Vol 11, Issue 4
We are Not Equal.
Now by this I do not mean that there are some humans in this cohort who by constitution alone are more deserving of power and privilege than others, although there are some who see themselves otherwise. What I am stating is that, in first year, a veil can descend that, over the course of the degree, separates your new colleagues from their past and present context, their advantages, and their sheer luck. This veil, which it is seemingly passe to pierce, hides how deeply unequal is our School’s character is. It is my intention to humbly nudge new students into recognising this and other facts that our school, for its own self-preservation, denies. It is also my hope through this and future work to remind those who, for their own motives, have allied themselves with the institution that there are those, like spies, amongst you, who must henceforth give fewer fucks and demand that our School become more egalitarian, democratic and truly tolerant than it is.
I have had far too many conversations, even with self-identified “progressives”, who by words and conduct assume economic equality to effectively be established, and for whom inequalities in our school are those only of “identity”, conveniently quite equitably divided between rich and poor. A childhood’s worth of material or cultural deprivation has been cleansed by the “welfare state” (that the speaker hasn’t accessed and is rarely deeply committed to), scholarships (with the attendant sting of charity and obligation), and “extra–curricular opportunities” (which the speaker has, with their greater resources, co–opted). By the magic of “objective” entry examination, we arrive at MLS ready to embark on a 3–year assortative process propelling the deserving into the upper ranks of the profession, and others into ignominious obscurity in some average–tier outfit (oh, we’ll get jobs, this is Melbourne). The fact that the vast majority of students are consistently privately–school educated, I suppose, is sheer coincidence.
This is, of course, utterly self–serving; always misleading, and often a lie. It precisely masks the fact that MLS is one of the few remaining bottlenecks Melbourne’s elite pass through on to the profession, business, politics, and other aspects of “public life” where one’s sense of the public good conveniently attends personal comfort, prestige and power. The School is so astutely conscious of its prestige and its history (honour board? Really?) precisely because we don’t just want to go to a law school, we want to go to one both that’s both elite and elitist.
Papering over such undertones with our false sense of deservingness obscures the manifold ways in which some students succeed simply because they are, quite simply, practically and socially better off than their colleagues. I leave aside how family background and private-school training deliberately cultivates and intuitive comfort in the world of the powerful. I leave aside how well “special consideration” truly compensates those with dependents or health issues, suffering grief, or indeed suffering those “external circumstances” apparently so deviant from the norm they warrant the term “special”. And it is proper to leave the experiences here of sexual minorities, first– and second–generation migrants, and of course Australia’s first peoples to those who can and do write better on them.
I can simply note that if your study, accommodation and living expenses are subsidised or funded by parents or relatives, it is quite obviously easier to succeed. Others must work, and work harder, for accommodation that is more expensive, colder, more neglected, of insecure term, and usually shared with indifferent or unhinged co–habitants (people often underestimate how living with sympathetic and friendly housemates, let alone family, lessens the emotional and practical toll of this course, especially in times of emotional distress). It is also, of course, further from the School, so you simply are penalised in time — both emotional and literal — by your distance from (unrecorded) lectures.
Rent means work, and since government stipends (if available) for full–time students are set so as to ensure that students who don’t work but study full–time will live in poverty, you must study for our degree (which is, indeed, full-time work), at the same time as finding work simply to avoid poverty. Now, most students, rich or poor, work. Long gone are the days of the truly idle rich. But since more lucrative, flexible and well–paid work requires superior bargaining power to attain and thus superior connections and background, disadvantaged students are in work that is insecure, more demanding, more inconvenient, and for less pay (the irony of “flexible” work is its inflexibility, since your life is contingent on whether management wants you).
If your study is subsidised and you don’t have to work or pay rent, you can leverage that time into study, tutoring, competitions, and unpaid internships, “volunteer” positions, wildly expensive “international opportunities”, or indeed “giving something back” through service for our LSS. Anyone who believes that that makes no practical difference to one’s time at MLS and indeed future career and life is usually lying by conduct if not by words.
Now, well–off kids can and do badly. This attests not only how difficult it is to consistently succeed in the JD, but indeed why monarchies fail — even “good families” sire duds. This notwithstanding, it remains the case that an H2A to a privately–funded ex–Ormondian is not the same mark as an H2A achieved by a poorly–paid, self–supporting student with difficult employment, poor accommodation and no friends or mentors in the degree and profession. If you wish to set yourself against this claim, I don’t envy the monumental task of reality reconstruction before you.
So before you castigate yourself for apparently “poor” marks, it is not only helpful but necessary to ask whether the person against whom you compare yourself really had to deal with what you dealt with; whether they had help you didn’t; and whether they are more talented…and not simply the recipient of more consistently good luck.
Toby Silcock is a third-year JD student
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