Volume 10, Issue 12
I didn’t come to Melbourne Law School with unrealistic dreams about what a law degree could offer me. I had an Arts degree, and I’d worked a bit previously; I wanted better employment prospects, and the chance to do something more practical with my time.
What I wanted from MLS changed over the three years I spent here. I wanted to feel involved, to have a sense of community, because I didn’t think I’d get through otherwise, and I did find that, after a little while. I wanted law to not define me as a person, wholly, and I think I managed that, though I have to introduce myself as a law student first and foremost now, and doing the JD has changed the way I think. I wanted to avoid feeling like a statistic in a bureaucratic machine that would give me some analytical skills and a piece of paper, and over time I managed that too. I had opportunities for brilliant experiences and encounters with brilliant people, in my cohort and in the faculty, and I took as many of those opportunities as I could while trying to maintain a healthy amount of time outside of the building.
I also wanted the complacency of many people in this institution to be blown apart, and it was, in certain moments that were very revealing of what lies beneath the neutral facade of this place.
Neutrality is often analogous with conservatism, and I don’t think I will be making a controversial point when I say that the law is conservative. That’s its hallmark, after all - decisions are made based on what’s been decided before, because there is a virtue, we agree, in certainty, in following precedent, in avoiding capricious and arbitrary decision-making. Radical change remains possible, but it’s rare. This knowledge about the law influences the way many think about the law school; we can be complacent, those of us with privilege, arriving in this hallowed grey building, safe in thinking that things which have benefited us in the past, and which we understand, will continue on in the same way.
But there is a point at which precedent should not be followed, when change is a moral imperative, and I am suspicious of those who shoot down suggestions for change which are based on the lived experiences of their colleagues.
In the law school as in broader society, neutrality can mask disadvantage and inequality. Bringing these things to light - as, for example, the debate about a women’s space did last year - often causes a backlash. It’s in the backlash that you learn some stark truths.
With the women’s space example, it might seem like I’m bringing up something which has long been forgotten, and should only be a punchline to a joke about law students caring too much during swotvac. But to me it’s very much a live issue, which was never resolved, not least because there remains no evidence of the debate on my year level’s Facebook page. The fallout solidified my community, but I learned that the concerns of minorities are sometimes more likely to be silenced here than listened to respectfully.
But it was enlightening, and that’s the point I want to make. Though the only public result was backlash, the response made me angry in a way I hadn’t been before, and I found that to be productive.
The same might be true for those who tried to implement the recent gender-diversity mechanism for first-year LSS representatives.
The frustration of seeing the backlash against my friends who were trying to change a policy based on legitimate concerns has set me up well for my career, I think. There is value in listening to others and noticing when the situation as it currently stands is inadequate, and there is bravery in attempting to change it.
I think these are skills which those about to join the legal profession must have. We must question the status quo, or at least remain open to the questioning of others. We must listen to each other with respect, and approach each other and those who come to us for assistance as equals, while recognising that we are not all the same. We have an obligation to listen when told that a policy or a law which seems neutral actually has a negative effect on a subsection of the community; to look beyond express purpose to effect; to not accept institutional explanations at face value, however much we might respect the institution in question. Believe in the rule of law or the concept of the public interest, but know what is being done in the name of these ideas.
We have an obligation to look beneath the surface of things, to critique, to be aware. We already have privilege, and a lot of us will probably have power, and we should care about what we do with it and how it impacts on those around us.
So if you’re angry, hold onto that anger. I think that it will serve you well. And remain open to possibility – sometimes there is a crack in the façade.
Teresa Gray is a third-year JD student
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