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.
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:
- Graduates will be able to produce from the beginning better outcomes for the firms that hire them;
- Students will be learning to operate in a real world environment with real world concerns;
- Skills learned by students will be retained, rather than knowledge that is quickly forgotten;
- 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!