I am a practicing solicitor in the state of Victoria and I attended Leo Cussens Institute (Leo’s) a few years ago. The following has been my advice to many law graduates seeking to gain some practical experience and qualify for admission into the Victorian legal profession. And, in particular, whether they should attend the practical course offered at Leo’s. The following is my opinion based upon my experiences as a student at Leo’s. 

I, and many other people, found Leo’s to be the single most visceral, hate-filled racist, degrading and rancid experience of our lives.

And from what I’ve heard over the years; the institution is still riddled with elitist and racist elements that get to live out their racist and colonialist fantasies. I believe the inherent problem is so widespread and acute that Leo’s suffers intrinsically from institutionalized racism and is in major need of fundamental reforms. They systematically fail in their obligations to students and lack any monitoring procedures to assess the success of their practical course.

As much as I, and many others, are disappointed in Leo’s this is not a hatchet job but a call for their organisation to consider long overdue reforms for the benefit of the community. To my knowledge, as of this date, there is only one lawyer of indigenous heritage practicing law privately in Victoria with many other under-representations of people from non-English speaking backgrounds in particular Asians.

This racial exclusion is not only an appalling result it is a breach of fundamental human rights. That Leo’s, as an educational and training institution, needs to accept full or considerable responsibility for, if anything meaningful is ever to be done to address these grievous and socially unjust problems.

Having attended Leos, I know full well what the problems are and have made this known to Leo’s management. Racism is an extreme problem in the institution, and it is practiced not only by staff and students against people of colour or differing backgrounds from the mainstream but it is tolerated and sanctioned. This is highlighted by an example I recall at the time: of racist abuse and physical violence against one student by two other Leo’s students that was covered up by management and nothing was ever done about it. 

What needs to be borne in mind when you read the following review is how I once thought that my experiences at Leos were unique to me. However, and rather sadly, over the years I have since discovered that my experiences were not peculiar but often shared by others who have a similar background or heritage to myself. This suggest a pattern of institutionalized racism entrenched deep within Leo’s staff structure. Frankly, I am not surprised given how I see that even today many of the same staff are still working there. 

More ominously, we believe that the low statistics of law graduates with either indigenous or NESB backgrounds, actually practicing law in Victoria is quite dismal and likely to get worse. Given how we are well into the 21st century, where racist barriers to education have largely been removed for people, it appears training organizations such as Leo’s, that are essential for professional admission, are resisting society’s equality aspirations as a recalcitrant stronghold bastion of upper-class white Anglo/Saxon privilege.

Quite simply, this is a breach of human rights and Leo’s is primarily responsible for this appalling state of affairs and lack of diversity in the legal profession.

My Advice to Law Graduates is often characterized by the type of person you are, and whether you meet the minimum requirements or MRs.

The Minimum Requirements (MRs)

Unless you’re white, upper middle-class and private school educated (helps if your parents are lawyers/professionals as well) don’t bother going to Leo’s. Go elsewhere and gain some real life practical experience.

A cursory look at their staff profiles says it all about who Leo’s want to fill the ranks of the Victorian Legal profession. They are overwhelmingly of the white privileged class of people with a few token exceptions.  

Sadly, this is also reflected in the legal profession, which is no-where near as diverse as our society is, and who rightfully expect our industry to be. Quite frankly, the public suffers for this lack of social equity and representation in the legal services. In my experience, many MRs do not know how to communicate effectively with people who do not share their race, class or background. What good is it being a lawyer if you cannot communicate with your client who has come to you to resolve, neutralize or pacify a concern or conflict? When this is raised with Leo’s they simply shrug or bury their head in the sand; it is simply disgraceful and egregiously anachronistic.

In addition to this, most so-called ‘Mentors’ see themselves as self-appointed Guardians to the legal profession and will simply judge you based on their prejudices, presuppositions and stereotypes of who you are, where you live and where you studied law. Disturbingly, many ‘Instructors’ who take over class subjects, are usually either: banal tired-types, recovering nervous breakdown types (who mostly haven’t made it in the profession themselves) or, emotionally constipated drones who discourage intellectual discussion (one of these instructors had an embarrassing brain-snap breakdown when he screamed at a non-MR student who merely wanted to use a whiteboard in an educational environment). And they do this so-called ‘service’ year in and year out, seeking to be paid for simply reading over the recycled class materials and sharing a few anecdotes with students. If it sounds mind numbingly boring, and lacking in any specific value or insight into the profession, believe me it was.

At best, we found Leo’s to be a glorified Correspondence Course where you simply turn up and have someone parrot to you what you yourself could have read at home. If you are non-MR, the best assistance (so-called mentoring) you will generally receive will be either: cold and lackluster or, at the very least, perfunctory indifference.

Their practical legal skills method is simply and rather lazily is to suggest to students: ‘Show us what you got’ (this would be fine if we already had these skills. However, as Leo’s staff are prone to conveniently forget they are paid to provide a service and show the students how to perform legal, administrative, client relations or advocacy skills). Today, I am glad, that over time, I learnt everything I needed to know in real life legal practice and regret wasting my money in that shallow, sheltered and ridiculously outdated course. The only practical thing I took away from my time at Leo’s was the use of the royal ‘we’ that you’ll often use in professional correspondence; that’s it.

If you attend Leo’s, here’s what to expect and the best advice to get through:

Stay under the radar, say as little as possible and do not share any personal information with your so-called mentors (they write it down in their files). Obviously, some are good and well-meaning people and if you’re fortunate, you’ll be in their group. Having said that however, many mentors, in the devious parts of their ego-maniacal mind, will harbor a “cross me and I will destroy your legal career before it starts” paradigm type-of-thinking (my so-called ‘mentor’ Mark J. Halse was one of these types; a ‘pseudo-lawyer’ who never even went to university (how does that work?). He was, without a doubt, the most ridiculous, incompetent bumbling twit I have ever met in my life. On top of this: his oft descent into racism, sexism and Anti-Semitism (I was sponsored by a Jewish law firm at the time) along with his lack of critical thinking skills, did not go over well. Also, as I soon found out, raising concerns to Leo’s management or requesting another mentor will almost always fail e.g. ‘all the groups are full.’).

Bullying Tactics:

Bullying tactics are usually subtle but effective. The weapon of choice is the use of concealed threatening language: if you have been deemed or judged ‘unworthy’ by the Guardian-Type Mentors/Instructors you will be snapped at or hear a lot of: “don’t be stupid you’ll get sued or de-registered,” “you’ll never get a job with a good firm,” or far more ominously, “you’ll get a reputation…”

Now, this latter method really works, because Leo’s staff inherently know that most students are young, ambitious and are actively seeking to build a name/reputation for themselves, usually to increase their value in getting a position with one of the big firms (It is well known that the legal services industry ranks as one of the most bitchy gossipy professions and cowardly bullying can often be widespread).

Plus, being so close to the finish line, after enduring years of law school, many vilified non-MR students will endure this bullying, so as not to ‘rock the boat,’ just to simply get qualified to practice and get a job and as I found out firsthand, don’t ever ask for an extension for coursework; the Guardian -type mentor sees this as license to tell other mentors/students that you are trying to get out of doing work, are lazy or, simply use it as an opportunity to make disparaging inferences appealing to racist stereotypes.

What to Expect if You Experience the ire of the Guardian-Type:  

You will be pointed at or hear sniggering as you walk past them whether inside Leos, or even on the street, and usually when they are talking to other Leo’s students, mentors or lawyers. By pointing at you they want you to know they are gossiping about you. And if you complain they can plausibly deny it ever took place or you were simply mistaken/paranoid whereupon they’ll do it more often.

You will be vilified, sneered and sniggered at whenever you speak, sometimes by fellow MR students who have intuitively worked out you are persona non grata with the Guardian- Type mentors and are as afraid of diversity in the profession as they are (I recall one MR class clown and village idiot who used the word ‘hardly’ to counter any criticism of prejudice, often chastised non-MRS in class discussions and the mentors approved the actions of this ridiculous cowardly lowlife).

Please know, in a conflict situation MR Students are usually sided with and they know it and will readily push the boundaries of brinksmanship in the vain hope of spreading more gossip about you. Don’t be bothered by it, you are there to get your admission qualification and, in any event, you won’t have anything to do with them again (unless you want further skills training where they know you will be reluctant to come back).

Also, if you are non-MR and do attend Leos avoid the pasty pale bald headed one: Michael Kane (when I was there, he used to have these perverse black man trophy posters on his office wall along with a disturbingly inappropriate bust of the Virgin Mary) he was the most unashamedly toxic of the Guardian-type mentors. Until people like him become the irrelevant relics and social oddities they were always meant to be, the insidious subterfuge and obstruction to non- MRs practicing, as lawyers will continue.

We have written to Leo’s Management seeking to address these inherent structural problems to no avail. And quite frankly, they don’t see themselves as accountable to society’s equality aspirations (then they shouldn’t have accreditation nor receive payment to perpetuate an homogenous and egregious closed-shop). Frankly, we’re not holding our breathe for any real reform inside Leo’s any time soon. So don’t waste your time, money or peace of mind; simply go elsewhere where you will be respected for your achievements.

If You Do Meet the MRs:

Leo’s is a great networking opportunity for developing and gaining professional connections that will take you a long way in the legal profession. And for you at least, Leos will be the best investment you could ever make into your professional career. Just know you will be getting your qualification from an organisation that is neither fair, merit based or even socially decent to many people in the community. So it hardly rates as something to be proud of; it simply lacks notable esteem or professional worthiness.

Jason A. Briggs BA/LLB (Melb.)
If you would like any further information we can be contacted at: jason@jabriggslawyers.com.au.