Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Legal Education—For What?

In 1963, my father, P. C. Trumble, who was then serving as President of the Law Institute of Victoria, delivered the following address to final year law students at the University of Melbourne. It was intended to provide them with a sense of what full-time legal practice would be like, and to proffer a little gentle advice on the eve of their graduation. Today, Peter’s voice seems to drift out of another era, when lawyers were “compleat,” and the extreme degree of specialization that has come to define almost every branch of the legal profession in Australia, indeed almost everywhere, was as yet quite unknown. It is a period piece certainly, but the values it espouses still seem pretty admirable; perhaps in these parlous times we may hope that they may be partially recovered, or, failing that, at least appreciated:

To all ladies and gentleman to whom these presents shall come: Greetings.

This is the voice speaking for the great white fathers who await you in the jungle of life downtown. I bring you good wishes and solace in the bleak mists which will dull the next few months. And I bring you some pearls of wisdom and hope for the future.

My message will be gratifyingly brief, so I hope you will show the patience and forbearance which it will be your lot to acquire when you join us.

In the first place these remarks are addressed to you by a solicitor and for the purpose of telling you what you may expect in our side of the profession. I think that none of you will really have a clear idea of what is involved in being a solicitor except of course those of you who are already working part time in an office. It never turns out to be quite what you expected. This is perhaps our fault for not coming up more often and telling you about it and I hope that we may have the opportunity of doing this soon and at regular intervals. It is also perhaps the fault of your old schoolmasters who, I don’t think by and large, really understand what they let you in for when they encouraged you to choose law as a profession. It is a curious thing that a profession which requires the highest degree of meticulous preoccupation with fact and circumstance should be associated with so many prerequisite subjects which are preoccupied with opinion and broad conjecture. The title of your publication [
De Minimis] is one which tends to obscure the real nub of our profession. The practising solicitor is constantly concerned with what some people would consider to be trifles. No fact is too small to be overlooked, if overlooked it exposes the client to liability—or endangers his rights. This is what hits the articled clerk first when he deals with his first few matters. His letters are ripped to pieces, his documents shown to be full of loopholes, his calculations to be on thoughtless assumptions. The practice of creating, changing, explaining, defending, and enforcing rights is of the most exacting kind and this I charge you to remember: Do not despair because if you don’t remember it, many swift humiliating and enlightening experiences at the hands of your masters will soon serve to make you aware of it. This is really the first thing I would say to you. Please believe me that the administration of the law is as precise as any mathematical science and much harder because instead of relatively simple semantic tools, you have the horror of applying an uncertain language to many obscure circumstances in a forest of even more obscure rules.

The second thing I would like to say—and a little more encouraging—is that you have the whole, and I mean the whole, drama of life to play around with. There is not a single facet of social, commercial, or industrial life which does not involve the action and reaction of rights and liabilities. This you will find of intense and lasting interest. No two matters are ever the same. Your practice will range from advising a charitable organisation on the holding of a garden fête to the defence of a purveyor of obscene literature; from the prosecution of a traffic offender to the issue of a prospectus; from the estate of a lunatic to the defence of a jerry-builder; from the purchase of a department store to the hire of a bloodstock stallion; from the accidental death of a brewery worker to the breach of a covenant against erecting garden fences. The one thing in common for all lawyers who have to face these things is that they must be aware of the facts of life; they must understand human frailties and the basis of human passions; they must be able to refrain from being one-eyed about their clients’ point of view; they must be able to handle people. True it is that we specialize, and it would be absurd to expect the beefy extrovert common law solicitor to be happy dealing with the preparation of wills for old ladies or the quiet, unassuming equity man to bulldoze his way through a defended paternity suit. But you will find that both of those lawyers have a highly developed sense of balance and justice which enables them to be quite capable of understanding the human problems which are inherent in the other’s matter. You see, the common lawyer may have to deal with a challenge of the old lady’s will by the old lady’s maiden sister—and will need to understand the domestic circumstances which surround the making of the will or the jealousies and bitternesses which resulted in it being brought before the Courts.

And the quiet equity lawyer may have to face the sordid truth of his client’s private life and be responsible for the welfare of some unhappy social outcasts. Therefore, please learn to understand life. I may say that this can be done without the need to acquire first hand experience in every facet. Otherwise, you may think of us as a bag-eyed bunch of reformed libertines trading on the wit and wisdom of bitter experience.

On the contrary I assure you, it will be your duty to help maintain the social standards—both legal and moral—which restrain and control all the many primitive emotions which lie so close to the surface of what we are pleased to call civilization.

These are two broad precepts for your thoughts. If you learn to appreciate this you will have the stuff of which lawyers are made and you will succeed. What you learn at the Faculty of Law are your tools of trade so that with awareness of life you will know what they are and how to use them.

Finally a word about articles. It has always been the tradition that the
sine qua non for admission is a period of articles. Here you learn the business of the lawyer from those who have experience. It has worked satisfactorily for many years and has helped to produce judges, barristers and solicitors indiscriminately. But we are in the middle of an adult population explosion. Suddenly there are more people wanting to do articles. At the same time more people are entering the wage earning class, buying cars and houses, causing new enterprises to start and old ones to expand. Legal offices are struggling with the weight of expansion but the development of professional recruiting is lagging behind. Practising lawyers find it harder to get trained staff and find less time to train inexperienced staff. The result has been the development of a barrier against taking articled clerks. The barrier is under fire and more solicitors are realising their responsibility to the profession but the problem of doing adequate justice by the clerks remains. I have over-simplified that but it is my belief that there is room and indeed a need for many more lawyers and the problem of absorption is the problem of early training.

I can say that the legal profession as a whole is conscious of this and we are at this very moment planning new ideas to equip the student who wants to come into the profession with a measure of practical training so that he will be readily absorbed into an expanding profession without the barrier of reluctance which pressure of work has raised against him. The Council of Legal Education, the Faculty and the Law Institute are all working on the immediate problems which face many of you today. I cannot say just now exactly how we will cope with it either on the short or the long term view. I hope, however, we will soon be able to provide a working improvement on the present unsatisfactory position.

We of the Law Institute wish you well in the exams, and hope to see you all as our colleagues very soon.
P. C. Trumble

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