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New education program for specialists

News

Cite as: (2003) 77(4) LIJ, p.28

An in-depth series of practice briefings and education forums are part of an expanded specialist education program offered by the Law Institute to practitioners.

Legal practitioners seeking accreditation this year are taking advantage of the Law Institute’s extensive new education and support program designed for specialists. The extended program will give a greater insight into what practitioners can expect when they sit exams and will also create an awareness of the process for younger practitioners considering specialisation as part of their career development.

Accreditation exams will be held later this year in the areas of mediation, family law, environment and planning, personal injury, taxation, property and commercial tenancy law. In addition, for the first time since accreditation was introduced in 1989, practitioners can become specialists in workplace relations.

In fact, workplace relations will be the area of law used to trial the Institute’s new education program.

Institute director of professional development and specialisation Murray Paterson said the regular seminars traditionally provided by the Institute for practitioners would continue, but a more formal and in-depth series of practice briefings and specialist forums had begun.

Practice briefings will be held from 1pm to allow practitioners to attend during their lunch break. These one-hour briefings give practitioners an idea of the level of competency required for those seeking accreditation. Eighty practitioners attended the first of these briefings in February.

Specialist forums exploring key areas of the law will also be held this year. At these one-day and half-day forums practitioners will be made aware of the study commitment required to sit the exams and will be assisted to manage the demands of work and study. Importantly, the forums will examine key issues within an area of law and will also include workshop discussions of case studies and scenarios which expand on these issues. Two forums covering workplace relations and family law are already scheduled, with more likely this year.

“The forums are designed to move the participants from receiving information passively to actively debating complex legal issues. Ideally, participants will leave feeling they have been challenged, but will come away with a new insight or expanded knowledge,” Mr Paterson said.

The first forum, focusing on workplace relations, will be held in April. Mr Paterson said the addition of workplace relations to the list of specialist areas was an indication of the evolving nature of the law and society, and a response to a growing demand from practitioners to be able to demonstrate their level of expertise with formal credentials.

Chris Molnar, a partner and team leader with Harmers Workplace Lawyers, is chair of the first Workplace Relations Specialisation Advisory Committee, which has recently completed the assessment guidelines. The assessment will comprise three components: a written examination, an advocacy exercise and written submissions in conjunction with the advocacy exercise. Mr Molnar said extensive work had gone into preparing the assessment guidelines and the seminar program. The forums would provide an excellent grounding for those seeking accreditation, he said.

Victoria now joins NSW as the only state to offer specialisation in workplace relations. The Advisory Committee is currently discussing continuing legal education (CLE) events for accredited specialists in 2004, which may include breakfast briefings or after-work functions.

The three assessment components for the workplace relations accreditation, as well as exams for the other areas of law, will occur about August and September, giving practitioners time to prepare.

Tim McFarlane, of McFarlane Legal, who gained accreditation in mediation in 1993, said preparation time was necessary, particularly if participants had a long break between university study and accreditation. After a gap of 12 years, he found the return to study daunting, but said it enhanced his knowledge and understanding more than he had anticipated. Mr McFarlane said the focus on the academic basis of law after many years in practice would benefit all practitioners and was a good reason to consider accreditation.

Bendigo family law specialist Marika McMahon said accreditation forced her to assess her own weaknesses before setting a study regime in preparation for the exam. Preparing for the interview exercise was confronting as she had always considered her ability to communicate with people as one of her strengths.

“It really made me more conscious of how I spoke to clients and what sort of language I was using,” Ms McMahon said. She spent six months preparing for specialisation and recruited other practitioners in the area to form a study group, which worked well and helped create a benchmark of skill. Ms McMahon, a partner with O’Farrell Robertson McMahon, gained accreditation in 2001. She cited organisation and planning as the two most important study tips.

Family law, first accredited in 1989, is usually one of the biggest areas of speciality with up to 40 practitioners seeking accreditation. There are currently 694 accredited solicitors in Victoria and 172 are family law specialists. Other specialties attracting high numbers of candidates include business (98), criminal (94), personal injury (73) and commercial litigation (60).

The chair of the Specialisation Board, Annemaree Lanteri, said accreditation was important for solicitors because it improved their skills and level of service to clients. It also gave practitioners the chance to have those skills formally recognised within the marketplace. Over the years specialist lawyers had become a “selling point” for many firms because it separated the specialists from others working in the area.

Marketing was certainly a motive for Paul Henderson, a personal injury specialist at Slater & Gordon, who was accredited in the first personal injury law accreditation exam in 1993. He worked across several jurisdictions at the time and thought it was important to “freshen up” as well as show other younger practitioners in the firm that accreditation was worth achieving. Mr Henderson said marketing did not have the focus in 1993 that it had now, but he had been confident, even then, that specialisation would be a way for clients to recognise a level of skill.

He said it also gave peers more confidence when they referred a client to a specialist practitioner. Mr Henderson said specialisation had developed into a culture at Slater & Gordon and study groups within the firm were now a regular part of the preparation for accreditation.

Ms Lanteri said specialisation was also an important “defensive” marketing tool for lawyers working in country and regional areas. It not only forced them to keep up with changes and maintain a high standard, but it showed clients within that community that they did not have to go to Melbourne to find experts.

Certainly, for Ms McMahon it was important that local firms were seen to be as competent as their colleagues two hours down the road. Once accreditation is achieved it must be maintained with CLE, such as attending or presenting at conferences, writing papers for legal journals and providing training within firms. This education is closely monitored in the first three years and newly accredited specialists must keep a journal.

“One thing we particularly want to put more effort into at the Institute is to provide greater support for specialists once they have achieved their accreditation. We plan to provide greater opportunities for CLE at a specialist level, and provide marketing support and access to tools and information that specialists can use to further support their practice,” Mr Paterson said.

Jason Silverii

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