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Tall poppies cut down in Australian law schools

Tall poppies cut down in Australian law schools

Jillian Button, a lawyer at Minter Ellison's Perth office, completed her law degree at Melbourne University before studying her Masters of Law in America at Harvard Law School. She shares her experiences.

Jillian Button, a lawyer at Minter Ellison’s Perth office, completed her law degree at Melbourne University before studying her Masters of Law in America at Harvard Law School. She shares her experiences.

The reason I went to the US, apart  from just being interested in focusing on the area of international climate change law, was that I also wanted to build my C.V. with something a bit different.

I took classes in international environmental law, international trade and international finance as well as some American law subjects. 

Harvard Law School, yes, it did live up to the hype. Even just doing a one year’s Masters was an incredible experience in terms of the level of intensity and calibre of the teaching and atmosphere of the campus.

It was completely different to my Melbourne University experience – and that’s not a criticism of  Melbourne Uni, it was just a different experience.

One of the key differences was the student body in my post grad course. It was a student body that had studied at an undergraduate level to get into law. At Melbourne Uni, most of the people you studied with came from Melbourne. 

At Harvard the students were very diverse in terms of their backgrounds and where they came from. It was a very diverse, very strong group of people and they were very competitive because they had fought and worked very hard to get into that classroom.

They used the Socratic method of teaching and all the students were expected to have a very good handle on the material that was assigned for that class. If the teacher asked you a question it was very high pressure, you couldn’t say pass. There was no hunkering down in the back of the class if you hadn’t prepared, you couldn’t be a passenger.

On top of everything else, at Harvard the resources available to students were incredible. For each student who attends, the university collects $40,000 a year and on top of that, it is a very wealthy institution. It can pay for eminent speakers to come from all over the world to speak at the campus and it really is a centre of intellectual activity. 

You were isolated from New York City by four hours, but it felt like you were at the centre of the world in some ways.

My experience at Melbourne University was different, to start with, because it was my undergraduate degree. I have to admit that when I went into my law degree at Melbourne I was ready for a bit of a change. 

I had come from boarding school and I found that the relaxed atmosphere of the Melbourne campus was great. Also, the five-year degree was an opportunity for students to really explore the areas of law they might want to practice in the future.

Ultimately I did meander my way through my law degree because I took the time to do more work on environmental law, and here I am, an environmental lawyer.

But I found that part of the law that I wanted to practice in at my own pace.

In Australia, I think the student body is just more normal, you are studying against people who are competitive but not overly so. It’s a more supportive environment where you don’t feel overly pressured.

In America there is also more of a cult of personality. American lawyers aren’t afraid to be outspoken and flamboyant, to use the media and do high profile pro bono cases. In Australia there is more of the tall poppy syndrome, you are a servant of the court and keep quiet. 

That is also reflected in the law schools. In America, you have to be outspoken in class, sometimes your grades depend on it. There was no tall poppy syndrome at Harvard.

Jillian Button is a lawyer in Minter Ellison’s environment group and is based in the Perth office.

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Tall poppies cut down in Australian law schools
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