Re-imagining Legal Education in Australia

By Associate Professor Pip Nicholson

The 'new' Melbourne Law School JD, introduced in 2008, replaces the longstanding and widely respected LLB1 as the Law School's primary degree leading to qualification for practice. It also builds on the Melbourne Law School's ('MLS') prior experience in JD teaching developed since 2000 when it first introduced a JD program. MLS 's commitment to the graduate teaching of law, leading to admission to practice in Victoria and, by mutual recognition, around Australia, was supported by over 60 faculty at a day-long conference in late 2005; effectively the faculty declared the need to rethink legal education creatively in Australia.

Faculty staff well understood the pedagogical benefits of full-time graduate legal education over the fragmented study of law in combined degrees: ordinarily around 90% of LLB students are enrolled in combined degrees, effectively as part-time law students for their first three years.

Further, having graduate students in the law classroom ensures a range of perspectives inform class debate, radically enriching student learning. The multidisciplined student body ensures an interdisciplinary discussion between students. To take just one example, I witnessed graduates in their first law subject in February this year debate the role of the State in the protection of lives, assets and the bush after the 'Black Saturday' bushfires. The discussion drew on experience, but also offered economic, scientific and political analyses of the role of government.

To allow MLS to develop legal teaching based on key attributes of the student cohort, it developed new selection principles. First, selected students would be intellectual leaders from their respective undergraduate degrees and, in many cases, graduate study as well (19% of the JD students selected in 2009 had a graduate qualification), continuing the long tradition of MLS attracting excellent students. Secondly, students would have a compelling commitment and passion for the study of law. Finally, language skills needed to be assured.

With very few exceptions, the ENTER score of school leavers is no longer the pathway to MLS.  Instead, seeking to attract highly motivated students from diverse backgrounds, evidencing high intellectual capability and excellent fluency in English, the MLS Selection Panel3  now relies on three selection criteria based on the principles above. No one criteria is determinative: intellectual excellence, as evidenced by a student's tertiary studies;  satisfactory  completion of the Law School Admission Test (which, in turn, enables the selection committee to assess students' analytical capacity under exam conditions); and an 850 -word personal  statement.

Further, social cohesion and a 'real' cohort experience, both possible where students all come to the Law School as graduates and commence the full-time study of law, provides a bedrock to further engage students intellectually and socially in their studies.

Building on this potential for intimacy and exchange between students, commencing class sizes for the two-week intensive subject Legal Method and Reasoning are capped at 30. Students are then largely in classes of between 20 and 60 students for the remainder of their degree. The class size ensures students hone their legal reading and writing skills. The commitment to classes of this size is a feature of the JD program.

Students remain in the same cohort for a semester (ensuring they share most compulsory classes with the same group of 30 – 60 for a 12-week block) and are further organised into syndicates (groups of four to six students) which work to prepare class materials, lead class discussion and in some cases undertake assessment. Syndicate-based  learning  produces graduates well-prepared for 21st century work practices where experts are frequently found working in multidisciplinary teams. Students are also offered mentoring in the first year of their program (see story on page 16).

In their final year, JD students undertake a compulsory legal research subject, working with an academic and a group of their peers on an approved research project. Each student is concurrently completing their own research (often an 8,000- word paper), but is part of a broader intellectual collaboration, so that the students benefit from understanding the many ways in which one issue can be analysed and understood. In 2009, projects include the study of 'Ethics in Large Law Firms' and 'The Coroner's Court in Law and Society: Role, Function and Structure'; each led by a leading authority who stewards the student researchers also ensuring a cross-fertilisation of ideas.

Beyond the reconceived 17- course core curriculum, JD students at Melbourne can elect specialist options, including by taking Master's-level courses in an unparalleled range of fields. The Law School offers exchange opportunities with many of the world's finest law schools, as well as the only opportunity for Australians to study at the path-breaking Centre for Transnational Legal Studies in London. And Melbourne Law School affords its students the chance to secure a joint degree in law with such leading global law faculties as the New York University Law School.

The three-year JD program, which can be accelerated and completed in two or two and a half years, also affords students sufficient time to become fully active in Law School life (see story on page 11). JD students are also working beside LLB students on journals and in MLS competitions, maximising the opportunities offered by co-curricular activities. They are assisted in this by having already succeeded in the transition to tertiary study and by not concurrently studying for another degree. 

MLS is confident that the JD program offers the best opportunities available in Australia for the study of law and that it will continue to develop an enviable international reputation.

The final intake of LLB students was in 2007 and the Law School will continue to teach LLB students through to completion – at least until 2013.
2 There is one exception to this approach. MLS currently has a guaranteed pathway to a Commonwealth Supported Place for secondary students achieving a score of 99.9 and undertaking tertiary studies at the University of Melbourne who obtain a 75 point average in their tertiary studies. The first intake of students via this route will be in 2011. Students with an ENTER over 99.0 are guaranteed a full-fee place.
3 The selection committee comprises the Dean, Deputy Dean and several senior academics and is chaired by the Associate Dean (JD).

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 2, September 2009.