Australian Academy of Law/Australian Law Journal Conference on the future of Australian legal education

The Australian Academy of Law and the Australian Law Journal 

National Conference on the Future of Australian Legal Education

held in August  2017

at the Federal Court of Australia in Sydney


Marking the 10th anniversary of the Australian Academy of Law (AAL), the 90thanniversary of the Australian Law Journal (ALJ), and the 30th anniversary of the Pearce Report on Australian Law Schools, the conference was hosted by The Hon. Kevin Lindgren AM QC, President AAL and The Hon. Justice François Kunc, General Editor, The Australian Law Journal.  It was supported by the Law Council of Australia;  and sponsored by the AAL and ALJ publisher Thomson Reuters.  Featuring an outstanding program organised by Claire Hammerton of the AAL Secretariat, the conference was designed to provide a forum for an informed, national discussion on the future of legal study and practice in Australia.  

Topics included:

  • Digital technology and its impact on teaching, learning and legal practice
  • What makes a ‘good’ lawyer
  • Purposes and goals of legal education
  • Pedagogy and outcomes
  • New skills and essential knowledge for lawyers
  • Enhancing access to, and indigenous engagement in, legal education
  • Experiential learning and
  • Making connections: law interacting across disciplines and international borders

Professor Martha C. Nussbaum, Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago Law School ,  delivered the keynote lecture. Her prodigious record of scholarship encompasses an extensive list of noteworthy articles and books, most recently Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice (2016); Aging Thoughtfully, co-authored with Saul Levmore ( 2017); and The Monarchy of Fear:  A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis, to be published in 2018. Arguing in support of Freund’s vision that in order to think critically about society, law students should study political science, economics, sociology, and political philosophy in addition to legal subjects, Professor Nussbaum suggested that in the current era of populism, critical and socially aware lawyers are needed more than ever. While in some ways her observations were narrowly confined and seemed at times to relate obliquely to the Australian context, the message was clear and offered food for thought for a room filled with law deans, legal educators of all stripes, as well as many eminent jurists and practitioners.

The conference featured many other impressive speakers sharing their interesting and important work. The program was rich with parallel sessions over the two days, so I regret that I am not able to report on everything, but I can say that for me it was well worth the time to be there. It seemed a large percentage of participants attended the entire program – a rare thing for any conference these days! The panel for the final plenary session was scheduled to be chaired by The Hon Michael Kirby AC CMG and included The Hon Justice Alan Robertson; Deputy President, AAL; Fiona McLeod SC; President, Law Council of Australia; Professor William MacNeil, Chair, Council of Australian Law Deans; Dan Trevanion, President of the Australian Law Students’ Association; and Professor Nussbaum. All made valuable and interesting observations. Professor McNeil’s address was particularly spirited; an entire roomful of august (and not-so-august) jurists, lawyers, deans, and senior level professors shouting in unison ‘I love the law!’ was worth the price of admission in itself.  Ms. McLeod’s message with respect to taking stock of what the law is and what we are about is perennially important. Perhaps less convincing was her assertion, ‘the kids are alright’, when followed by Trevanion’s remarks.  Professor James’ ‘trust us’ message garnered a qualified ‘maybe’ (from Stephen Bottomley, I believe, filling in for an unwell Justice Robertson). Some law schools can and should be trusted but they need to earn that trust (Nussbaum observed that a number of the ‘less prestigious’ US law schools might perform a service in closing their doors).

One thing is certain – there is much work to do. Overall the tone was one of shared interest and collegiality; discussion was candid and open for the most part. I would have liked to hear more discussion of the recently released flip report, which represents a timely and solid effort at canvassing and starting to address many of the issues and concerns raised at this conference (see our blog about flip here). Certainly, the conversations begun at this conference will be ongoing, both in formal and informal settings, and we need to ensure that all constituencies are included, especially students. There were too many highlights to mention, e.g. John Farrar’s committee concept and Terri Mottershead‘s overview of trends in the profession, and so many more. For future meetings of this nature I might look for more discussion of the role of different species of educational and other institutions providing training, education and experience in the law, not only universities, but also professional organisations, community organisations, industry and the profession, and online providers of various types.
Much appreciation is owed to the organisers and to all who contributed to such an interesting and valuable event.

May it lead to positive developments in the future of Australian legal education.  And just one more reminder – the Australian Academy of Law’s website is at More information about the future of Australian legal education and any future conferences the Academy may run will be posted on their website.