Vol 11, Issue 12 (!)
Towards the start of this year, I made the decision to depart from Pelham Street. My destination was around the corner, at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education. The decision has been a grand one thus far – I have always been drawn more to enthusing people about the pursuit of knowledge and challenging them to develop their thinking than engaging in crisp rules and argumentation.
So why given my longstanding love for the communication of obscure historical knowledge did I embark upon a JD? This is the real question, not why did I drop out. I do not intend this confessional to slander a fine institution with first-rate teachers. The culture of complaint and self-flagellation is strong enough at Pelham Street, without a bitter ex-student further fanning the flames.
However it wouldn’t be a De Minimis article without a bit of a carp. The ‘back to high school’ mentality that the course structure encouraged is an odd one for a cohort pushing 25 who have already experienced the anonymity of mass undergraduate degrees. Say what you will about collegiality, I found the locker rooms, netball comps and ‘LMR groups’ to be pleasant but claustrophobic and infantilising. The three or four day a week program of unrecorded seminars is a far cry from the adult experience of the Monash and RMIT JD, forcing us to be in and around the law school, buying overpriced coffee and chatting about Netflix in every ten minute break like American undergraduates.
All this may have been fine if I had been interested in the law, or genuinely desired to make a career of it out of a lust for Collins street glamour. As it is I did not. It seems I had fallen for the old lie that teaching is a sell out for the intelligent and talented.
I had also allowed myself to be tricked by the more pervasive myth that law is the correlative of the humanities. A lot of late high schoolers with an interest in literature, history, even politics, are told by parents, teachers and career advisers that they would have not only aptitude but enthusiasm for the law if they went on to study it. The part about the aptitude may be partially true, the part about enthusiasm verges on utter bollocks. The relations between the law and the humanities are more superficial than substantive, shared subject matter rather than shared methods of reasoning or concerns.
I found that the style of law itself, the rigorous application to rules as its highest virtue, has more in common with accounting or medicine. In Australia, unlike many other legal cultures, the common ‘arts law’ degree has created an indelible association in the minds of many, and one which I think is responsible for a good many law school dropouts. It is an association that many prospective law students would do well to interrogate. I learned that, though I may be interested in politics, this is very different to being interested in the law.Indeed I found the private law subjects to my surprise to be far more interesting than the more legislation driven public law ones.
My final reason returns me to waving something of a finger at the law school. Despite the disinterest outlined above, I entered law school sustained by the maxim that one ‘doesn’t need to be a lawyer’ upon finishing the course, that MLS’ graduates go to a variety of professions, only one of which is a solicitor
With the greatest respect, this is tosh. Of course you could do many things after finishing law school and you will not be looked on the poorer. That would be sound advice for an eighteen year old embarking upon a double degree at significantly less financial outlay. However to begin a significantly more expensive degree in one’s early to mid twenties, with all the opportunity cost of exercising these ‘non legal’ skills and passions over those three years, seems a dreadful waste if you are not interested in the craft you are learning. It was an extraordinary marketing coup that I could be led to believe that a three year professional masters degree for a career I didn’t wish to pursue was a good way to ‘find myself’ and work out what I really wanted to do. To pretend that law is a new generalist degree, good to have up your sleeve, is a clever if irresponsible way of getting young people to prodigally throw their time and money at an institution, whilst acknowledging the poor job prospects that mean they will likely not have the opportunity to use that craft knowledge. Unlike medicine, work placements are not par for the course and so the cost of increasing places in a law degree is far smaller compared to what students bring in – it is in the university’s interests to peddle this line.
My confessional account has little to do with law school itself, and more to do with the myths that encourage people to do law for the wrong reasons, or no reason at all. If you want to pursue passions other than the law, I would advise you to spend these three precious years doing so. A passion for reading and a way with words are not automatic signs that you will flourish and be nourished by the law school. And if the culture irks you and you find yourself constantly whining then, unless you are an incorrigible humbug, the problem may lie more with your decision to study a body of knowledge in which you are uninterested, and not with the institution you are finding yourself at war with.
Joseph Moore is a Masters of Education student who completed one year of the JD in 2016
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