Educational Rationale for Current Matters
What is a Current Matter?
A Current Matter is a simulated file formulated from actual legal practice but tailored to maximise the trainee’s understanding and competence in the National Competency Standards for Entry Level Lawyers.
Completion of the Leo Cussen Practical Training Course (Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice) requires the trainee to conduct a minimum of 10 files during the course, applying the knowledge gained from instruction. These ‘Current Matter’ files cover a wide range of areas of legal practice and deal with typical legal and practical problems encountered in everyday legal practice. The Current Matter program emulates the conduct of a file by an entry-level lawyer in legal practice.
Mentors provide extensive and ongoing feedback on Current Matter work. The Current Matter Program helps the trainee to risk-manage their introduction to legal practice within a safe environment while engaging with the realities of practice.
Current Matters typically involve interaction with the Leo Bank, the Leo Registry and Settlements/Hearings. Lawyer In-Basket is a shorter form of Current Matter involving an interview and drafting simulation. The trainee receives a message from the client a day or so before the day on which they must perform the task for the client. The trainee must then meet or telephone the ‘client’ (an instructor who assesses the conduct of the interview).
Historical Background to Current Matters at Leo Cussen
Historically, Current Matters in the Practical Training Course were aimed at replicating common legal practice matters. For example, in 1987, the City of Camberwell, the Titles Office and the Stamps Office, the Corporate Affairs Office, the Family Court, the County Court and the Probate Office were all benevolent contributors of their resources to our trainees’ completion of Current Matters. While we continue with partnerships with the Police Prosecutors, Victoria Legal Aid (VLA), and the Family Court, the rise of managerialism throughout public bodies, along with extensive commodification of training has led to the rationalisation of resources available for benevolent means.
Since 1987 our own Registry has assumed the role of the relevant Registry for all lodging of documents, depending upon the Current Matter. For example, the Leo Cussen Registry assumes the role of: Land Victoria for Property Current Matters, the County Court for an Interlocutory Current Matter, the Magistrates’ for Civil Litigation, the Federal Magistrates’ for a Divorce and Ancillary Applications, Consumer Affairs Victoria, Title Search Companies, and Council Health Services for the Commercial Current Matter. This list is not exhaustive. The Registry plays a significant administrative role in responding to trainee applications and enables PTC Trainees to make transactions to effectively act for clients.
Intersection with Topic Instruction
While Topic Instruction introduces, teaches and allows the trainee to practise elements of the National Competency Standard, Current Matters may be seen as a structure whereby the trainee is provided with an opportunity to synthesise and apply their learning. The Current Matter is, in one sense, a final examination of the PTC Trainee’s learning, is formally and rigorously assessed and attempts to do so by observing and measuring the trainee completing the very actions that comprise legal practice.
Educational Theories Underpinning the Current Matter Program
Current Matters reflect the idea that ‘learning by doing’ maximises the training of PTC Trainees, while reassuring trainers that trainees are able to competently engage in legal practice. This does not mean that trainees are compelled to complete trivial tasks that consume everyday work routines. On the contrary, steps in Current Matters are chosen for their typical, transferrable or generic applications. Current Matters require generic lawyer’s skills to be applied to specific, though typical, transactions. This form of learning is known as ‘experiential’ or ‘transactional’.
Experiential Learning: Experience matters
The tradition of experiential educational theory owes much to theorists such as John Dewey and Jean Piaget. Experiential learning can be contrasted with academic learning. While academic learning (requiring constructive and reproductive learning) tends to be a process of acquiring information through the study of a subject without the necessity for any direct experience of it, experiential learning specifically requires analysis, initiative, and immersion.1 The basis of all experiential learning is that experience matters. Many educators believe that, without an experience, there can be no true learning or real understanding of a concept or situation.2
It is perhaps not coincidental that the zeitgeist of training in the 1970s (when the Leo Cussen Practical Training Course was initially developed) favoured experiential learning based upon replication (flight simulators for airline pilots were established as training tools in this same period). However, while efficiencies such as avoiding the replication of trivial work tasks was not apparently addressed in the early years of Leo Cussen, the growth of areas of the law have found staff today very much concerned with justifying the educational ‘worth’ of each step in Current Matters.
Indeed, today the Current Matter program is a vital and interactive component of the Practical Training Course. Benchmarking the program against recent international equivalents also reveals the Leo Cussen Centre for Law Current Matter program to be innovative and an outstanding example of ‘transactional’ learning.
Transactional Learning: Virtual experience
Barton, McKellar and Maharg (2005)3 have coined the term ‘transactional learning’ to encompass ‘task authenticity’ that replicates legal practice with the common denominator being the legal ‘transaction’. Barton, McKellar and Maharg are staff at the Glasgow Graduate School of Law at the University of Strathclyde. The course has created a fictional town called ‘Ardcalloch’ which simulates practice much like the Leo Cussen Centre for Law Current Matter Program, only Ardcalloch (unlike Melbourne where all of our Current Matters are based) is a fictional town. Like Leo Cussen Centre for Law, the objective of such training is to:
…educate and train students to become capable trainees in firms; and therefore the education that students engage in ought to be as practical as possible.
While Ardcalloch is a wholly online environment, Leo Cussen Centre for Law provides Current Matters in both onsite and online versions, depending upon the delivery mode chosen by the trainee. The delivery itself can also reflect the changing realities of legal transactions. For example, in the ‘real world’, paperwork in many practice areas can be lodged online along with the relevant banking transactions. The Centre’s onsite and online courses reflect these requirements by requiring onsite advocacy appearances and settlements (although we are preparing to replicate online settlements in the near future as per the National Conveyancing System).
The literature describing the educational strength of Ardcalloch applies equally to Leo Cussen Centre for Law’s Current Matter Program:
To complete the simulated transactions students needed to bring to bear their knowledge of the law and communicational skills in real-time tasks which closely mimicked those they will be involved in as trainees and assistants. These real-world tasks were much more sophisticated and challenging than the predetermined or bounded tasks and learning outcomes of their previous undergraduate experiences (Berliner 1992)4. As such, the transactional purpose of the virtual firm is valuable as a bridge between undergraduate learning and postgraduate professional education.5
The use of the term ‘virtual’, although connected to online environments, is a word that speaks volumes to the Centre’s trainees. Many of our trainees belong to Generation Y, have grown up with multitasking, are computer literate, and are conversant in computer game programs. This is a salient point, as the Leo Cussen Centre for Law Current Matter program, being a ‘virtual’ (onsite and online) simulation of running files in legal practice, finds itself at the cutting edge of Generation Y (or Millenial) conversant learning delivery.
Maharg (2004) presents the new and exciting developments in Scottish postgraduate legal training in collaboration with Universities in Rotterdam and Leiden in the Netherlands as innovative and unique.6 We at Leo Cussen Centre for Law attest to the strength of such training because it is, in essence, what we have been doing for many years. After all:
If airline pilots can regularly retrain using simulators, there is no reason why simulations cannot be built that would enhance practising lawyers’ skills and knowledge in specialist areas of law, without risk to the real firm or actual clients.7
1 See for example Stavenga de Jong, JA, Wierstra, RFA and Hermanussen, J (2006) ‘An exploration of the relationship between academic and experiential learning approaches in vocational education’, British Journal of Educational Psychology. 76; 1. pp 155-169
2 (a) Enfield, McQuitty & Smith (2007) ‘The Development and Evaluation of Experiential Learning Workshops for 4-H Volunteers’, Journal of Extension Feb 2007 Vol 45 Number 1 Article No: IFEA2 http://www.joe.org/joe/2007february/a2.shtml;
(b) Andresen, L, Boud, D, & Cohen, R (2000) ‘Experience-based learning’, In G Foley (Ed) Understanding adult education and training. Allen & Unwin: Sydney;
(c) Kolb, DA (1984) Experiential Learning: Experience as the source of learning and development., New Jersey: Prentice Hall;
(d) Dewey, J (1938) Experience and education, New York: The Macmillan Company.
3 ‘Authenticity in Learning: Transactional Learning in Virtual Communities’, UCLA/IALS Clinical Conference 2005 www.law.ucla.edu/docs/barton_mckellar_maharg_authenticity_in_learning.pdf
4 Berliner, DC (1992) ‘Redesigning classroom activities for the future’, Educational Technology 32 (10), 7-13.
5 Maharg P (2004) ‘Virtual Firms: Transactional Learning on the Web How today's Diploma students are introduced to legal transactions in a virtual environment’ The Online Member’s Magazine of the Law Society of Scotland 13 October 2004 http://www.journalonline.co.uk/article/1001154.aspx
6 Ibid. Other disciplines also utilise this form of training. Researchers at Karolinska Institute at Uppsala University and Stanford University have developed a case simulation system for medical students (http://websp.lime.ki.se/)