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From the President: Advance Australian lawyers

Every Issue

Cite as: (2003) 77(8) LIJ, p.4

The law institute needs to make a place for itself in a national legal profession.

As moves towards a national legal profession continue, the Law Institute must make changes if it is to remain relevant to major firms. It must be able to offer the firms something that they cannot achieve on their own. At the same time, it must remain relevant to the state-based firms, particularly those in the suburbs and regional Victoria.

The commonwealth Attorney-General has released the draft Model Bill for a national legal profession. The Legal Practitioners Act will be the first national legislation governing lawyers in Australia. It must be regarded as one of the major achievements of the commonwealth Attorney-General and a significant step forward for the legal profession in Australia. The Bill contains more than 1400 sections spread over 240 pages. It is a mammoth read and a real challenge for the professional associations in Australia to digest and comment on.

I am particularly grateful to the major firms in Victoria which have taken on the task of commenting on specific areas of the Bill.

This development focuses our minds on what is rapidly emerging as a national legal profession in Australia. Gone are the days of lawyers being restricted by state boundaries. Sensibly, we are now moving to a profession where lawyers in Australia can practise in any state.

The challenge for the professional associations and regulators is to ensure that the organisation and control of the legal profession nationally is at least consistent from state to state and territory, if not exactly the same. With more than 70 per cent of Australia’s lawyers working in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland, it is important that those three states, at least, have a consistent system for the organisation and regulation of the legal profession.

Three weeks ago, Institute Council members under took a full-day strategy meeting to consider how the Institute can continue to be relevant to all lawyers in Victoria. Those recommendations are being fed through to Council as part of the policy development process.

The Model Bill is an example of where the Institute can be relevant and provide an opportunity for national firms to contribute.

The current crisis in professional legal training for law graduates also provides the Institute with an opportunity to offer training to law graduates. This will enable them to be admitted to practice and thus be employed by firms which perhaps cannot or are unwilling to take on as many articled clerks as they have in the past.

The Institute also has a role in offering compulsory professional development for all Victorian lawyers.

Although many firms offer these programs internally, there are plenty that do not – particularly small and medium-sized city, suburban and country firms. The Institute has a real role here to provide meaningful relevant courses to country and suburban lawyers.

It is also important for us to think about how the Institute interrelates with law societies in other states. As we move to a national profession, it would appear to make sense to share resources and develop a common image for law societies in Australia. Why, for example, could we not consider the concept of an “Australian Law Society” or “Lawyers Australia” with branches in each state? Could not this body be resourced from each of the state branches with every lawyer in Australia a member?

Would this lead to better coordinated national campaigns on issues such as tort law reform, legal aid, the ASIO Bill and whatever else the commonwealth government throws up? It would surely give us a stronger negotiating position and more clout, not just with government but with those who would seek to change the way legal practice is carried on, such as the medical profession and the insurance industry. I suspect we can learn much about running national campaigns from these better organised and resourced interest groups.

Many other national organisations with state branches already operate through a similar structure. The trouble with our law societies is that they have all grown up on a state-by-state basis, in much the same way as the colonies in Australia evolved before federation. Perhaps it is time for us to concentrate on improving our own efficiencies and develop a national approach with Australian lawyers being members of a single national body administered in each state. In that way we would speak with one voice and those firms that practise across state boundaries would feel even more involved with the profession as a whole.

A top-down rather than a bottom-up approach might be just what we need to take our profession forward in this new century.

Bill O’shea


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