May 20, 2022

An Open Letter to the Law Faculty on Changes To Legal Practice

Students do not want to get involved in the running of a university, any more than diners want to get involved with the operation of a restaurant. But if you have to eat there and service has taken a nosedive, and you got a bit of food poisoning last time, you might just feel the need to get involved. 

The situation at the University of Tasmania’s law school has reached the point where students feel they must become much more actively involved. While there are numerous symptoms the cause is the same, total disinterest in communication. The senior administration issues directives without any consultation with students or faculty. Not even a heads-up. There is no interest in discussing decisions which significantly impact our education.

The most public example was the University’s decision to change from the current locally run Legal Practice Course (LPC) to an online, mainland provider. This move was met with substantial concern from the Tasmanian legal community. The sudden change was made without any forewarning or explanation. Numerous students only learnt about this from the recent news articles. Even today, the law school has not sent students even an email about this decision.

LPC or Practical Legal Training (PLT) is the final academic stage before a lawyer is admitted into the legal profession and practice law. As the name suggests, the focus of this five-month course is to develop practical legal skills. The current course, the only one in Tasmania, receives immense support and interaction from the Tasmanian legal community, from lawyers through to magistrates and even judges. It builds skills in-person, such as oral advocacy or client negotiations, alongside others beginning their legal careers. It introduces new graduates to Tasmanian firms, where they can serve their work experience, and offers them unique employment opportunities. 

An online course offers none of this. Conducted online, graduates would be placed in digital rooms with other graduates from across Australia. This compromises the development of in-person legal skills, such as speaking before a judge in court. An online course also cannot facilitate close connections with the local legal profession to the same degree, since the only people involved are mainland educators and other students. Even worse, a generalised course is taught, likely focusing on Victoria or New South Wales’ legislation. Tasmanian legislation will be paid lip-service.  

Following strong publicised pushback, the University recently agreed to run the in-person course again next year. We feel this is not enough. The initial decision to change the course was made without any discussion or indication to students. That is the problem. The University could simply decide to unilaterally end the in-person course again next year, just as they tried to do this time.

Ending the in-person course will impact the entire Tasmanian community. When a lawyer is forced to check whether what they’ve been taught applies in Tasmania or if there is different legislation, the client is being billed for the time. When a lawyer needs to reach out to another side’s representatives and doesn’t know them, negotiations can be prolonged, costing all sides more money. Without such a close-knit group, legal professions may not be able to quickly recommend appropriately specialised lawyers or offer a friend who works in community legal services pro bono assistance in a crucial case.

What would an online course offer? In defending the decision to shift online on ABC Radio Hobart’s ‘Mornings’, the Dean of the Law School, Professor Michael Stuckey, argued that it improved flexibility and accessibility as well as that “the world is moving more and more into digital spaces…[and] we’ve got to be part of that movement, lest we become less relevant to society”. 

Flexibility and accessibility are key considerations, as the new online course will have two intakes a year and can be attended anywhere with an internet connection. The current course only operates once a year and occurs in Hobart. The key problem here is that if graduates need flexibility, they can enrol in an online LPC/PLT course themselves. There is no need to shut down the current course. Indeed, that decision limits choice and flexibility because graduates will have no alternative to an online course. Moreover, legal professionals are still required to be in certain places at certain times, even in this new digital age. The current course’s additional opportunities to be punctual and professional in-person would be useful in a course teaching practical skills. 

To reiterate, there is no reason that the current course and the new course could not co-exist. Students who wished to take the in-person, current course could do so. Those who graduate in the middle of the year and do not want to wait for the in-person course or cannot take the Hobart one, can simply take an online one. They do not need to take this course through the University of Tasmania if they do not wish to. Students are already voting with their feet and their money, with the current course enjoying a significantly higher than average enrollment this year.

The need to engage in digital spaces argument is a strange one. The shift from conducting a course in the flesh to online does not fundamentally alter the content of the course. If Fullers Bookshop hosts a staff meeting on Zoom or Skype, they are not suddenly an e-bookstore. Similarly, just because a law course is taught online does not mean it is more sensitive to the impact of digital technology. It is not as though the online course will impart coding skills through osmosis. Content which could be taught in person will simply be taught online. Furthermore, it is almost certain that recent graduates, particularly those who have had to study digitally over the pandemic, will have a firmer grasp than much of the legal workforce on telecommunication technologies. So, it is unclear what educational advantage is being gained by conducting the course online.

Given the University has agreed to run the course in-person next year, it appears arguments about flexibility, accessibility, and digital engagement were not sufficient to justify switching the course online next year. We agree. Further, unless and until something significantly changes, the arguments remain unpersuasive even past 2023. There is no reason why the University should not commit to the in-person course for future years. Moreover, if the time comes to consider switching the course, the University must consult those who are most directly impacted by the decision — students.

It would be remiss not to mention the question of cost. The two largest online providers of PLT are LeoCussen and the College of Law. The current Tasmanian course, which includes the mandatory work experience element, costs approximately $14,500. LeoCussen offers its online course for almost $10,800 and a ‘face to face’ course consisting of two days in-person and one day a week online for about $11,500. The College of Law course, which is purely online, is about $11,200, including the legally required work experience element. The College of Law course was the one which was suggested to be the provider of the new course. So the difference between the current course and the online one would be $3,300.

For that $3,300, students are getting an education delivered by legal and judicial professionals. They are meeting and interacting with the Tasmanian legal community, including law firms. They are getting to know potential employers and demonstrate their abilities. They are actually experiencing, in-person, how legal work is performed. That is, the practical legal training is providing real-life experience of how the law practically operates. They are getting employment opportunities which are highly likely to result in jobs.

The University’s unilateral decision-making confuses us and increases uncertainty around future pathways into the law. It minimises students who wish to practice law in Tasmania. Crucially, it is not just the decision but the lack of communication around the decision which has made it so difficult to understand. It undermines the legal education in this state incredibly.

Sincerely,

Concerned students.