I 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…