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  • Writer's pictureWenee Yap

The Great Priestley 11 Debate: Should we have Core Law Subjects?

Pencils in warm colours

The short answer? No. As old folklore/law of yore goes, the Priestley 11 was intended as a definitive list of essential areas of law in which all Australian lawyers who dared to call themselves members of The Profession ought to be proficient. But how much is essential today?

The Priestley 11 subjects are criminal law, tort law, contract law, land and property law, equity and trust law, administrative law, constitutional law, civil procedure, evidence, company law and legal ethics. But given the myriad legal niches that are emerging, is it even worth having a set curriculum? If not, what would we cut?

Law school curriculums are a very different story in America. There, law is only studied at the postgraduate (Juris Doctor) level, and the American Bar Association does not even require any set subjects to apply for admission as a lawyer. Rather, they opt for a more expansive view of adopting “substantive law” which will facilitate “effective and responsible participation in the legal profession.” This translates to eight or so core law subjects studied primarily in first year – known as 1L – covering areas such as property, torts, civil procedure, legal research and writing, contracts, constitutional and criminal law. Students are then encouraged to specialise in their remaining two years at law school.

Australia, by contrast, has adopted a generalist law degree at the undergraduate (or Juris Doctor) level, followed by specialisation either through experience in professional practice or a postgraduate qualification (or both).

The upshot of Australia being one of the few nations to allow for the study of law at an undergraduate level is that our law graduates are some of the youngest in the world. By contrast, German lawyers can expect to toil through at least seven years of law school and two major state examinations – both with substantial rates of failure. If you fail the first state examination twice, there is no recourse for your four or five initial years spent studying law, and you are permanently prevented from entering the legal profession. But with so much time spent in law school, they do have a better mix of core and optional law subjects.

The very nature of how we study law in Australia makes the case for a more freeform style of study. Because we have the option to study law straight out of high school, at an age when we’re generally testing the waters of what we want to do when we ‘grow up’, approximately half of Australian law graduates won’t go on to practice. This is much higher than both our American and German counterparts, who are generally set for careers in law. The Priestley 11 is the product of a very much bygone age, when you went to law school to become a lawyer. (I know, crazy!)

With the advent of the postgraduate Juris Doctor course, which is more likely to attract students with their sights set on a solely legal eagle career, we arguably have an Australian law degree that can include the Priestley 11. Perhaps the best way to distinguish undergraduate law from postgraduate is to keep the Priestley 11 requirements in the Juris Doctor while allowing undergraduate students far more flexibility – perhaps only eight core law subjects in their initial year.

Do you think it’s worth changing up our current system to allow for more electives? Or is the Priestley 11 worth keeping, perhaps with some slight changes to the list of core law subjects it prescribes? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

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