Vol 13 Issue 3
By Clare Van Balen
If you asked most students who the LLSN represents, they’d say mature-aged students or parents. Parents are the most readily definable later student type, yet there is only a handful at MLS at any one time. (This is because the time-intensive course structurally excludes them - but I’ll get to that).
The diversity of our membership makes definitions tough. What exactly is a later law student? Student ‘A’ is 30 and feels alienated among her early 20-something year-old peers, but she is financially supported by her parents. Student ‘B’ is only 22, but he is self-sufficient and has to work to support himself. The LLSN caters to both, whether or not they’re members. This is because our scope is broad, and ranges from providing older students with a social group to fighting for structural changes to the JD course that benefit working students. This includes access to lecture recordings, re-thinking the take-home exam structure, and advocating for course flexibility. (Part-time JD anybody?)
The LLSN fits into broader conversations around:
Our group speaks to all these issues, but I will discuss just two here:
First and foremost, the LLSN is about characterising law students as human beings rather than machines. As such, we are part of the broader shift in the legal profession towards acknowledging the need for work-life balance.
When it comes to wellbeing, this trend benefits everyone, not just later students.
With increasing awareness of the high rates of depression among lawyers and law students, wellbeing has been put squarely into the spotlight. The conversation began with self-coping mechanisms and “resilience”. But we have come a long way since then. Now workplaces, universities and organisations must look at themselves and their role in exacerbating mental health issues in systemic and structural ways.
MLS has done many great things in the wellbeing space. But it is up to students to speak up collectively against inflexible course structure, law school culture or tokenistic policies (remember that wellbeing poodle?).The ones who raise their voices are usually those in the margins.
“Work-life balance” is the opposite of scheduling take-home exams on weekends. Wellbeing initiatives focusing on the individual do nothing to change the fact that students need to miss 10 days before they can access seminar recordings, or the fact that parents pay for their legal education by tearing themselves in two.
Course flexibility opens the doors to legal education for all: the “first in families”, the public school-educated, the country-kids and the poor (yes, I said it).
The JD is a graduate degree, yet, sometimes we need to remind the university needs reminding of this. The fact that you can only do the course full-time, cannot apply for special consideration for work-related reasons, and must sacrifice nights and weekends for study are just some examples. Not only do students caring for family-members or holding down paid work deserve better, unencumbered students deserve a healthier environment too. While the LLSN understands some things change slowly and sometimes not at all, students can count on us being awake to these issues.
Last year’s committee fought hard for explicit recognition of family violence as a special consideration criterion. We didn’t make it all the way to main campus (watch this space) but MLS did change its internal guidelines. Even if you never use it (and I hope few ever have to), it symbolises MLS’ acknowledgement that we are human beings.
Last year, we secured funds to reimburse parents forking out for childcare during take-homes.We also worked with the LSS Education Team to secure extra STS tutes for students who were unavailable at the 1pm timeslot due to work, family commitments or just the demands of being a balanced individual.
These initiatives benefit us all, but particularly help students in the margins. Frankly, if diversity is not designed into the course, it is designed out. There’s a reason later law students are highly represented at Deakin Law School while we are a minority at MLS – it’s because of flexible and online course offerings.
The diversity of our membership is an asset rather than a burden. It is the differences among us that make law school vibrant, and the more the LLSN does to encourage difference the better. The benefits – in the form of equitable course flexibility and normalisation of work-life balance – are felt byall.
Clare van Balen is a third year student and President of the Later Law Students’ Network. The LLSN is contactable at firstname.lastname@example.org, and at www.laterlaw.com.
More from this issue: