05/10/2015 - 11:35

Law jobs plan gives back to community

05/10/2015 - 11:35

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A Perth lawyer has come up with a novel approach that addresses two issues facing the law community – a lack of job opportunities for recent graduates and a funding shortfall for community legal centres.

Law jobs plan gives back to community
JUSTICE: Nicholas van Hattem says the long-term plan is to create a WA-based graduate education option. Photo: Attila Csaszar

A Perth lawyer has come up with a novel approach that addresses two issues facing the law community – a lack of job opportunities for recent graduates and a funding shortfall for community legal centres.

Nicholas van Hattem, convenor of the Piddington Society, a social association for lawyers, told Business News he has secured more than $36,000 through crowdfunding.

The money is going towards creating Western Australia’s first legal training program that will donate part of its fees to community legal groups and guarantee work experience for law graduates, as part of a partnership with an east coast-based graduate education provider.

The funding for community legal centres will be welcomed by the sector, which lost $25.6 million in federal funding in 2013 and 2014.

It is also another option for the 500 Western Australians who graduate each year with a law degree but face obstacles before finding employment.

Before graduates can apply for jobs, they are required to undertake extra practical legal training, which costs about $10,000 and takes up to six months, as well as complete 75 days of work experience.

Competition for these usually unpaid job placements is fierce, with many law firms, including community legal centres, unwilling to take on the risk and associated administration and insurance costs.

The highly competitive training job market for law graduates in Australia was brought to the fore recently when an Adelaide law firm announced plans to charge graduates a $22,000 fee in return for securing two years of full-time employment.

The firm withdrew the proposal after a public backlash.

“The sad reality is ... students are willing to pay cash because opportunities are so limited,” Mr van Hattem said.

While the situation has frustrated many, it has also provided a business opportunity with a community benefit for Mr van Hattem, a solicitor, formerly with Aboriginal Legal Service of Western Australia and Herbert Smith Freehills.

Out of his incorporated association, he has created the Piddington Justice Project, an education program that provides incentives for community legal centres to take on graduates in exchange for 10 per cent of students’ fees.

The program has also attracted the goodwill of professionals keen to contribute the cause.

“The biggest expense is teaching staff, but what a lot of senior barristers and even judges are saying is they’d do that pro bono if the proceeds were going to a good cause,” Mr van Hattem said.

By taking over administration duties, the Piddington Justice Project has also removed part of the burden on community legal centres.

“The CLCs were saying it wasn’t worth it for them because of the need to supervise the graduates, which meant resources were diverted from their core work,” Mr Van Hattem said.

“Rather than having them make ad hoc arrangements, we’re saying to CLCs you just need to make one desk space available and we will keep it occupied with volunteer staff throughout the year so you can start building processes that create some work for that position.”

The new training program will compete against other accredited graduate education providers in WA, including the Sydney-based College of Law and Melbourne-based Leo Cussen Centre for Law.

“There isn’t a WA-based graduate education option,” Mr Van Hettem said.

“Our long-term plan is to create that ... to go fully alone. What we’re starting with is a more modest pilot project where we partner with another provider to prove the concept. Once it’s set up I think it will be really sustainable.”

Mr Van Hattem was reluctant to publicly name the east coast-based partner before the venture was finalised.

However, he said he was confident the program would prove successful as he had already coordinated placements with The Humanitarian Group, the Mental Health Law Centre, Tenancy WA, and the Bunbury Community Legal Centre.

With a few more community legal centres still considering the proposal, the program is set to deliver courses for about 30 graduates in 2016.

Mr van Hattem said $1,000 of the $10,000 fees for the program would be returned to the community legal centre sector under the current joint venture model.

However, he anticipated under the Piddington Justice Project’s next phase as a sole provider (possibly rolling out into other states as well), the course could donate more than 50 per cent of fees to community legal centres.

 

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