Issue 5, Volume 18
The LSS was contacted for comment by De Minimis. Their response is included at the end of the article.
As clerkship and graduate offer season is in full swing, JD students’ Facebook pages are in overdrive. It seems like nearly every couple of hours there is a post from the LSS or the GLSA just “letting us know” that a firm is open for applications. Or perhaps it’s an informative discussion with a firm employee and an LSS committee member, so that you can “get a feel” for what life is like at the firm. But if you’ve been following this stuff for a while, you might begin to notice that it’s only certain firms that get these posts. These firms are the ones that primarily fund the LSS, and in return the LSS spruiks them hard to us, the students. Which begs the question, just like Insta influencers in the US now must (#ad), should the LSS be disclosing when something is a sponsored post?
In 2019, according to MULSS’ Financial Report, LSS sponsorship revenue totalled $244,950, nearly double that of ticket sales, and this number has been growing every year. Sponsorship is, of course, somewhat of a necessary evil – the LSS requires funds to throw costly events and provide services. However, the LSS sponsorship model has become almost a transactional scenario: the firms expect and require not only their name on the event or activity (who could forget Allens-Linklaters Yoga), but also that the firms are promoted and sold to us as students on social media, and in return the LSS gets large amounts of money. So, does the LSS require this much sponsorship income? Year after year, the LSS is taking in more revenue than expenditure, to a point now where 2019 LSS cash reserves were sitting at $426,242. Given that the LSS has presumably had remarkably little expenditure this year due to COVID, that amount will have likely spiked by the end of 2020. With a pool of half a million dollars – and growing – just tucked away for a rainy day, the LSS does not really have a financial incentive to keep soliciting sponsorship from firms. Yet it still happens, and as students, the outcome of this sponsorship shapes our time and the culture at MLS.
The MULSS Careers Facebook page is the primary way that the firms leverage their sponsorship into a large-scale advertising campaign. The MULSS Careers page now has over 1,500 members and has posts from the Careers team nearly every day – sometimes even twice or three times a day. When students join the page, it would be reasonable to assume that they would be exposed to opportunities across the law from a diverse range of people, educating students on a wide range of opportunities ranging from corporate to family, criminal to government, human rights to international. However, despite some tokenistic promotions to the contrary (Beyond Law School series), what students are instead exposed to is thinly veiled firm advertising. For example, Baker McKenzie has now featured an insane amount of times – their arrangement with the Careers team means that the LSS is promoting Bakers on the post every single time the firm releases a video as part of its promotional Baker’s Dozen campaign. The question remains – do law students expect these posts to be paid sponsorship, or do they expect a fair and balanced range of available opportunities from all firms and areas, regardless of whether or not the firm has lined the pockets of the LSS?
When it comes to a lack of disclosure, the Clerkship Guide is another big offender. LSS sponsors are thanked for contributing their time and effort, however there is no mention made of their monetary contribution. One glaring omission from the clerkship guide this year is a firm profile for MinterEllison. It seems strange that despite being the largest Australian law firm by revenue that they would be overlooked by the LSS Careers team, but the reality is that Minters did not feature in the guide because Minters did not pay the LSS for a spot in the guide this year.
Rather than accurately displaying a range of potential firms and providing actual genuine advice, the Clerkship Guide has devolved into a booklet full of paid advertising and testimonials. Over 20% of the Guide’s 222 pages is made up of full-page advertisements for various sponsor firms, and the ‘articles’ on practice areas are often nothing more than advertorials spruiking the benefits of the firm in that area.
Sponsorship obviously helps the LSS host events, however it is clear that the LSS is now requisitioning more sponsorship than is required for our purposes. Law students deserve to be valued as more than mere advertising targets, and the LSS should take responsibility for ensuring that its publications and social media posts are genuine and not just paid advertisements in disguise. It appears that the LSS has become too accommodating to the demands of firms, and there needs to be a pushback on what the LSS is and is not willing to do to satisfy them. This arrangement may be problematic. Future directors may find it hard to balance competing incentives, both to acquiesce to the cutthroat demands of reputation management imposed by corporate firms eyeing potential clerkship or graduate candidates, whilst also pushing back if those arrangements begin to fall outside the best interests of students. But, at the very least, if this promotion is going to continue, perhaps we could receive disclosure about whether or not the post is sponsored and how much each firm has contributed?
Anonymous is a second-year JD student.
Response from MULSS Leadership Team
We are always seeking to improve and be as transparent as we can. It is very near the end of our term, so the suggestion of clearly identifying sponsored posts will be passed on to the 20/21 LSS Committee. We encourage everyone to get in touch with suggestions like these.
The MULSS has an obligation to students to elicit the level of sponsorship required to ensure that we can continue to run important events and initiatives. This is in the best interests of the student body. The MULSS does far more than just throw social events. We provide a scholarship supporting financially disadvantaged students, run Book Fairy and the STS tutorials, and also receive sponsorship for portfolios like Education, ESJ, Queer, Women’s and the Indigenous Representative who are doing vital advocacy work and running varied, often career-focused events.
Our sponsored posts are not ad hoc arrangements which are the discretion of any one portfolio or director. At the beginning of each year, the MULSS puts together a prospectus of potential opportunities for engagement and related entitlements. These entitlements are presented equally among firms and remain constant from year to year, as we often have repeat sponsors. The posts we make are ones that firms have paid for well in advance, as per the prospectus. We can also assure readers that neither the Careers nor Sponsorship Director acquiesce to firms. Students’ interests are always at the forefront of our relationships with sponsors. The newly introduced Ethical Sponsorship initiative as well as significant advocacy against some firms’ proposed COVID changes are examples.
The content on MULSS Careers also includes posts about LSS-run initiatives. As an example, the page has multiple posts about our Beyond Law School Series which informs students about Family Law, Criminal Law, Associateships, CLCs, and the Bar. It is unfortunate that the author views these as ‘tokenistic’ as many students find these initiatives a valuable opportunity to engage with leading practitioners from these important areas. Other posts, such as the recent post advising final year students of the firms who are taking market applications, are made because we think they are important. We want to make sure MLS students have access to multiple opportunities.
The article’s representations regarding the LSS’s financial position are speculative and misleading. The figures in the Financial Report did not consist of solely corporate sponsorship revenue, but also included other sources of revenue. These figures were also the position at 30 June 2019 - over 14 months ago. The LSS’s assets have not “spiked” due to COVID-19 and the speculation that the assets are close to half a million dollars is not at all reflective of our current assets. No attempt was made to contact the Treasurer to discuss the LSS’s accurate financial position.
The reference to the Baker McKenzie podcast series is misleading. The Baker’s Dozen series contained 13 episodes and the Careers Directors posted 3 of these. Many of the sessions targeted skill building (e.g. interviewing) which would be useful regardless of where students choose to apply. We also advise that MinterEllison made a strategic decision to partner with our Queer Portfolio, rather than participate in the Clerkship Guide. We are supportive of firms getting involved with initiatives that are of particular significance to them.
On a personal note, we would be lying if we said this article wasn’t distressing to us. We take on the article’s main suggestion, and can look to have it implemented. Any student can come to us directly with this kind of suggestion. However, the implication that we would sell out our peers, when their interests are at the heart of everything we and the LSS have been working for in such a tough year, has been hurtful.