Volume 9, Issue 11
We law students and our practicing certificate-holding compatriots are a special bunch. We’re people who read too much, work too hard and apparently spout lies like a 7/11 spouts slurpies (and underpaid workers). We’re also astoundingly upper and middle class.
While I have no idea what percentage of Melbourne JD students come from low socioeconomic or disadvantaged backgrounds, the narrative and culture that I, as a student from a low-socio economic background, have faced is one that is no doubt geared towards students who have come from fairly well-to-do and educated families.
Don’t get me wrong, I know that both the University of Melbourne and the government want to increase the proportion of undergraduate enrolments from low SES background to 20% by 2020. Doing so though programs like Access Melbourne and various scholarship schemes – after all I myself have benefited greatly from such schemes.
But the disadvantage does not stop at the hip pocket or at the university door.
Each year over 300 green Melbourne JD first years are thrown into a tempestuous world of clerkships, partners, associates, journals, barristers, courts, statues and firms. To me it is a whirlwind of the new and often not so wonderful. A world only briefly glimpsed in their fictional state of TV dramas or on the news. An overwhelming land of wine and cheese where top QCs and SCs can make more in a day than what my family lived on for a year. A land where who you know and who you are sometimes seems to matter more than what you know.
I suffered from a certain level of culture shock. I didn’t know how to network, how to talk to lawyers, how to talk to HR, what opportunities to go for, what opportunities existed or what to say and how to say it. Things like competitions and networking were foreign to me, even after my Melbourne undergrad. I didn’t feel like I belonged and the cultural and class gap between myself and my peers was at times too hard to close. It’s a feeling that can be overwhelming, disorientating and horribly isolating.
And yet there is an assumption that we either already know or will figure it all out on our own, before it can do any damage. I stumbled throughout my undergrad degree without taking enough opportunities, naively and stupidly believing for almost two years that a university degree was a sure fire path to decent full time employment. I’m currently stumbling through law school, naively and stupidly staring at the giant monolith named ‘CLERKSHIP APPLICATION’ wondering if I’ve done enough to catch it when it falls so I don’t turn into a law student pancake, or if I even want to catch it at all.
Students in general should have the option of having the basics of legal and law school culture explained to them, even if it is in a broad and general manner. Basic knowledge of the legal field, networking, commercial awareness, legal firms and opportunities available should not be assumed knowledge or seen as something we will figure out in our own time. Orientation should be more comprehensive, more hands on, less ‘lecturey’ and should take into account the different backgrounds of the law school student base and the challenges they might face. Students should also be further encouraged to share their own issues and question their own assumptions and measures of success and worthiness. It’s altogether too easy to assume, subconsciously or otherwise, that a graduate position at a top tier law firm is the default measure of success. Especially when alternatives are not given the visibility they deserve by the general student body, the LSS and law school.
In addition, there should not be an assumption that all students have the luxury of fully committing their lives to law school. People should not be barred from having the ‘full law school experience’ because they have to work out of necessity, live far away from campus, have family to take care of or have any other obligations. Such an assumption will only stop brilliant yet burdened students from reaching their full potentials.
While the law school has good careers and wellbeing programs, these programs should be expanded. Even in the light of all the recent changes to the way the university’s student services are administered. However, they should always be conducted with sensitivity and without assumption. I dislike the fact that i’ve been asked if my parents can provide me with any connections and that I’ve been told that I should consider buying extremely expensive dictation software as if it were a realistic option for the average student.
The law school should continue to financially support their disadvantaged students. However, it should look beyond the financial aspect of disadvantage and find ways to address, counter and even change the negative aspects of the law school’s often overly highbrow and alienating culture that work against students from disadvantaged backgrounds. After all, it’s not easy to find one’s way through the daunting yet ultimately fulfilling quagmire that is Melbourne Law School.
Jenny Au is a second-year JD student.
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