Australian Law Schools Are Out of Touch
By Brendan O'Keefe
The Australian

May 19, 2004

AUSTRALIA'S law schools need to teach more people-skills and stop relying on the "drumming in" of case-related rules if they are to keep up with the real world, the nation's top law reformer has said.

Australian Law Reform Commission president David Weisbrot started Law Week in NSW on Monday with an attack on the way law was taught in universities, saying that "the level of repetitive detail" was turning eager young students into time-servers late in their degrees.

Professor Weisbrot, a former dean of the Sydney Law School, said a recent study by the commission, Managing Justice, found that while the profession had changed dramatically, the teaching of it was still too much "chalk and talk".

Universities needed to focus more on "professional ethics, dispute resolution, negotiations, client interviewing, working with teams [and] having a greater identification with client interests", Professor Weisbrot told the HES.

"If what you're doing is teaching law students to remember rules from cases, you're not giving them much of an intellectual skill.

"You'd be better off teaching them the people stuff and then teaching them how to do all the legal research they need to do to find the law in every particular context.

"My personal view is that [law schools] would be better off offering fewer electives at the undergraduate level, offering some of those specialisations at the postgraduate level and making sure that people graduating with an LLB get those generic professional skills."

One university to take up the commission's recommendations, the Queensland University of Technology, had won a national law teaching award, he said.

Professor Weisbrot has called for the formation of a national law academy to address curriculum shortfalls.

"It will be a forum for Australia's leading lawyers, judges and legal academics to talk about the most important issues facing the profession, including legal education," he said.

"It won't have any compulsory powers but we hope that by dint of the quality of people involved that it will be very persuasive in trying to push these ideas about where legal education should be headed."

Council of Australian Law Deans convenor David Barker supported Professor Weisbrot.

Professor Barker, dean of law at the University of Technology, Sydney, said: "What we desperately need is a coming together of the judiciary, the legal profession and law academics, so we can really develop legal education and research and have a synergy between the three strands."

Professor Weisbrot said he hoped an academy, to be modelled on national academies of science and social science, would be up and running in about three months.

"We're now approaching a number of very senior academics and distinguished judges to form the core group of fellows to get the thing organised, after which we'll start to build membership by election," Professor Weisbrot said.