents who cook and clean for us every night).

    I will be very happy to be proved wrong by my upcoming personal experience – and shall make a note to report back on this article’s comments! I have managed to obtain an (unpaid) placement so in the current market, count myself among the lucky ones (who needs food anyway 😉 )

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