Mixed views on law internship

Law students could soon be following in the footsteps of student doctors if a community-service proposal gets the go-ahead, reports Marion Edmunds

LAW graduates could be next in line for the government’s drive to recruit students into community service. Ideas for practical training for lawyers have been under consideration for some time.

Earlier this year the president of the Constitutional Court, Arthur Chaskalson, raised the community-service proposal in a memorandum to the Minister of Justice, Dullah Omar.

The Ministry of Justice said this week it is considering the introduction of a one-year community service for law students in a bid to increase skills in the public service while also providing jobs for candidate attorneys.

This could replace the articles and pupillage which apply at present, but details still have to be developed.

Normally, would-be attorneys have to do two years’ articles before being allowed to practise. In some cases, they are already able to shorten this to a year by doing community service and post-graduate study.
Would-be advocates can do a pupillage and a Bar examination.

The proposals for community service will be discussed at Omar’s next legal forum in November.

The community service would apply to graduates irrespective of their career paths - a notion that has provoked a mixed response within the profession.

The proposals follow similar plans by Minister of Health Nkosazana Zuma to draft student doctors into public service.

Omar’s special adviser, Enver Daniels, said the Ministry of Justice would consult widely before taking a final decision.

“One of our aims is to make the judicial system accessible to all people,” he said. “At present the majority of black graduates cannot find articles ... We need intervention to make the profession representative and this sort of scheme would put everybody on the same level.

“Interns might work at the Master’s office or in legal aid clinics or as prosecutors. The idea does seem appealing.”

The Society of University Teachers of the Law has proposed that community service be one of several options open to students for a single year’s practical training before entering the profession.

The society would like graduates to be able to choose between practical training courses, articles with attorneys, pupillage at a Bar, or prosecuting or community service which is still to be defined by the government.

The society’s vice-president, Cheryl Loots, an associate professor at the University of Witwatersrand law school, says she does not support a blanket internship as proposed by Chaskalson.

“When you absorb that number of people into the public service, you have to have a structure and skilled people to supervise them and that is also expensive,” she warned.

“I would prefer a range of options for graduates. We may reach a stage later when we can organise proper supervision, but I think that it is dangerous to create the situation before we are ready for it.”

Emil Boshoff, chair of the Association of Law Societies’ task team on legal education, also rejects blanket internship - and is cautious about reducing articles to a year, although his organisation has agreed to it in principle.

“The attorneys certainly are a bit concerned about a year being enough. They have in principle associated themselves with that so that a very good candidate can get through in a year,” Boshoff said.

“But there is a very widespread feeling that we will have some fairly inexperienced attorneys in the profession in the process, but perhaps that is one of the prices that has to be paid for greater access to the profession.”

The Association of Law Societies is looking at methods such as tax incentives to encourage law firms to mop up more candidate attorneys.

The Black Lawyers’ Association is apprehensive. “Internship would be acceptable, but not as a replacement to articles,” said Jimmy Yesiko, its Western Cape director.

“There would not be enough training or exposure of attorneys to legal practices. I concede that there is a problem of black graduates not getting articles but that could be sorted out by a change of attitude of law firms.”

Meanwhile, most universities are to offer a new four-year LLB for 1998, to make it easier for students from previously disadvantaged backgrounds to graduate faster. Many universities will continue to offer the current five-year BA LLB, but the law will be changed to make four years the minimum requirement for graduates.

The proposal is yet to be canvassed among students. Heidi Lipshitz, the officer for articles and alternatives on the University of Witwatersrand Law Students’ Council, tested the water mid-week.

“There was a very mixed response. Some students thought it was a good idea; others freaked, saying “Not on your life’. This shows how necessary it is for the government to consult with us because there are a great many fears about this sort of compulsory training.”

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