Australia’s law schools discuss ‘safer’ legal education
They start law school with the same level of mental health as the rest of the population, but by the end of the first year more than one third of law students are experiencing psychological distress.
More than 20 of Australia's 34 law schools meet tomorrow (February 21 and 22) for the second National Wellness for Law Forum on promoting well-being in law students and lawyers.
QUT Law School's Associate Professor Rachael Field, who organised the Forum in collaboration with Melbourne University Law School, created the Wellness Network for Law to promote the strategic changes in law courses and law school culture that would lead to improved psychological well-being of both students and lawyers.
"Recent Australian research tells us that students can become disillusioned when they see a law career as a battleground where there are winners and losers, not just in courtrooms but in the competitive nature of the law school and in law firms," Professor Field said.
Together with QUT's James Duffy, Professor Field wrote an elective subject to engage first-year students with the concepts of non-adversarial lawyering.
"This subject focuses on alternative ways to approach legal disputes and helps to develop a positive professional identity for lawyers," she said.
"The subject is offered to all QUT law students and, by bringing law out of the courts, demonstrates to students that law is not all about litigation.
"It aims to give students a clear and positive view of what they will be as a lawyer; that rather than a hired gun, lawyers can be people who look after their clients' interests by helping them resolve disputes - more often than not, outside a court.
"It also focuses on building students' skills in areas such as communication, reflection, lateral thinking and problem-solving to improve their resilience."
Professor Field's work was supported by an Office of Learning and Teaching Fellowship and is finding traction in law schools around the country through the Wellness Network for Law.
"At QUT about a third of first-year students opt for the course and ultimately we would like dispute resolution to become a core subject in the law curriculum across Australia," she said.
"Part of promoting well-being in students is to make sure they don't feel isolated in a competitive learning environment. We ask them to reflect on issues and get them to meet practising lawyers so that they can think about what it means to them to be a lawyer."
Professor Field said students had evaluated the course positively and were recommending it be made compulsory.
"A typical comment from our students is: 'The real-world relevance is definitely the best aspect of this unit. It is so good to undertake a law subject with a different emphasis to purely litigation.'.
"This shows us we are on the right track. The forum this week at the University of Melbourne will focus on further measures to increase the well-being of students and lawyers."
Professor Field is a member of QUT's Higher Education Research Network.
The forum runs from February 21 to 22 and includes keynote speaker The Honourable Michael Kirby.
Media contact: Niki Widdowson, QUT media, 07 3138 2999 or email@example.com