Issue 1, Semester 2
When I was still in high school, a friend’s older brother dropped out of medicine in his penultimate semester. Within the insular community of private school parents and teachers, this move caused quite a scandal. Why would somebody walk away from years invested in an incredibly prestigious and lucrative postgraduate degree, with its attendant career and income prospects, a mere nine months from completion? My friend’s brother claimed that he simply realised that he didn’t enjoy medicine and saw no benefit in completing the degree. He now works as head ‘coffee-master’ at a vegan café.
These past few weeks, staring down the barrel of the second semester of my second year; the next fifteen weeks of nine-hour days, late nights reading judgements and meticulously compiling notes; I have some sympathy for his decision. I’m just not sure that my heart is in this degree anymore. I’m halfway done already, so surely I should just grit my teeth and power through? Or am I letting the invisible hand of a gargantuan sunk cost fallacy keep its grip on the steering wheel of my life?
The problem for me isn’t difficulty or stress. My mental health is fine. I’m doing well academically; I have a good circle of friends and involvement in extra-curriculars. I’m (relatively) financially stable and have hobbies and interests outside of school. The problem is that the realisation of how much time I need to surrender to the JD has become depressing. The moments when I find the material genuinely interesting are getting further apart. More than anything, the time I spend at law school has just become so joyless.
I’ve been reassured that this is a common experience. Some of my friends in older years refer to it as ‘the second-year hump’ — the doldrums of powering through the necessary but tedious core subjects before the wider range of electives and opportunities to self-select areas of personal interest open up in third year. Enough people have sympathised with these feelings to make me think that it’s a commonplace pathology, a quintessential part of the law school experience. At the same time however, I’m also seeing more of the same down the track. Horror stories about the experiences of new entrants to the legal profession are common, featuring long hours working in high stress environments, combined with a cutthroat hyper-competitiveness brought about an over-supply of law graduates for even the most menial employment opportunities. With the golden age of lawyering coming to its end, the pay isn’t even that great anymore. Is this really the pathway that I want to take if I can’t even maintain enthusiasm for Corporations Law?
We all recognise that this lifestyle requires sacrifices. We give up the time that could be spent on hobbies and friendships. Many lawyers entering their careers have to postpone or forego relationships or having families. Hell, it’s hard even just keeping up to date with the Netflix shows I want to watch. And these aren’t simply problems that a greater industry focus on work-life balance or student and employee wellbeing will fix. They are structural components of the career trajectory that we map out for ourselves. The ‘sacrifice-now-succeed-later’ mindset is pervasive. We’re taught to give these things up in the hope that one day we’ll achieve the level of success that will finally keep our itch for self-actualisation scratched. And so, the choice to study law takes on the character of a massive gamble, with the stakes being the prime decades of our lives.
Moreover, I lack any perspective to evaluate whether I should actually stick it out or not. The environment selects for certainty and determination over self-reflection. In this building we have a vested interest in reinforcing the eventual payoff narrative with so much of our self-concept tied up in becoming breakout young professionals. We all want to succeed and succeed whilst we’re young — it’s embarrassing to admit that you have no idea what the hell you should be doing. My ex-girlfriend recently secured a position with the treasury department. My roommate is on an eighty-five thousand dollar (plus bonuses) salary with KPMG. Dropping out to try my hand at writing mystery novels or selling hand-crafted tea cosies on Etsy doesn’t strike me as a particularly appealing story to tell at my high school reunion.
Maybe my friend’s brother’s café is hiring? At least I’d look pretty good in a barista’s apron.
Anonymous is a Second Year JD Student.