Disillusionment and the new arts degree (by Stephanie McHugh)

Stephanie McHugh is a second year law student at Melbourne University, studying the Juris Doctor.

Many of my peers applied to law school for very definitive and noble purposes – to become an advocate and give voice to voiceless, to get involved in human rights issues or to fight for environmental change.

I doubt any would have entered law assuming that they may become one of the countless students who suffer from debilitating anxiety, stress and depression. Or one of the many law graduates who are unable to find legal employment after the completion of their degree.

I assumed that the passing years of my degree would imbue me with confidence, specialised knowledge and employability – but as I reach the end of my second year at law school, I am more confused and disheartened than ever. Part of this disillusionment stems from the fact that law degrees are now viewed as the new Arts degree. The past President of the LIV, Geoff Bowyer, held that they are better seen as a good generalist qualification. So what consequences does this have for Australian law students today?

With an increase in law schools comes a market inevitably flooded with graduates. Swinburne University of Technology – which markets itself as a leader in the fields of science, technology, innovation, business and design – is now offering a law degree, with its first intake of students in early 2015. The number of Australian students to graduate from law this year is well over 12,000. Thus, the supply of jobs cannot possibly meet the demand for them. Yet although this is acknowledged in a token manner by law schools, they continue to increase enrolment numbers. Clearly, the potential revenue brought into universities by law students paying hefty fees (particularly in JD full-fee courses) outweighs any concerns about their poor future career outcomes.

A flooded market can open the door for law graduates to be taken advantage of. Adelaide law firm Adlawgroup asked prospective law employees to pay a fee of $22,000 for a two-year work experience program. Thankfully, the company bowed to public outrage and pressure to rescind its offer. Yet law graduates can be taken advantage of in many other ways. Unlike Medical degrees, where students are placed in hospitals as interns after the completion of their course – law students have no such guarantees. Because of this, many graduates are more than willing to do work they otherwise might refuse. The rationale is that: “If I don’t do it, someone else will” – Someone else will beg to work 14-hour days, to be paid poorly, or to even pay for work.

In this way, law graduates are perceived (and sometimes even perceive themselves) to be readily replaceable. Indeed, if we even attain a job, we are supposed to feel “lucky” and not vindicated, even after studying four, five (or in the case of JD students, six) years for it.

This seemingly bleak landscape, which is the backdrop for many law students’ lives at present, can have a highly detrimental impact on health and wellbeing. Clerkship offers were made in October this year – and afterwards, my law school was brimming with disappointed applicants. Larger law firms had hundreds of applicants for very few positions – however many students saw their rejection as a marker of their self-worth as a law student, and future graduate – rather than part of a larger institutional issue that had little to do with merit.

There is a prevalent mentality that the only way to succeed after law school is through achieving a clerkship, and then obtaining a graduate position. Many law schools idealise private law career paths – to the point where students can lose hold of their initial motivations for choosing to study law.

Ultimately, the only real way to combat disillusionment with a law degree is by firstly, de-personalising rejection and most importantly, staying true to what you really want out of your law degree, rather than what you think you should want.

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