09/07/2018 Being a law student – the good, the bad and the unexpected

Being a law student – the good, the bad and the unexpected

Being a law student is a work in progress, akin to a metamorphosis cycle where eventually, the caterpillar becomes the butterfly. When you’re on a journey as difficult as the one into law, occasionally it’s worth looking back on the good, the bad and the unexpected aspects of the process to see how far you’ve come. Everyone’s student experience will differ in some shape or form, but one thing we inevitably have in common is hard work, meltdowns during eight-hour library shifts and collective hatred for TOLATA.

The good

The ‘Socratic method’, also known as ‘cold calling’, is the random on-calls for cases and consistent preparation every day when professors randomly call on a student to critically analyse a case regardless of their level of preparedness. If you’re anything like me, you look like a fish out of water each time. However, as cutthroat as this method appears, it forces accountability on students to be prepared, while maintaining composure under pressure. Most students attend tutorials because attendance is compulsory and are happy to sit in and watch YouTube videos for the hour, but this method eliminates that from happening.

One of the most exciting things about law school is the challenge. Law school can be both exhausting and frustrating - it is a full-time job that demands over 80 hours a week of law-related activities and over 40 hours of prep work. Besides studying for your demanding law degree, you also must find the time for sleep, family, friends and most importantly, training contract/pupillage applications. However, there is method to the madness; the process encourages you to put your best foot forward and work your hardest.

The bad

Studying law is a lot of work and it begins from day one. It’s not just about the reading, but also writing – some say it’s like reading terms and conditions for three years. You will learn how to conduct legal research and make citations, develop relationships with your peers (who will be potential colleagues in the future), network with trainees and associates (to gain mentorship and work experience opportunities) and apply for training contracts/pupillage opportunities. This can all seem daunting, especially talking to complete strangers, but with practice, you’ll become a pro at networking.

Time management is key in law school; each week you are up early and doing tutorial prep until 11:00pm. There are always cases to be briefed, tutorials to be attended and formative essays to be submitted. If you don’t plan your time well, you’ll drown in a pool of countless coursework and eventually fall behind – and once you’re behind, it can seem impossible to catch up. Unfortunately, there really is no break, even when you have time off. As a law student, there is always something to do, be it studying, researching or networking. On more than one occasion, you’ll be left feeling incredibly drained physically and mentally, but that’s why it’s important to find the time to be social by going to the gym and catching a movie with your friends. Balancing your degree with extracurricular activities can be tricky, but it’s not impossible. 

The unexpected 

I was attracted law because of its relevance to everyday life. Even a bus ticket is a form of legal contract which we enter daily. However, I was surprised by how competitive other students on my course were. Nobody warns you about how cutthroat law school really is. At times, I wasn’t sure whether I was at uni or the Hunger Games. Being graded on a curve forces you to compete with your peers for that 2.1 and training contract. Everyone is very private about their study methods and notes, so the first term is pretty much everyone for themselves. There is a lot going on in the first year and you long for a support system, but people have already formed alliances and cliques, and are reluctant to let anybody else in. With the benefit of hindsight, the dog-eat-dog atmosphere forced me to revise independably and rely solely on myself – which benefitted me in the long run.

The legal community, in general, is very supportive of law students, be it your lecturers, personal tutors, careers service or even LawCareers.Net who send a newsletter packed with time-sensitive information. I’ve been overwhelmed by the level of support given to me; my personal tutor had an open-door policy and made me feel very welcome. I think this level of support is paramount to success in the sink-or-swim environment of law.

Practising legal professionals are all very willing to offer career advice, application tips and answer any questions you may have, and not just at a law event. They are accessible online, via LinkedIn and Twitter – I don’t think a lawyer has ever declined my invitation to connect. They understand what it is like to study law at undergraduate level and make a real effort to connect with aspiring lawyers over coffee or lunch – some are even open to being your mentor!

Whether you intend to practise or not, a law degree is one of the most valuable, stimulating, and rewarding academic experiences you can undertake. Your mind is required to engage problems in logical, efficient and strategic ways. You acquire the ability to understand, explain and navigate some of the most tricky social and economic issues. You are exposed to hundreds of intelligent professors and classmates from a spectrum of ages, expertise, socio-economic backgrounds and opinions. This exposure broadens, strengthens and matures your conviction and arguments. As a result, you learn to admire and respect your opponents and their professional accomplishments. And at the end of it all, you receive one of the greatest privileges of it all – the ability to practise law. There are undeniably ugly truths about law school, but amidst the bad is an overwhelming amount of good.

If you are at the beginning of your legal studies or still trying to decide whether to become a lawyer, I hope that reading about my experiences has been somewhat helpful.

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