Visualise the perfect law student. When I think of this person, it’s my boyfriend. He’s got a fantastic grade average; he’s very involved with the Law Students’ Society amongst other extracurricular pursuits; he volunteers in a Community Legal Centre; he had clerkship offers coming out of his ears and was lucky enough to score a traineeship at his dream firm. If I were to think about the ideal law student trajectory, that would probably be it.
On the surface, I thought he ticked all the boxes and it just seemed to me that it all came very easily. While he managed to get high distinctions on exams for which he only finished his notes the night before, I held back the tears when I narrowly scraped through despite working myself to the bone. When he ascended to a director position on the Law Students’ Society, I was facing the bitter rejection of missing out on a lower level position I had poured my heart and soul into campaigning for. So when I received a rejection email from a firm I was really keen on and had spent a sizeable chunk of time preparing for, I lashed out at him and blubbered through the tears that while I loved him very much, it just wasn’t fair.
The truth was that despite my boyfriend’s carefully crafted façade, it actually didn’t come easily to him. There were very many nights he had worked until 4am on assignments, he had spent countless hours at university doing menial tasks like printing and collating paperwork for the Law Students’ Society and he had endured weeks of juggling commitments at university with clerkship interviews. Little known by the outside world, he narrowly staved off a mental breakdown a few times over in the quest to keep his persona up. However, the underbelly of keeping up the ruse was not one he wanted to advertise which is why I felt pangs of guilt for many days after I had written him off ever understanding how it felt to be me, a low-achieving law student.
Despite thinking I had a decent shot at clerkships, I still found putting together my applications to be a challenge. When I redrafted my CV, I had to rack my brain for every single thing I’d ever done to add to what I considered to be a disappointing smorgasbord of achievements. I couldn’t exactly put on my cover letter that ‘I worked really hard on this assignment and learned some really cool things but only got a credit for it’ or that ‘I had really bad day at work on the day I had to do a test but I managed to get a decent mark for it’. As I tried to talk up my pursuits in cover letters to convince HR representatives that I’d been doing some really worthwhile things, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of shame that I’d worked so hard to just get through law school yet I had very little to show for it.
I’d hedge a bet that the way the clerkship and graduate offer process is conducted nowadays has a lot to do with why law students are feeling this way. There are a lot more people applying for these positions than there are positions to go around, leaving us desperately clawing at anything to give us that all important edge. As well as this, the recruiting process is much less personal with things like video interviews and psychometric testing robbing us of our opportunity to shake somebody’s hand and connect on a human level. This process tells us that we’re no longer people, just walking CVs.
Unfortunately, this kind of mindset is much more devastating and systemic than I think we’d care to admit. I have heard too many stories of law students who have felt it the better option to end or attempt to end their own lives than continue juggling all their commitments with the possibility that it may not get them anywhere in the end. I have looked at my friends in the eyes for many years and told them I was fine when I knew very well that was a blatant lie, but I was too scared to admit how I really felt for fear I would be discounted as a worthy competitor.
The truth is that there are no ‘well-rounded’ law students. There is no one person who has managed to do enough or be enough without compromising some other aspect of their lives. I’d be surprised if there was a single law student out there who hadn’t applied for special consideration because the stress was just too overwhelming or who hadn’t struggled to get to sleep wondering whether this was all for them.
All too easily, we have handed over our sense of self-esteem and self-worth to a small group of people who are given very specific criteria to decide whether we are or aren’t good enough. However, in this world where a single grade point can decide whether you’re good enough to be selected for three to four weeks of paid work experience without any guarantees of future employment, we need to reclaim our sense of well-roundedness by reference to what makes us happy. If playing video games or Instagramming your brunch makes you happy, the officer on the other side of CVMail is the last person who should determine whether that makes you ‘well-rounded’.
So how do we avoid the possibility that our legal profession will be riddled with more cases of mental illness than career satisfaction and fulfilment? I certainly don’t have the answer to this, but I do know that the first step is doing away with the ideas that we must look like we’ve got it together all the time and that each of our peers is the reason we received a rejection email. Not only are these ideas completely untrue, but they also deny us the help and support we need from our peers who have the acute understanding of what we’re going through because they’re going through it too. The moments I’ve spent bawling my eyes out in the car with my friends with whom I have had the courage to tear down my walls have undeniably been my most cathartic.
My CV may not be as impressive as my boyfriend’s, and I definitely don’t have as many clerkship offers headed my way, but I’m proud to say that my biggest achievement is that I have gotten through nearly all of my law degree despite all the challenges. And if that’s not enough to impress a HR representative, I couldn’t care less.
Flynne Tytherleigh is a law student at Monash University and is the owner of men’s accessories brand PocketMan.