LAW student societies around NSW are staying silent on the details of their sponsorship deals with big law firms, which are potentially damaging student health.
The silence comes following The New Lawyer reports that alarmingly high levels of depression in law students might be linked to career advice that is heavily influenced by big firm money.
According to the Brain & Mind Research Institute, a University of Sydney-established research centre, 41 per cent of law students will suffer from psychological distress severe enough to justify clinical assessment at some point during their degree.
The levels of depression will be even higher than that suffered by practising lawyers, the Institute claimed.
Verity Doyle, president of the Australian Law Student Association (ALSA) said law students are facing increased pressure around their future careers, as well as consistently perpetuated expectations that "you can't succeed unless you get a job in a big commercial law firm".
The ALSA president said law schools themselves “continue to perpetuate these attitudes” and need to take responsibility for “forcing students to have unhealthy sleeping patterns and unhealthy lifestyles” through the use of 24 hour take-home exams and other forms of assessment. Along with universities, Doyle said the government needs to pay attention.
Law firm sponsorship, which is in high demand from law school societies, is adding fuel to the fire, said Doyle.
When pressed about any link between law firm sponsorship of law student depression, Doyle said: “There is a conflict of interest, I suppose, because law student societies want to promote what’s best for the members … But they also need funding … so that can mean that the main career opportunities which are promoted through law student societies are those going through the clerkship process and going into top tier firms,” she said in an interview.
Doyle said this creates a lot of pressure for law students. "There is a widely held perception , I think, among many law students, that you can't succeed unless you get a job in a big commercial law firm ... We definitely have an obligation as law student societies to make sure we give equal exposure to other organisations so that we can break down those perceptions that the only choice a successful law student can make is to go into a big commercial firm."
But organisations at all of the state’s largest universities refuse to reveal their funding arrangements. Details around sponsors, sponsorship figures, budget and spending have been kept secret.
May Samali, president of the Sydney University Law Society (SULS), declined to respond to any questions on their funding, nor how funding may impact law student attitudes to their careers.
The co-president of the UNSW Law Society, Shikha Sethi, was equally cautious. She said: “The issue of depression amongst law students is a high concern, especially for ALSA [Australian Law Students Association] this year. Unfortunately however, the UNSW Law Society will be unable to assist you with your investigation.”
Shaun Star, Macquarie University Law Society (MULS) president, said he was “not comfortable” detailing specific sponsorship details and president of the UTS Law Student Society (UTS LSS), Aaron Ko, said: “With regard to specific financial information, at this stage, I will decline to comment for various reasons.”
As part of The New Lawyer investigation, university law societies were asked to reveal law firm sponsorship figures to enable a more comprehensive understanding about how that sponsorship may impact the students, and the pressures they face in their careers. Failing that, they were asked to comment on how the various sponsors may impact pressure on students.
Around the state law student societies are refusing to comment on a link between sponsorship and depression. MULS said that while there was an “entrenched belief that students have to strive to get a graduate position in a top-tier law firm” their “sponsors are very valued … [and these arrangements are] mutually beneficial to our students”.
“At the same time, we realise our obligation to give students an informed choice so that they do not feel pressured to follow the traditional law firm paradigm. This is part of our role as a law students society, thus, if we are doing our job properly, the funding system has no link to the issue of depression,” said Star.
May Samali, of Sydney University, said: “No problems with sponsors”, while Aaron Ko, of UTS, said the only problem he can see with the sponsorship system is that “if the LSS has not been as strong in the past, some very early events like O’Camp and first year drinks may not be possible”. He added: “Depression amongst law students is not linked to funding systems.”
Despite not seeing a link between sponsorship and top-tier pressure, all the student groups were quick to tout their response to any potential pressure. In every case this involves diluting the over-exposure of big firms that students are subject to.
The groups claim that Sydney University’s Clayton Utz Equity Moot, UNSW’s Freehills Law Library, UTS’ Mallesons Stephen Jaques Senior Mooting Competition and Macquarie’s Henry Davis York Client Interview Competition are balanced out by their focus on giving alternate career options exposure as well.
SULS, MULS and the UTS LSS say that their career publications and events include opportunities for graduate programs other than big law firms to be advertised. Ko said the UTS careers guide “provides insight into avenues and opportunities that a law degree might take you, beyond the conventional large corporate law firms” and Star, of MULS, said that theirs includes “many NGOs, government sector jobs, in house legal options, investment banking, managing consulting [and] smaller firms”.
But Hannah Quadrio, SULS’ vice-president responsible for social justice, revealed that this may not have always been a priority for student societies: “I think this is the first time we have published social justice related careers in our main careers guide.” At MULS the equity officer position was created this year.
Even though law student societies are run almost entirely on corporate sponsorship, they are not calling for more university or government help.
“More financial faculty support will provide the LSS with more scope in administering its services however may, on the other hand restrict, it in the sense that the faculty may want to strictly oversee the use of the funds,” said Ko from UTS.
SULS president Samali was more specific with her suggestions to curb sponsor reliance: “The university could possibly consider waiving room hire fees for faculty-based societies.”
Doyle at ALSA was eager not to exaggerate a link between depression and law firm sponsorship, and said the sponsorship were mutually beneficial for students and firms alike.
“We’re definitely not wanting to bash big firms at all but I think it’s really about ensuring that we present a balanced picture to law students,” said Doyle.
“It would take the pressure off a little bit if there was more support from universities for law student societies and that obviously flows through to support that universities get from the government,” said Doyle.
“If we did get backlash from any sponsors that’s something that we would be very disappointed with.”
See the updated report: 'ALSA backtracks on impact of law school sponsorship'.