The 5 stages to being able to practice as a Lawyer
Table of Contents
Stage One: Graduate with a Law Degree
The first stage of becoming a lawyer in a state or territory jurisdiction is to complete a law degree. Students need to complete either a Bachelor of Laws (“LLB”) or a Juris Doctor (“JD”) to graduate with an ‘eligible law degree’.
An eligible law degree indicates a degree that meets the requirements when an individual applies to the Supreme Court to become a lawyer. A law degree needs to be approved to be considered an eligible law degree – generally by the Chief Justice in the individual’s state or territory – in practice, however, any LLB or JD that is offered at an Australian university can be assumed to be approved. The differences between the LLB and JD are explained below.
Bachelor of Laws (LLB)
An LLB can be completed by undergraduate or graduate students. Undergraduate students must undertake an LLB program to complete an eligible law degree. Postgraduate students can undertake an LLB degree and apply for ‘advanced standing’ which reduces the number of subjects a student needs to complete in the LLB program (normally around a 25% reduction). Advanced standing reflects the skills developed in previously completed tertiary studies.
Normally, however, universities either have a dedicated LLB (Graduate Entry) or “LLB (Grad Entry)” course that postgraduate students may be eligible for, or alternatively (or in conjunction with) offering postgraduate students the JD program. The LLB and LLB (Grad Entry) are the same qualification (i.e. students are awarded a ‘Bachelor of Laws’) and are classed as a level 7 course by the Australian Qualifications Framework (“AQF”); the AQF provides national regulation and recognition for qualifications in Australia.
Students that graduate with a Bachelor of Laws (with Honours) will achieve a level 8 on the AQF scale.
Unlike the LLB degree only postgraduate students can undertake a JD. The JD is a much newer degree in Australia.
In 2001 a total of around 143 students were enrolled in a JD program which was only offered by the University of Queensland (with 113 students) and the University of Melbourne (with around 30 students). This can be compared to 27,190 students enrolled in an LLB program within Australia in that same year.
Although the Juris Doctor and the LLB (Grad Entry) degrees both lead to admission, the Juris Doctor is a higher-level course – it is normally considered to be a Masters degree and a level 9 on the AQF scale. However, there has been criticism that the JD programs at universities share little difference with the LLB course. One course coordinator has been said to have stated: “They (JD and LLB) have the same course content, the same expectations, the same everything”.
The AQF has since created a new category of master’s specifically for the JD called a ‘Masters Degree (Extended)’.
Although separating between the LLB and JD programs may help identify postgraduate students reskilling in the area of law, it is immaterial as to what type of eligible degree a student obtains when determining if they can be a lawyer.
Stage Two: Practical Legal Training
The second stage required to be completed by a lawyer is the Practical Legal Training (“PLT”) program. There are different options as to how a student can complete PLT.
Primarily, students undertake a Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice (“GDLP”), with a handful of students completing an articles of clerkship or similar program. PLT is specifically designed to prepare students to practice law.
Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice
The GDLP provides a bridge between what students learn in their undergraduate students to what they might expect to be doing in legal practice. Scenarios that can be expected in legal practice may include: doing a property conveyance, preparing a claim and statement of claim, writing a Will, and writing letters of advice.
The GDLP program also requires a student be placed in a law firm for a varying level of time – generally between 20 to 75 days. The coursework component of the GDLP is usually dependent on the length of the placement.
Students who have already worked in a law firm in certain roles may be able to apply for advanced standing for some or all of their placement requirements.
Articles of Clerkship
An articles of clerkship is in essence an apprenticeship to becoming a lawyer. The articles of clerkship was previously the primary method of completing PLT. Over time the GDLP program has overtaken the articles of clerkship.
In Queensland, a 2 and 5 year articled clerk scheme was replaced in 2005 by a minimum one year supervised traineeship scheme. In 2006/07 there was 92 registered supervised trainees in Queensland, and by 2013/14 this number had dwindled to 26. Meanwhile, the Queensland Legal Practitioners Admission Board had 943 applications for admission in the 2013/14 financial year.
Stage Three: Admission to the Supreme Court
To be eligible for admission as a lawyer, an individual must hold either an eligible LLB or JD degree as well as having completed PLT. Further, to be admitted as a lawyer, the courts ensure that prospective lawyers are ‘fit and proper’ people to practice law. This is a reasonably strict process, although ultimately most students are able to be admitted.
In 2014/15 the Queensland Legal Practitioners Admission Board recommended admission for 953 out of 1012 applicants. The Board opposed 15 applications and conditionally recommended a further 44 applicants, requiring that a certain issue or issues were brought to the attention of the Supreme Court by way of written submissions.
Stage Four: Becoming a Solicitor or Barrister
When a person is admitted in the Supreme Court they are a legal practitioner, but not yet able to practice law; stage four relates to obtaining a practising certificate.
There are up to three pathways that an individual can take after being admitted depending on the jurisdiction that they wish to practice law in.
- Apply for a solicitors practising certificate;
- You can complete the Bar Practice Court, join the Bar Association and become a barrister; or
- Apply for a role that is exempt from this fourth stage (for some).
Individuals employed as lawyers in a government department in Queensland are exempt from requiring a practising certificate. However, most jurisdictions do not allow this exemption; government lawyers in New South Wales and Victoria must join their respective Law Society or Bar Association.
Stage Five: Supervised Legal Practice
An individual who has been admitted as a lawyer and has purchased their practising certificate must still be supervised by another lawyer.
As such, the final stage for a new lawyer to practice law is to obtain employment (which is not always particularly easy).
In Queensland, junior lawyers require supervisions for a minimum of two years of full-time equivalent legal practice for those who have completed PLT, or 18 months for those who have completed the one-year supervised traineeship scheme.
Some further considerations
Becoming a lawyer can be a rewarding career, but there is a lot of effort that needs to go into being able to practice law.
Law is also a lot different to what you see on TV. Typically, only barristers appear in court regularly, and very few barristers are successful at what they do. Those that are successful often have decades of experience as a solicitor first.
Although criminal lawyers appear in the Magistrates Court, typically there is nothing ‘exciting’ about doing your 1000th guilty plea for a drug user or drunk driver.
Many lawyers deal mainly with transactions (property and commercial lawyers), which may involve filling out forms or drafting and negotiating contracts, whereas family and litigation lawyers typically deal with research and persuasive writing tasks (whether in correspondence to the opposing side, pleadings or written submissions to court).
Law has either the highest or one of the highest rates of suicide of any profession (depending on what publication you’re reading), and typically, your work is your life.
Although burnouts and dropouts in the first few years are very high, many individuals love the law, and find it rewarding to help their clients.
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