Being a successful legal practitioner requires a commitment to a lifetime of learning.
It is impossible to learn everything we need to know about the law and legal practice in a four-year undergraduate law degree. When we graduate from law school, our legal education is not over. Rather it is only beginning. We must be prepared to continue learning every day of our legal careers.
I would like to briefly consider the importance of lifelong learning for legal professionals and explore the significance of continuing legal education (CLE) and microcredentials in our lifelong learning journey.
The Evolution of Legal Education
When I went to law school in the 1980s, legal education primarily focused on theoretical doctrines and principles. We spent most of the four years of our law degree learning about the law: the cases, the legislation, the doctrines and the policies. Very little emphasis was placed on developing practical legal skills or preparing us for the realities of legal practice.
Legal education has evolved significantly since then. Law schools have made enormous progress in better preparing students for the profession. Law degrees across the country now include training in legal skills and the development of a professional identity. But it is still the case that law graduates are barely prepared for the reality of legal practice, and once we enter the profession we still have so much to learn.
Continuing Legal Education
Legal practice is constantly evolving. Laws change, legal processes evolve, the expectations of clients shift, and new technologies periodically threaten to completely disrupt the sector. This constantly shifting context for legal practice requires a commitment by practitioners to continuous learning. This continuous learning can be informal, with our knowledge and skills developing and improving as a result of our daily experiences, our conversations with others, our reading and our engagement with media. Or it can take the form of formal learning: participation in Continuing Professional Development (CPD) and other short courses, or enrolment in postgraduate study.
It is a mistake to think of our learning journey as divided into two discrete stages: the learning phase, including law school and Practical Legal Training (PLT), followed by the practice stage, with an emphasis upon delivering legal services with some extra formal learning in the form of CPD thrown in. Rather, we should see our careers as lawyers as a learning continuum, with the continuing legal education post-admission building upon the foundations laid during our law degree and PLT.
I have advocated for a more structured and cohesive approach to the lifelong learning journey of legal practitioners. Law schools and the legal profession should work collaboratively to ensure a seamless transition from law school to PLT and then to CPD. For example, more legal practitioners could be called upon to contribute to development and delivery of law school curricula, and law schools and legal academics could be more involved in the design and delivery of CLE. In an ideal world, law schools, law societies and legal practitioners would work together to develop a set of agreed competencies for legal professionals that could inform all stages of the lifelong legal learning journey. Such collaboration and coherence would simultaneously better prepare law students for legal practice and support the lifelong learning by practitioners.
A microcredential, according to the 2022 National Microcredentials Framework, is ‘a certification of assessed learning or competency, with a minimum volume of learning of one hour and less than an AQF award qualification, that is additional, alternate, complementary to or a component part of an AQF award qualification.’ In other words, it is a certification or recognition of learning achievement that is typically smaller in scope and duration than traditional academic degrees or certifications.
The key features of microcredentials include:
- Specificity: They concentrate on a specific skill or topic, with targeted learning outcomes.
- Short duration: Microcredentials are designed to be completed relatively quickly, often within a few weeks or months.
- Digital format: They are often delivered and earned online, making them accessible to learners worldwide.
- Industry relevance: Microcredentials are often aligned with industry needs and are aimed at improving employability or enhancing professional development.
- Stackable: In some cases, microcredentials can be combined or ‘stacked’ to build up to a larger qualification, such as a certificate, diploma or even a postgraduate degree.
In the last few years, microcredentials have emerged as a potential solution to bridging the gap between formal legal education and lifelong legal learning. The Bond University/QLS collaboration on the Foundations of Legal Practice Program serves as an example of how microcredentials can both satisfy CPD requirements and contribute to further professional development.
Being a successful lawyer requires a commitment to constantly expanding upon and improving our legal knowledge and skills. My advice to early career lawyers is to embrace a lifelong learning mindset. Don’t assume learning ends once you finish law school and PLT. Instead, continuously seek out learning experiences – both formal and informal. Continuing legal education is vital for success in an ever-changing legal landscape.
Closer collaboration between law schools, professional organisations, and legal practitioners will ensure a coherent and consistent lifelong learning journey. The Queensland Law Society’s Foundations of Legal Practice Program is an important step in the right direction.
Professor Nick James is the Executive Dean, Faculty of Law, Bond University. To hear The Callover podcast on this topic, click HERE
This sponsored content article represents the views of the sponsor and does not necessarily reflect the views of Queensland Law Society.