By Havovi Panthaki
At the end of last year, I found myself in the same boat as 90% of law students, without a traineeship and sorting out which PLT provider with whom to complete my practical legal training. I’d attended the seminars that the law school ran throughout the year and always had a pull towards Leo Cussen (we call it Leo for short). Eventually, I think it was a combination of things that led me to my decision: Leo’s reputation, the fact that they combine online PLT with intensive days on-site (where you do your appearance work and complete your files), and that they included compulsory advocacy as a part of their course, appealed to me.
The course simulates what it would be like if you were acting as a junior lawyer in a firm. You set up your own law firm, are given a mentor who acts as a senior solicitor (the mentor is usually a practitioner or barrister with years of experience, most of whom are still practising), and you run files for clients who have a range of matters. You’ll do every piece of correspondence by yourself, from the initial cost disclosure and retainer to the final closing letter and everything in between. This correspondence is checked by your mentor before it is sent to your “client”. You’ll do appearance work, settle property, meet with your client to execute particular documents, have phone conferences, brief Counsel and generally complete all the work that a newly admitted junior solicitor could be expected to engage in. You also act for your clients against other trainees at Leo, meaning that you develop professional correspondence skills, to address both clients and fellow practitioners. You’ll also run and manage your own trust accounting for your firm. Essentially, you act as your own book keeper, balancing your books, paying any relevant lodgement or filing fees and drawing and depositing cheques on behalf of your clients. Leo is the type of environment where you learn by doing, because you do everything.
It’s not always smooth sailing. As an online trainee, everyone works full-time or at least part time, meaning that you may not always receive the documents that you need to progress your file from the other side. For example, conveyancing (property law) requires you to lodge documents and then wait for the other side to complete/lodge their documents before you can move your file to the next stage. If a deadline is missed in a file like property, settlement may be void, meaning that you learn very quickly how to collaborate and make sure that the other side is doing their part, so that your client can have a successful transaction. If you haven’t already realised, being a solicitor isn’t about being a sole entity like Harvey Spector. You need to work efficiently with other solicitors so that both of your clients receive a favourable outcome, which may mean that you sometimes need to push things along in a professional but tactful way.
Personally, my favourite part of the course was the advocacy. Give me an appearance over file work any day and I’m a content solicitor. I should preface this with the fact that court is my happy place and I have aspirations to go to the Bar after practising for a few years. During my time at La Trobe, I’d never mooted, but I still found that I loved the advocacy portion of my files at Leo. I also took on the optional advocacy course that Leo runs, where different barristers teach you to cross examine and do evidence in chief – it was daunting but honestly some of the best fun I’ve had. In a few files, you’ll do some sort of appearance work, meaning that you’ll advocate for your client in front of a judge or magistrate. For example, with the crime (criminal law) portion of the course, you run a crime file, and then run a separate plea and a bail application for two different clients. You appear before a magistrate (who is generally a practising barrister) and run the appearance as you would in court with all of the requisite formalities. It is challenging, especially if you don’t have your head around the law – it was a long time since I’d looked at anything to do with crim! But you gain an appreciation and an understanding for the importance of oral advocacy and also an area of law that you may not have loved while studying, which definitely happened to me after I did my plea. My “judge”, very kindly told me in the debrief portion of the assessment, that she’d be happy for me to do a plea on behalf of any of her clients – she was a criminal law barrister. This feedback boosted my confidence and reiterated to me that using language through oral advocacy to make a succinct but striking point is a skill that all lawyers should try to develop.
Finally, I think what makes Leo unique is the people. The relationships and friendships you develop there will serve you well throughout your legal career. The barristers and solicitors who mentor you in conjunction with the support staff, genuinely care about your wellbeing and want you to have the best possible experience and feel confident in your abilities. Yes, they may test you, give you tough love or crack the whip when you’ve drafted something carelessly. Accordingly, they may have days where they are grumpier than usual – if you’re an online trainee and working full-time be prepared to be drafting late at night! But overall they do whatever is necessary to get the best out of you. Like anything in life, you get what you put in and Leo is no different. Your PLT experience will be shaped by the amount of work and dedication you give it. So take the opportunity to learn, grow and develop – you’ll surprise yourself with what you already know and you may find love for an area of the law that you’d never considered practising in before.
Havovi Panthaki is an alumnus of the La Trobe Law School. She graduated in 2015 with a Bachelor of Legal Studies (Honours) and a Bachelor of Laws. She is currently the Research Assistant to Professor Patrick Keyzer, Research Assistant to Ms Randa Rafiq (Australian Lawyers for Human Rights) and a content creator for the La Trobe Law School Blog. She completed her PLT online at Leo Cussen during semester 1 in 2016 and will be admitted as a solicitor in the Supreme Court of Victoria later this year.