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How to Survive a Practice File Assignment

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The thing about many Practical Legal Training assignments is that they seem so straightforward. On the face of it, everything looks so simple and you think that it will take no time at all. You put it off all semester and then all of a sudden you’re on a self-inflicted law student boot camp.

In between writing file notes about conversations with fake clients and pretend real estate agents you’re busy hating yourself. Having survived three practice file assessments (some of them very last minute), I thought I’d share some of my tips for making the experience less painful.

What is a practice file?

For the uninitiated, a practice file is essentially a simulated legal matter. Your lecturer or tutorial leader plays the role of one solicitor in a matter and you play the other. It may be a litigation matter, a purchase or sale of a property or business. Each week there will be different tasks to carry out: writing to clients and other parties, exchanging contracts, preparing accounts, etc.

Allow lots of time

My first tip is to allow plenty of time – don’t leave a practice file to the last minute. The shortest period of time I’ve completed an entire practice file in was two days and it was one of my more stressful law student experiences. I really don’t recommend it.

The substance of a practice file is important, but you also need to allow time to actually put the file together. There are plenty of easy marks to be gained from basic things like formatting your letters properly, using the proper type of folder, filing things under the correct tabs and in the correct order (reverse chronological). If you have to do accounts, my experience is that they take the longest.

Work in a law firm

If you’re a few semesters away from starting the practical component of your law degree, try to get some work experience in a law firm. This experience will help you to work efficiently and do well. You’ll learn how to write letters and file notes, how to structure files, how to prepare accounts; all things that you are assessed on in a practice file. If you’re working at a law firm, there is the added benefit of access to precedent letters and experienced solicitors who can guide you where you get stuck.

Go on campus

If you have the option, study all your practical subjects in on-campus mode. These subjects generally have weekly workshops – go to them, especially if you’ve never worked in a law firm before.

These workshops are the place to ask “dumb” questions. Each week you work on your practice file in class time under the supervision of your tutor. The workshop leader is usually an experienced practitioner with an inclination to give you lots of advice (and frequently the answers). The advice they give you probably won’t be in your textbook or the lecture notes.

Read the instructions and your class notes

PLT lecturers know that many students will have never worked in a law firm so they tend to spell out what you have to do in painful amounts of detail. A lot of the practice file tasks are basic and the marks are very easy to get if you follow the instructions to a T.

Unlike more theoretical subjects, class notes for practical subjects will be fairly straightforward and frequently will translate nicely into advice to clients; just don’t copy them word for word.

Read the subject discussion boards

If you’re stuck on a task for your practice file, chances are that your question has already been answered in the online subject forum.

Keep an eye on Deadlines

Sometimes a practice file has multiple deadlines before the scary final submission date. If there are several deadlines (such as an exchange and settlement), write them down and keep an eye on them. They always sneak up on you.

Tips for writing letters

In a practice file correspondence is often worth a lot of marks but frequently little guidance is provided. Remember that it’s a practical subject and you need to keep your audience in mind. You may have just made a very elaborate legal argument (perfect for a research essay), but you’ve just failed in your task to explain to your client how a cooling off period works.

The language you use in correspondence will vary between audiences, for example, your client and another practitioner. You will need to make assumptions about a practitioner’s level of legal knowledge, and about a client’s lack of legal knowledge. This should be reflected in the letters you write for your practice file. (You can find more tips for drafting legal letters here).

Keep language simple, direct and unambiguous (check out our tips for writing in Plain English here). As part of the assessment you will be required to make recommendations to your clients. If you use vague language, it tends to demonstrate that you’re not confident in what you’re talking about.

Need more help?

If the class notes aren’t great or your lecturer won’t give you any more hints, check out the College of Law Practice Papers. They’re an incredible resource that really spells out what to do and when and why. The paper on legal accounting is particularly awesome. They also have some fantastic precedent documents in them. If you’re not a College of Law student, they practice papers are probably available through your university library’s website or via LexisNexis AU.

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