Volume 10, Issue 1
I leaned forward and rested my forehead on the cold glass, staring down at a muggy Collins street below me. Business-attired ants poured onto the sidewalk in a steady stream of grey and black. I let out the sigh.
How the fuck did I get here?
It wasn’t until I was literally sitting at my 101 Collins desk that the significance of my decision to pursue a clerkship hit me. I’d spent the better half of two weeks writing and re-writing cover letters and perfected my canned laughter for cocktail parties, but there was never a moment where I really sat and thought about what I was doing – it was just the done thing and I was doing it.
Like many people, I entered this degree with a notion of what sort of law student I would be: diligent, studious and, above else, uncompromising. The whim of my classmates and sparkle of a corporate career wasn’t going to change me: I’m principled.
But here’s the thing - in a closed environment, principles become a little more malleable.
It goes without saying that MLS is one of these environments: it’s small, it’s held out to be a haven of intelligent (and competitive) people and its culture is shaped by two institutions with similar interests. Both the law school itself and the LSS have a vested interest in elevating the status of corporate law (and clerkships by extension): the law school needs to produce success stories and future donors, and the LSS relies on corporate firms to sponsor the events they have tied to their identity as a student support body. The extent and consequences of those decisions have been well discussed, in this publication and broader, so I won’t go beyond acknowledging that it exists and has an affect on all of us here.
But still – how did I end up, a mere 18 months after stepping into MLS for the first time, sitting in an office environment that I never envisioned for myself? It wasn’t the money or the glamour. It wasn’t the seminars and careers sessions on offer at Uni. It wasn’t even the allure of free sparkling water in every office at the firm. It was the pervasive, incessant suggestion that there is no other option – if you want to be successful (or even to get a job!) you need to go corporate.
As law students we are constantly reminded of the tough job market, the oversupply of graduates and the dwindling funding for community law organisations to provide grad roles. This combined with the clerkship-fever that spreads every June to August over this building is enough to produce some mercurial principles.
And so I, like many before me, told myself that I wasn’t doing anything wrong by opting in and applying. I didn’t have a choice - I was just following the only option. I told myself I would do a year, maybe two – exploit that corporate dog for my PLT – and then move on to a real job, one with meaning and purpose.
A lot of people tell themselves the “just one year, maybe two” lie. I met a lot of them at my clerkship – people who studied law to save the environment and now celebrate the acquisition of a new mining client for the firm. Or those that thought they’d be a community lawyer only to find themselves churning out corporate contracts. Two years turned into four: there were mortgage repayments and a private office was in sight. Four turned into six with a promotion. Six to eight with the allure of partnership.
The “just one year, maybe two” lie turns into the “I get to do so much good through pro bono” lie pretty quick.
Have no illusions: corporate law is a selfish choice. Pro bono is a farce. There are no mid-tier firms with different values. Firms are largely homogenous in culture and focus. No matter where you go, money is king and the client is queen.
I won’t pretend to be any bastion of moral purity, but fundamentally I live by the principle that those who are given opportunity through education and privilege owe that back to the world. Using the opportunity of a law degree from this University to advance the profits of corporations and amass personal wealth is indefensible.
The world around us is crumbling. From our vantage point as legally educated people we are well placed to see it all: wealth inequality, mass incarceration, environmental collapse, human rights abuses. Choosing a career path with the odd hour spent on a pro bono case or a few grand thrown to charity is the moral equivalent of closing our eyes on those hard truths.
I get it - an alternative is not visible. Time and time again we're told that if we want to be a judge or a barrister or a Legal Aid solicitor or a politician, than a corporate firm is the place to start. This path is presented as some rite of passage for the future do-gooders and great legal minds of the future. To me this is self-serving bullshit: the University sells it because they end up with high-powered grads and the firms because it secures them a steady stream of applicants. Best to strike terror in the hearts of students for doing anything other than falling to their knees in gratitude for a clerkship.
It’s a full-circle system of creating fear to try alternative pathways and acceptance of the status quo. It’s a system that rests on a shrug of the shoulders from those who could make a difference and demand appropriate funding for the community law sector and reject the notion that toiling in service to others is a feckless choice.
There is no impetus for this system to change until the best and brightest stop opting in.
If any of this sounds inauthentic coming from someone who did a clerkship, fair enough, but a quick caveat: after one, I bailed on the next two. One was enough to not only turn me off corporate law, but the law in general. Now, as I gear up to start a job in the not-for-profit sector, I’m free of the pressures that make people publish clerkship diaries anonymously.
So I’ll leave you with this: clerkships and corporate law may be the easy way in – but take some time to question what’s making you want to get in before realising that you can’t get back out.
Morgan Koegel is a third year JD student
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