Lawyers’ ability to “Collaborate Effectively”

This post has been contributed by Dr Olivia Rundle and Dr Brendan Gogarty, of the Faculty of Law at the University of Tasmania.

Dr Olivia Rundle made a presentation at the Australasian Legal Teachers Association Conference 2016 about a Teaching Development Grant project that she is working on together with Dr Brendan Gogarty, and Alex McKenzie, a Tasmanian legal practitioner. Our project concerns the meaning of Australian Law Threshold Learning Outcome (TLO) 5(b), which states that “graduates of the Bachelor of Laws will be able to collaborate effectively.” By contrast to Australia, there are no standard learning outcomes prescribed in New Zealand, and the Faculty of Law at the Victoria University of Wellington (where the conference was held) states that its graduates “should have an understanding of the need for collaborative and cooperative behaviour in professional life.” Framing the graduate attribute in this way does not require the VUW Faculty of Law to assess students’ ability to collaborate, merely their awareness that it is needed in practice.

We want to unpack what TLO 5(b) actually means in the context of legal practice. Our project will inform our practice-centric teaching programme at the University of Tasmania.

Relevance to Dispute Resolution Research

The ability to collaborate effectively – or “work well with others” – is a foundational skill that is applied in dispute resolution contexts. Lawyers frequently engage in activities that contribute to the resolution of their clients’ disputes in the ordinary course of legal practice. Dispute resolution research will benefit from an improved understanding of the way that lawyers collaborate in general legal practice.

Do lawyers collaborate?

One of the reasons the TLOs have not been adopted as pre-admission requirements by Law Admission Authorities is that some senior members of the legal profession expressed concerned that many successful lawyers would not meet the threshold standards. In particular, the ability to “collaborate effectively” was singled out as something that many exceptional lawyers “do not, cannot or are not inclined to” do (Justice Slattery quoted in Steel, Huggins and Laurens). The immediate response of many practitioners we’ve talked to so far has been: “lawyers don’t collaborate”.  That seems to be a relatively widely held view (although not universal).

We are confident that the ability to collaborate effectively is an inherent requirement that all lawyers need, despite such claims from within the profession. Forms of direct and indirect collaboration in legal practice include: intra-firm collaboration, between lawyers (especially within the hierarchical nature of firm structures ) as well as between lawyers and other professionals working in the firm (i.e. conveyancers and administrative staff); inter-firm collaboration; between lawyers on either side of a dispute; intra-professional (solicitor to barrister); inter-professional (between lawyers and officers of the court, experts, medical professionals, accountants etc); and of course with the client.

Particular influences on collaboration in legal practice

There are some features of legal practice that have an impact upon the need for lawyers to collaborate effectively. These include joint and several responsibility and the obligation to provide legal representation within firms. Other features of legal practice can have a negative impact upon lawyers’ collaborative behaviour. They include time billing and targets (an individual activity that works as a disincentive to working with others within a firm) and competing responsibilities to the client, administration of justice and business partners/supervisors (these tensions push and pull incentives to collaborate).

UTAS Collaborate Effectively Image

Our teaching development project

Our teaching development grant is enabling us to investigate, evaluate, create and disseminate an evidence base and resources that support students to become competent in engaging with the unique challenges of working in teams within a firm environment. Our project involves the following activities:

  1. Literature reviews of teaching standards, collaboration in legal practice;
  2. Audit of collaborative learning activities, assessment tasks and instruction;
  3. Liaison with students, legal professionals and teaching experts.

Part 3 will include a focus group with Tasmanian legal practitioners where we will ask them to discuss questions that will reveal how they collaborate with other people in the course of legal practice within firms, with clients, with other lawyers and legal institutions, and with non-legal professionals.

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About Dr Olivia Rundle

Dr Rundle is a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Law, University of Tasmania. She has worked as a nationally accredited mediator and a Family Dispute Resolution Practitioner. Dr Rundle is especially interested in the role of lawyers in dispute resolution processes and the policy environment that positively encourages lawyers to engage with dispute resolution. She teaches and researches in broad areas of Dispute Resolution, Civil Procedure and Family Law.

2 thoughts on “Lawyers’ ability to “Collaborate Effectively”

  1. If the point is to improve legal pedagogy by simulating the work and workplace of a professional lawyer it would be worthwhile to teach students to identify a case theory, to identify and to select relevant law and evidence in support of such a theory, and to draft appropriate submissions or applications for review, than to force them to produce needless “teamwork” for the sake of “teamwork” alone.

    In the production of “teamwork” students are merely restrained by the most average of their team.

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    • Derek – it sounds like you have had some negative experiences of university teamwork. I can only speak for our approach at UTAS. I confess I am unsure what you mean by “case theory”. We start by giving students an authentic case scenario, and they work in firms to engage in whatever the practice based activity is related to that scenario. In Brendan’s Constitutional Law unit firms research, prepare and make submissions in moots of current High Court cases, using authentic documents from the High Court. In my Civil Procedure unit firms work together to seek further instructions from their client (on a discussion board), prepare letters to the client, and to prepare and make submissions in simulated Supreme Court pre-trial applications. Authenticity of activity is important. We also teach our students how to record and be accountable for time spent on firm work. I agree that group learning activities should make a positive contribution to students’ learning outcomes beyond merely working effectively in a team.
      I also think it is important that students are required to work together with others, and to have the opportunity to try new ways of dealing with difficult personalities such as the overbearing arrogant person who refuses to trust or respect others, the disorganised person who forgets about meetings or only attends to things at the last minute, or the freeloader who avoids making contributions. Those personalities are part of the real world and university is an excellent setting to learn new improved ways of managing working with others – particularly people who we find difficult. We are acutely aware that law students in particular have a reputation for loathing group work. That is why we are focusing upon improving the ways we support them to build their collaborative skills within the context of law.

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