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LIV President's Blog 2012

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A medical cure for the RRR lawyer drought

A medical cure for the RRR lawyer drought

A scheme in the medical profession for training doctors may offer a solution to the looming crisis for access to justice in rural, regional and remote areas.

In recent years, the number of law graduates has increased considerably while the rate of law graduates entering the legal profession is a mere 36%. Meanwhile, a crisis looms in rural, regional and remote (RRR) areas, the result of the confluence of an ageing population of legal practitioners, frustrated succession planning and difficulty in attracting and retaining young lawyers. The law would do well to look to other professions for guidance.

‘Brain drain’ and ageing populations have plagued many RRR communities and professions. Many other professions have found solutions to these issues. Graduate teachers have been placed in RRR communities for decades. The medical profession, notably, found a resolution to the issue in 2003 in the form of ‘Bonded Medical Places’ (BMPs).

‘Bonded Medical Places’
Under a national scheme, a percentage of students accepted into medical programs at Australian universities are offered BMPs. On acceptance, students complete their degree over approximately six years, undertaking work experience over breaks in rural areas and committing to work in a rural area for six years after graduation. If that student does not meet that post-graduation commitment, they are obligated to pay back the cost of their training, around $80,000, within 20 years.

Transferability to the law
While the medical profession is distinct from the legal profession in many aspects, particularly in being more vocationally specialised and institutionally-concentrated (there is no ‘law base hospital’), there are also many similarities. Both are exclusive disciplines to study at the tertiary level and provide a highly-regarded skill set. Both also contribute substantially to their local communities. For example, the Law Council of Australia found in 2009 that 51% of RRR lawyers accepted legal aid work, with the majority accepting 30+ cases per year.

Bonding students to a particular career justifiably elicits responses of repugnance. There are certainly complications with introducing such a system for law. For example, many law students do not intend to practise; the coordination of places would be more difficult in the relatively decentralised legal profession; and the costs of training a lawyer are much lower, so that the ensuing obligation of a place will be less prohibitive to break. There are, however, law students who would leap at an opportunity to have pre-penultimate year work experience, the costs of Practical Legal Training (PLT) covered and a guaranteed job on graduation. Thus “bonding” may not be necessary.

Willing students
Nationally, several universities (including Monash, Melbourne and RMIT) now offer FEE-HELP places (for those who aren’t offered one of the limited government-funded HECS places) but the FEE-HELP loan limit often does not cover the full cost of the degree. Therefore, these students are required to pay a deficit of between $5,000-13,000 upfront in order to graduate.

Additionally, as their FEE-HELP loan limit is exhausted before graduation, these students cannot defer the costs of PLT under FEE-HELP. This can generate in excess of $25000 of purely education expenses which must be paid at the start of their careers. Aside from the issue of discouraging graduates from seeking admission and particular occupations, this cost is prohibitive for many and, if allowed to continue, will further entrench privilege in the legal community. Additionally, international students may be interested in rural access places if they were a means to gaining permanent residency.

When people don’t know the facts, as with RRR amongst law students, they will speculate, for better or for worse. Students placed in RRR communities may establish a personal bond with those communities and their practitioners, facilitating meaningful succession planning and improved awareness of RRR opportunities amongst their peers.

The medical cure
It is worth exploring a rural access system for law students. Such a system, based on the medical profession’s and adapted for our profession, could create opportunities for students, address issues of access to education and resolve the looming RRR crisis.

What can the legal profession do to ensure equal access to legal education?

Patrick Easton is a third-year JD student at Melbourne Law School and the President of the Melbourne University Law Students' Society. The views expressed are wholly those of the author. List of references may be provided upon request.

 
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Judith Gammie
Great article, Patrick. The LIV has been campaigning for similar concessions for law students and lawyers in rural, regional and remote areas that have been provided to the medical profession for quite some time. We have also been asking the Government to offer HECS and FEE-HELP concessions for graduates who undertake work in RRR areas.
28/05/2013 9:38:26 AM

Greg Prosser
It is not an illusion. I work in Shepparton and many of the firms take on trainees and year 1 lawyers.
A smart young lawyer would find that working outside the metro area is rewarding in both life balance and potential income. There is plenty of work in all areas of law plus real support from fellow practitioners.
24/05/2013 6:51:59 PM

Richard
There is always some danger in generalising about rural and regional as a generic space and that all communities within that space are faced with the same problems. A study by the NSW Law and Justice Foundation, which followed the Law Council's 2009 Lawyers Survey, indicated that, at least for NSW, shortfalls in the availability of lawyers in regional communities is nuanced and not evenly spread. While there has been little study of variations across Victoria, I don't imagine that we are much different to NSW in this respect. While a financial incentive to attract lawyers to regional areas is worth considering, this tool by itself may be a fairly blunt instrument in attracting practitioners long term to communities in which they are needed. We do however know that there is an overall imbalance in the ratio of lawyers to populations in regional compared to metro areas which needs to be addressed. Addressing this effectively means a number of approaches. Support through more formalised mentoring schemes between senior regional lawyers and recent graduates, more active marketing activities to attract graduates to regional areas, more active professional development programs directed to recent graduate lawyers in regional areas and better preparation by universities of graduates considering working in regional communities, are just a few ways of building incentives and a confidence to practice regionally. The diversity of practice opportunities and quality of life incentives could also be better articulated to graduates.

Deakin University- Centre for Rural Regional Law and Justice
24/05/2013 5:16:19 PM

DM
KL I guarantee the crisis is not just an illusion. I am a young lawyer in an RRR area and in the next 10 years I foresee a lot of firms closing or merging due to a total lack of up and coming young lawyers. There are few firms with young partners and genuine succession plans. The biggest fear of RRR firms is that people who are not from RRR areas will come for a free traineeship then race back to the city at their first opportunity. There is a crisis of trust. Remuneration in RRR areas is also less and I maintain that if you pay peanuts you get monkeys but unproven graduates may think they should be paid a premium because they have a law degree, even more so in RRR areas I think you have to prove your worth. I think the problem is also compounded because RRR firms perhaps don’t know how to attract lawyers to stay.

There are plenty of saleable attributes of these areas, interesting hands-on legal work and great work-life balance but how do you get that through to university students who have dreams of suits in the CBD and glamourous city legal careers. Law in the country is somewhat less glamourous but it’s definitely rewarding.

From my personal experience relocating away from family, friends, facilities and activities I enjoyed was really hard. Many young people don’t just uproot their whole lives to get a job. I think there is an expectation that they have a valuable prestigious degree and it should get them a job where they choose. I think the increase in the number of universities offering law has contributed to a flooding of the market with graduates in contrast to the reduced jobs on offer for graduates/young lawyers in the city. I don’t think I appreciated the value of my work and the privilege of having a job as a lawyer until I had done it for a few years.
24/05/2013 2:04:44 PM

DM
KL I guarantee the crisis is not just an illusion. I am a young lawyer in an RRR area and in the next 10 years I foresee a lot of firms closing or merging due to a total lack of up and coming young lawyers. There are few firms with young partners and genuine succession plans. The biggest fear of RRR firms is that people who are not from RRR areas will come for a free traineeship then race back to the city at their first opportunity. There is a crisis of trust. Remuneration in RRR areas is also less and I maintain that if you pay peanuts you get monkeys but unproven graduates may think they should be paid a premium because they have a law degree, even more so in RRR areas I think you have to prove your worth. I think the problem is also compounded because RRR firms perhaps don’t know how to attract lawyers to stay.

There are plenty of saleable attributes of these areas, interesting hands-on legal work and great work-life balance but how do you get that through to university students who have dreams of suits in the CBD and glamourous city legal careers. Law in the country is somewhat less glamourous but it’s definitely rewarding.

From my personal experience relocating away from family, friends, facilities and activities I enjoyed was really hard. Many young people don’t just uproot their whole lives to get a job. I think there is an expectation that they have a valuable prestigious degree and it should get them a job where they choose. I think the increase in the number of universities offering law has contributed to a flooding of the market with graduates in contrast to the reduced jobs on offer for graduates/young lawyers in the city. I don’t think I appreciated the value of my work and the privilege of having a job as a lawyer until I had done it for a few years.
24/05/2013 12:55:43 PM

John Anderson
As someone who is employed in the health sector, worked in rural Victoria for 5 years and a fellow JD student (RMIT) I feel sufficiently informed to cast an opinion. It should also be noted that the Commonwealth also offers a number of other benefits for working in RRR beyond the bonded program for students as medical specialists also have access to benefits including relocation expenses, incentive payments for years of practice in RRR etc. Where law and medicine differs is the dominant role government plays in funding and price-setting in health care - hence they (historically) feel a greater role in supporting the development of workforce (and not just in medicine).

However, a further emerging trend is that universities have significantly increased the number of places for medicine and law in recent years (many with new faculties) and the massive job cuts in the legal sector suddenly make RRR look a lot more attractive. Many of the new medical schools have been established in RRR areas. Consequently, I don't think it either, is or will be a workforce problem for much longer? A more cost-effective way could be to offer placements with experienced lawyers in RRR settings for which students would get credit. It might not appeal to all, but for full-time students at the end of the course it could be an attractive opportunity, especially if a job offer comes out of it!

At the risk of offending some, I have seen no promotion of RRR practice since commencing my studies, but would say that a partial motivation to do law came from interacting with a talented lawyer in rural Victoria.

As has been the experience with doctors, offering places to students from RRR areas who meet the entry criteria has played an important role in them returning 'home' in the future. I suspect that legal roles in RRR may not be advertised so much is because of local relationships, local job ads, targeted recruitment and good old fashion - word of mouth!

I commend Deakin University for establishing the Centre for Rural Regional Law and Justice and hopefully they will comment on this blog and if any research is being done on legal workforce - current status and trends (not just lawyers) in RRR areas.
24/05/2013 12:03:29 PM

EM
I agree with KL's comment. The Young Lawyers need only to talk to those young lawyers that have left RRR practices to find out why and what the real problems are. I am of the view that a lot of capable, eager young lawyers have passed through the doors of many RRR practices without being developed into future partners of the practice.
24/05/2013 11:41:20 AM

KL
I doubt there is a crisis in RRR areas in terms of a shortage of Legal Practitioners, as I find it very rare to see any job adverts for Junior or graduate lawyers in RRR areas. However, if there is a perceived crisis, then the practitioners in these areas are creating that crisis by not employing or not having a recruitment or succession program. During my previous job searches of RRR areas, all I found was the usual positions for a 2 yrs plus PQE which suggest they are not interested in providing any training or mentoring, and prefer someone that can come into the firm and work without supervision. Whilst the article may have some facts to it and that there will be a crisis in the future, current law practices in RRR areas do nothing about it because they either do not want to supervise a new lawyer with a provisional practice certificate or they simply don't have the work load to afford extra lawyers but instead employ law clerks. The perception I get is that there are no opportunities in RRR areas due to the fact that there is either insufficient demand for services or they are simply running their practices very lean. Therefore, it is my view that the suggestion of developing a bonded placement would not work in the Legal Profession as RRR practitioners are not willing to participate. I was a new lawyer very much interested in working in RRR areas but just could not find any opportunities so I am on the belief that the crisis is just an illusion.
23/05/2013 10:17:14 PM

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