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Saturday, May 8, 2021

Is University failing us?

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University degrees are failing up and coming professionals by not teaching the skills they need to flourish in the workplace.

To some, this opinion will be shocking.  To others, perhaps it is self-evident.

However, in this article I will begin to develop this concept – University is not delivering to the workforce graduates capable of functioning well in their chosen professions.

Although my particular focus here is on lawyers (which is my area of expertise) I have little doubt that the principles I am going to discuss have wider application.

What’s Missing from University?

Let’s first look at what I perceive to be the problem, before I make some suggestions for the solution.  The first step is to see and identify what is missing from University education that I consider to be so critical to a professional career.

This is it:  skills.

Commonly, new lawyers learn many skills once they begin work.  But why should they not gain a practical grounding in those skills at University?  It would certainly benefit many young students to see a bit more of the practical side, and would offer a pleasant change from subjects based entirely on reading volumes in the library.  Training in skills will also have a longer lasting impact.  Knowledge is swiftly forgotten, but skills learned properly can be beneficially used for a long time (it’s just like riding a bike).

Although each University will have different strengths and weaknesses, here are just a few of the many skills required to function as a professional lawyer which you don’t get through University:

  • Administration of a Legal File, which might include:
    • How to estimate the cost of a legal job for a client
    • Different fee structures that can be offered to clients
    • How to record your time accurately, and different methods of time recording
    • What you need in order to open a file
    • What happens when you close a file
    • How to arrange a physical or electronic legal file in a way that doesn’t make other people want to cry
  • Interaction between legal areas.  Each subject is, largely, an island to itself.  You will learn about contract OR tort OR equity OR trusts OR civil procedure.  The reality of legal practice is that you put all those things together to serve your client.  No client comes to you and says “Hi Ms Lawyer, I’ve got a problem about which I only require your advice on the contractual elements”.  Instead – they bring you facts, and you bring them solutions.
  • Client Management.  Now I know that some courses over an unbelievably introductory session on interviewing clients or similar.  But where is the course on how to deal (mentally and practically) with a client who calls you to complain about their bill?  Or the outcome of the matter?  How do you react and what should you do when you are on the receiving end of a spray from a client who was promised something 2 days ago by your supervisor and they haven’t delivered?
  • People Skills.  Law firms are about people.  All the time, without fail.  Your clients are people (even if they are a company – there are still people there).  Your peers, your bosses, your secretary, your receptionist, your IT department and everything else – it’s all people.  You might be the greatest legal mind the world has ever seen, but if you have inadequate people skills then you are done for as a professional.
  • Business Development.  Now I know that young lawyers aren’t likely to be thrown in the deep end on this topic straight away.  However, providing a basic knowledge of networking, marketing and business development strategies would be an invaluable tool for a young lawyer looking to progress.  Rather than focusing just on the legal content, why not look at behaviours, relationship development, targeted article writing and many more tasks to provide a useful framework for the future.
  • Legal Drafting.  When I went to University, we were taught some basic drafting principles.  However, it is apparent that many graduates from legal practice wouldn’t have the faintest clue how to write a letter of advice to a client.  That’s not to say that they wouldn’t know the law – but they wouldn’t know how to present it in a client friendly fashion.  There are a myriad of written communications in legal practice, and the nature of law studies at University is myopic in that respect.

At best some Universities give a passing glance to practical skills.  You might see a brief, highly truncated, mooting process.  Perhaps somebody waived a transfer document around in a tutorial.  But ultimately while law has an intellectual component, the practice of it is a hands on job.  Unless you’re getting into the nitty gritty of legal practice on a frequent basis, you’re really not getting exposed to this.

How do I know this is a problem?  First, from speaking with students and graduates, who after working for only a brief time all make the same observations about the gap in their training.  Second, from seeing how they work.  These are passionate young people with vast quantities of knowledge – but they don’t know how to use it.

Who Cares?

Firstly – students should care.  University Degrees (and law degrees in particular) are extremely costly.  At the University of Sydney, for example, a law degree will cost you just over $10k per year (for an Australian) and $40k per year as an international student.  For a full 4 year degree that’s somewhere between $40k and $160k.  That, of course, is just the fees.  Books, travel, accommodation and all the rest add up as well.

I think students paying that kind of money should expect a University to provide them with a degree which not only fulfills the requirements for admission as a lawyer, but also provides them with some of the skills they need to hit the ground running if/when they get a job in a law firm after they graduate.

Secondly – law firms should care.  The cost of training graduates and newly admitted lawyers is huge.  If Universities were providing graduates with greater functional skills, then law firms could spend far less on that kind of training, and start investing more into other areas of their development.  The new lawyers themselves would be contributing higher quality work to the firm and providing a financial benefit.

Thirdly – Universities should care.  For all the effort that goes in to marketing, the reality is that a law degree looks a lot now like it has done for a long time.  If Universities want to provide their graduates with the best chance of getting a job (and they all say that they do) then they need to start paying attention to the other skills that professional graduates need to function in a workplace.

How can Universities Fix It?

There are some core subjects which are required for students to gain admission as a lawyer.  Unless that changes, I accept that University must continue to teach those subjects.

College of Law and other practical legal training courses do require a work experience component.  But when you can complete that with 25 days work and a clinical experience “module” it’s difficult to see how that really cuts the mustard in comparison to 4 years of lost opportunity during study.

To me the solution is obvious – incorporate the skills into the curriculum.  Now I don’t mean that students should have a lecture series on practical skills – the irony would be too much.  But we have artificially separated the study of law from the practice of it but making the University component separate to the “Practical Legal Training” component.  Why not just put the two together?

We should get students together with actual lawyers to do actual tasks.  Make them complete a time sheet showing what they have been doing every 6 minutes of a 10 hour day.  Make them review a bill and submit it to a costs assessor for review and comment.  Get a student a big pile of paper in no particular order and have them turn it into an organised file, then take that file, generate a costs estimate, produce a client agreement and use the file to advise a client on their rights.

Most important in these tasks, however, give students the feedback from a REAL WORLD perspective.  These tasks should not be viewed by students (as they currently are) as a cynical medium for students to simply write down everything they know about a particular subject.  Instead the marking component should clearly be from a client perspective, not a university/knowledge perspective.  If your student produces a 10 page letter instead of a 2 page letter, then they get marked down.  If a client would find their advice incomprehensible – then they get marked down.  If a draft submission to the Court is accurate but utterly unpersuasive – mark it down!

All of the knowledge gained at University can be useful – but only if students know how to turn it into a practical and useful result for clients.

If practical skills can be systematically implemented more into legal studies we will see the following benefits:

  1. Graduates will be able to produce from the beginning better outcomes for the firms that hire them;
  2. Students will be learning to operate in a real world environment with real world concerns;
  3. Skills learned by students will be retained, rather than knowledge that is quickly forgotten;
  4. Students will be learning what legal practice is really about – which is the client.

That’s my thoughts for today.  I look forward to your comments!

Happy Lawyering!


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  • Hi Chris,

    I’m a recently admitted lawyer in Victoria and stumbled across your… hmm shall we call them “musings”? 🙂 I’ve found what you have written on a number of topics interesting and insightful.

    With regards to this piece on the nature of educating and training future legal practitioners, I agree with much of what you have written.

    Actually, I first come to believe in this idea as an undergraduate back in 2008,whilst reading parts of a book, Law in Context, 3rd edition, by Stephen Bottomley and Simon Bronitt. The authors briefly touch upon the nature of legal training and education in England up to and throughout the 19th century, before legal education really found its way into universities.

    At that time I recognised that parts of my legal education had sought to address practical skills. For example, drafting mediation position papers, and undertaking negotiations as part of a simulated mediation. Drafting originating process, pleadings, interrogatories in the context of commercial litigation. Drafting letters of advice to clients with respect to commercial disputes. Preparing and making oral submissions, in a moot court. However, I reached the conclusion that by and large my legal education legal education hadn’t really been directed towards the skills that I would require as a practitioner. At the time I concluded my expensive legal education was not providing what I would have liked. As someone who is now “in between jobs”, it has now started to feel like a waste. After all, it’s difficult to see what the $3K to $5K in debt per semester has really produced.

    However, there are a few things that I wanted to comment on specifically from your article. During your article you write:

    “We should get students together with actual lawyers to do actual tasks.”

    I agree with the sentiments here. I do however question whether they reflect the overall state of the profession.

    One of the reasons that I chose to become a lawyer, many years ago, is that I had picked up the idea (perhaps naively, and incorrectly?) that whilst law was a business, it was a profession where practitioners somewhat “looked out for each other”. Its members were open to mentoring and guiding one another, especially, as they learnt the craft of lawyering. The old article system, in my opinion, was premised upon that very notion. (On a side note, I think that’s why I like your blog).

    However, I refer you to an article in the LIJ from Jan/Feb 2013, titled “Where have all the articled clerks gone?”. In the article the author makes the statement that “PLT programs are the most commonly chosen pathways to admission to practise as a lawyer in Australia. Council of Legal Education data shows that currently in Victoria 80 per cent of applicants for admission have completed a PLT program whereas 20 per cent of applicants have completed SWT” (p 28).

    If you then read job advertisements for lawyers, the bulk of them stipulate the all too common 3+ years PAE. We know that it’s probably the worst time in history to be looking for an entry level position into the profession as a lawyer.

    I raise this because your statement raises the question: Do the lawyers really want to get together with the students to work on the tasks? I’d like to be able to say yes, but it’s difficult to see, from the facts raised above, that that is the case.

    As for the idea raised regarding the integration of skills programs as a core component of legal education. One of the reasons why I like the idea so much, is that one of the issues often raised in Australia is issues surrounding access to justice and accessing legal services.

    Community Legal Centres throughout Australia do a great job in assisting the community. However, due to resource constraints their jobs can be difficult.

    I believe that the idea of practical skill training in universities can be made to play a much greater role in addressing issues relating to access to justice and legal services. Looking back at my university education, it’s difficult to see what my the $6K to $10K a semester really went towards funding. I can’t help but think a significant amount of these funds could have been directed to funding a much more fully enhanced clinical program within a university where every student actively participates in practical tasks, working with real world clients, as part of a program to enhancing access to legal services. For example, I see no reason why a student who is undertaking a subject such as Wills and Estate Administration shouldn’t have drafted on behalf of real world clients, under supervision, several real wills on behalf of real clients, or assisted several others to have obtained Grants of Probate. Or alternatively to have assisted in real world litigation relating to a Will. The services being provided could then be provided free of charge, or at a greatly subsidised rate, to members of the community. Ultimately the services would be funded by the Australian Government, as as they fund the education of future Australian lawyers. I would regard that as a clever, and good way of investing, the money of Australian tax payers in the future of Australians.


    • Hi there Darren, and thanks for your considered thoughts on this article!

      You are right – graduate positions in the current environment are horribly competitive – even talented graduates are getting passed over, simply because of supply/demand issues.

      Your principle question, rightly, is whether the legal profession itself would be willing to engage to the extent required. Personally I think that, given a case for it, they could. Graduates cost law firms a lot of money to recruit, train and supervise. Traditionally graduates have huge write-offs in terms of their billable time (assuming that billing method is used) and generally consumers of resources rather than adders of value (at least from a pure economic perspective).

      If input from the profession could assist university to produce more equipped graduates that could “hit the ground running” the economic case for their involvement could be quite persuasive.

      That said – there are also a lot of lawyers who would assist just because it seems like the kind of thing we should be doing.

      I think, as your final paragraph suggests, there are lots of options for universities to incorporate real world environments into their courses. The stagnant “pretend to be in the real world” model is a step forward, but I really think could still be improved with some more engagement from the professional.

      Does everyone agree with me? I doubt it. But then – they can do their own blog 🙂

  • This article seems to presuppose that, for the most part, law students want to become lawyers after they graduate. Many law students seek careers in other industries (there are too many to name). In fact, as the legal market worsens it seems that less students seek to qualify after graduating – so why should we teach administrative and practical skills particular to the legal profession?

    Also, many of the skills you listed are pertinent only to those who would like to work in a commercial firm. Plenty of law students who wish to work in NGOs/criminal firms and other areas of the law probably won’t need to enter their training program with knowledge about business development or managing client relationships.

    Teaching many of these skills would even be redundant even to young commercial lawyers. After two years of trainee tasks (such as file administration and billing) I can assure you that I have done so much of these tasks during my trainee year that I would have been no better off had I done them at University. Having done these tasks in University would have made my transition into a firm easier, true, but ultimately they would have been redundant as they are skills which I honed well enough and for long enough whilst a trainee. This view is supported by the hiring practices of firms such as Skadden which don’t require their trainees to have any prior practical experience – they only want those with high intellectual horse-power (proven through academic rigour) and then they trust themselves to be able to train them (Freshfields is similar in this regard, accepting trainees with no prior legal experience). Given that, office for office, Skadden is one of the most profitable firms in the world – I think that their approach is fine.

    Also, teaching these skills during my time at University would have come at the expense of developing my theoretical understanding of the law (as I aspire to become a barrister and judge, so these skills are important). There are ‘vocational’ law schools which focus on teaching students to draft pleadings, produce memoranda and how fee structures work – but these students can find themselves disadvantaged if working in a practice area which requires knowledge of the law when up against a student from a doctrinal school. Sooner or later, the students from doctrinal law schools pick up all the practical skills which were taught to those from vocational schools, the key point of distinction is that the doctrinal students still have their stronger skills of analysis and theoretical understanding. In fields such as arbitration, these skills can be incredibly important.

    Perhaps the Dennings and Gummows of the world would disagree with you.

    • Gidday Sam, and thanks for your comment!

      You’re right – it’s definitely targeted towards students who wish to become lawyers. But let’s look at that for a moment – sure, around 11% don’t want to work in the law. However a number aren’t taking other jobs because they wanted to, they just cannot get a job in the legal industry. So let’s make sure we don’t confuse “where people end up” with “what people wanted to do”.

      My view is that Business Development and Client Relationships are important no matter what industry you work in. Just because you’re in an NGO doesn’t mean you don’t need to have the fundamental skills that allow you to drive the business and build the practice.

      “After two years of trainee tasks” – that’s my point – you’ve been at uni for 4 or 5 years, and THEN you actually start learning how to practice. You might say you’re not worse off, but I say that you’ve unnecessarily lost 2 years of your life.

      Skadden probably only works because it’s prepared to deliberately and appropriately invest in its staff – most firms don’t/won’t/can’t (and I’ve got some other articles on comments around that). Instead they just expect lawyers to pop out of the machine, ready to go.

      The final point I might make is that you seem to think that putting these skills into law school involves some kind of artificial segregation? EG – today we’re learning contract, tomorrow we’re learning business development. And that simply isn’t the case. You can learn to manage client relationships WHILE learning about contract WHILE learning about time recording WHILE learning about administration. Some law schools do this better than others, of course.

      For that reason I don’t agree with your concern that learning skills will necessarily come at the expense of your academic learning.

      Here’s my basic issue – you can become a fully graduated and admitted lawyer these days, without being even vaguely competent to practice law.

      All the best,

  • I have these exact thoughts every time I walk into my job and don’t know which way is up. I also feel royally ripped off every time I sit down to complete my ‘practical’ legal training, what a scam – we’ve finally decided to provide them with some books so that they can teach themselves the basic skills needed to get through as a lawyer…that’ll be another 11k. We pay enough, at what stage will universities be held accountable for not providing us with at least the skills/accreditation required to become a lawyer, and to get the ‘basics’ down-pat. Couldn’t agree with your article more, glad I’m not the only one thinking it.

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