Legal education in Australia

Australian Universities

Australian universities have a long tradition of teaching international students and an impressive record of achieving excellence on the world stage. Australian universities have been active in the internationalisation of Australian education.

There is now greater flexibility and diversity in course offerings, teaching methods and research orientation. Many Australian universities concentrate on traditional areas of learning and inquiry, while others are more vocational and applied in focus. All, to some extent, follow the Western European tradition of combining tuition with research. Some undertake research across all disciplines, while others concentrate their research on areas of particular strength.

In Australia’s diverse system of public and private higher education institutions there is a large number of international students from over 80 countries. Australia is actively involved in globalising university education through overseas branch campuses, twinning arrangements and exchange programs for students and staff worldwide.

A high proportion of international students in Australian universities are enrolled at the postgraduate level, attracted by Australia’s reputation as an innovative and research-intensive culture. There are numerous special centres based at Australian universities undertaking high-level research and providing a diverse range of undergraduate, postgraduate and specialised professional education courses in a variety of fields.

University study in Australia is exciting and challenging, advanced and innovative, traditional yet high-tech.

The Australian study year

In Australia it is summer from December to February, autumn from March to May, winter from June to August and spring from September to November.

Australian undergraduate and most postgraduate courses are taught in two semesters or terms, which amount to about 28 weeks of formal instruction per year.

The academic year normally begins in the first week of March and ends by the first week of November. The Christmas period is the major holiday period for many Australians; Easter is also a major holiday period. The long vacation is always in the Australian summer (December to February).

Some law schools will now accept students for a second semester intake and some institutions run a third semester over the summer which enables students to complete the degree in a shorter time than usual or to re-sit in subjects in which they have failed. Other law schools teach postgraduate courses ‘intensively’, that is, in blocks of days rather than over a conventional semester. Some teach, in part, ‘online’.

General aims of legal education in Australia

Each law school will have its own particular focus as represented by the skills and interest of its teaching staff.

In general, though, it is possible to say that at an undergraduate level, most law degrees aim to teach fundamental principles of Australian law and the ability to apply these principles to client problems equip the student with a knowledge of fundamental legal procedures — such as court procedures give some introduction to intellectual skills such as legal research, legal writing and advocacy
appreciate the role of law in society understand and respect the ethical standards of the profession learn fundamental practice skills Graduate diplomas and certificates and coursework masters degrees aim to supplement and extend the candidates knowledge of a specialist area of the law.

Postgraduate degrees by thesis enable candidates to research a substantial question of law under supervision and to present a substantial argument embodying a discussion of the question reviewed and its conclusions.

Law as a vocational discipline

For many law students, the study of law prepares them for work as a practising lawyer. Generally speaking, a person must have a law degree to practise as a lawyer in Australia.

Most jurisdictions also prescribe a period of additional study, after the law degree, at a practical training institution or a period of traineeship, in some States called articles, in a practising solicitor’s office.

A solicitor advises clients of rights and obligations under the law and draws any necessary documentation. Barristers, on the other hand, practise alone and not in partnership. They usually cannot deal directly with clients; they are generally instructed or ‘briefed’ by solicitors on behalf of their clients. They appear in civil and criminal trials on behalf of their clients and give opinions upon legal questions, including drafting documents, referred to them by solicitors.

Most lawyers practise as either solicitors or as barristers. Solicitors can practise alone, in partnership with another solicitor or be employed in private practice or in government.

There are substantial numbers of solicitors employed by the Commonwealth and State Governments. Large corporations often also have their own legal departments and employ lawyers who act almost as a solicitor in private practice, but with only one client.

Lawyers also work in public interest organisations, such as legal aid, welfare, tenancy advice services and the like.

Law as a general education

In Australia more than a third of graduates with law degrees do not practise law. Law is seen as a good general education for working in business, banking, technology, the property market, construction, public administration, journalism, and many other occupations. Almost all law graduates have a second degree in another discipline, which they undertook at the same time as they studied law or prior to their law studies.

Degrees in law

Legal education at Australian universities consists of a minimum of a three year degree for those holding a prior university degree, or a four year degree for those without a prior degree. In both cases, the degree is normally studied between March and October, full-time, in each year. The qualification is called a Bachelor of Laws (LLB), or in some cases, a Juris Doctor (JD). The LLB is often studied in conjunction with another degree.

The subjects available for study are prescribed by each law school separately. Most law schools adopt a system where a certain minimum number of subjects (often called the core subjects) are required — subjects introducing the student to the legal process, contract, tort, property, constitutional law, criminal law, evidence and court procedure, are often among the core subjects.

In addition, most law schools offer a range of additional subjects from which the student may select to complete the required number of subjects in the four years. Jurisprudence, international law, comparative law, comparative trade law, copyright patents and trade marks are examples of subjects which are available but generally not compulsory.

The law degree does not have a high component of simply memorising principles. The capacities developed are rathe to read for relevance to analyse and select for appropriate issues to know and be able to apply the appropriate legal principles to facts from daily life, and to tailor legal solutions to client problems. Most students studying law in Australia do a five year course and gain two degrees. Arts/law, commerce/law, business/law and science/law are the most common combined degrees. In addition, engineering/law and even medicine/law are becoming more frequent. In the practice of the law, some knowledge of other disciplines is considered essential.

Most Australian students enter undergraduate education at age 18 or 19. This means that even with a five year degree they graduate at around the same age as their English and American counterparts but are still younger than their European counterparts.

Graduate certificates and diplomas

Many universities offer graduate diploma courses. These are usually one year courses but are most frequently studied over two or three years part-time. The graduate diplomas aim to supplement and to extend the participant’s knowledge of law in a specialty.

Graduate diplomas are available in a range of topics including alternative dispute resolution, Asian law, intellectual property law, labour relations law, media communications and technology, natural resources law to family law.

Some law schools also offer graduate certificates of less than one academic year focusing on one particular sub-discipline.

Postgraduate courses

Most law schools have an active postgraduate program. Masters degrees (LLM), normally require a bachelors degree in law with honours, plus one or two years full-time study involving a thesis or coursework or a combination of both.

Masters degrees by coursework usually permit the candidate to select a range of subjects over a number of topics. Graduate diplomas, on the other hand, usually focus on one or two topics in great detail.

Most universities with law schools offer masters degrees in law by research; some also offer masters degrees by coursework or by a combination of coursework and research.

Other postgraduate research degrees are the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), Doctor of Laws (LLD) or Doctor of Legal Science (SJD). These degrees normally require at least three years of full-time research culminating in the submission of a thesis. Depending on the topic investigated and the skills of the candidate, a candidate might be required to do some further study in research methods or in a related inter-disciplinary field before completing candidature for this qualification.

Further details may be found on each law school’s website.