Developing skilled lawyers with good conscience
For many years, lawyers have featured prominently on lists of the least trusted professions, alongside the likes of bankers, politicians and journalists.
You could easily lay some of the blame for this at the feet of television courtroom dramas that depict lawyers as antagonistic, argumentative, adversarial and – let’s face it – arrogant.
“There’s no doubt that bad TV shows have played a role in reinforcing these negative perceptions of lawyers,” says Laurence Boulle, an Adjunct Professor at ACU’s Thomas More Law School.
“But I also think the legal profession acknowledges it ranks rather low on the scale of honourable occupations, and that it needs to improve itself.”
A major part of problem, says Professor Boulle, is the conflict between “the old notion of law as a profession, with strong social and ethical ideals, and the modern reality that law is also a business, which needs to operate with business principles”.
While the tension between these moral and financial imperatives remains, nowadays there’s a greater emphasis on the importance of ethics, and much more transparency in what lawyers do.
Alongside this increased openness and accountability, there’s been a concerted effort to repair the profession’s image.
Many law schools are leading the way in helping to sharpen the profession’s ethical focus.
“Law is a combination of technical legal skills and a set of values within which those skills operate, which includes the obligation to support a client through thick and thin, and a broader social obligation to do pro bono work,” Professor Boulle says.
“A lot of that starts in law school, and ACU’s Refugee Law Project actually satisfies both of those aspects.”
Undergraduates at the Thomas More Law School are required to do at least 80 hours of pro bono service during their degree.
Many choose to do this through the Refugee Law Project, in which students assist qualified lawyers to provide free legal support to asylum seekers — some of whom have very little faith in the legal process.
This requires both fine-tuned legal skills and a sound sense of ethical duty.
“You’ve got law students interacting directly with asylum seekers and refugees, hearing their stories and connecting with their situation, and I think that direct contact tends to change people’s perspectives quite profoundly,” says Boulle, who has supported Barrister Victor Kline, founder of the scheme, in its administration.
“But they’re also operating in an area of law that is actually quite technical, requiring a good knowledge of case law, the constitutional basics and a narrow area of law called ‘jurisdiction error’. So it’s a very well-rounded program that enhances that technical side, while evolving the values system in these students.”
The result is the development of skilled and confident law graduates with an enhanced moral compass. Graduates like Foday Sesay, who made significant contributions to refugee advocacy during his time with the project, and Frances Coyne, who made a major breakthrough in the program during her law degree at ACU’s North Sydney Campus.
“You meet these people, hear their stories and many of them are quite sad,” said Coyne, who participated in the project in 2019.
“To be involved in a favourable outcome for the client is great for the soul.”
Good stories like this are important to the profession, but also to society, because the distrust of the legal system can have widespread repercussions.
“The law is an indispensible framework of social, political and economic life, and there’s a great reliance on it,” Professor Boulle says.
“So when the legal system is seen as something not to be trusted, as are many institutions are in this day and age, it has wider implications for society as a whole.”
He says modern-day law students are learning their craft in an environment that values a lawyer’s ability to negotiate, mediate and conciliate.
“One of the biggest shifts, and something that I've been doing for a long time, is moving from the notion of lawyers being argumentative, adversarial and antagonistic, towards them being problem-solvers,” says Professor Boulle, who has held academic positions at four Australian law schools and taught at universities in New Zealand, the Pacific, Africa and Europe.
“This makes the professional identity of lawyers much more positive. It brings in both the technical capacity needed to be a skilled lawyer, and also an adjustment of the moral compass towards human needs and social systems.”
The reality is far more wholesome than the combative lawyer seen in clichéd courtroom television dramas.
“The vast majority of law students graduate with a great sense of purpose,” Boulle says, “and they go on to use the skills and knowledge they’ve acquired to stand up for the things that really matter.”
Laurence Boulle is Adjunct Professor of Law at ACU’s Thomas More Law School and a member of the Refugee Law Project. He has published extensively in constitutional law, employment law, mediation and ADR, and international investment law and globalisation. He practices as a mediator.
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