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Great expectations: What should I expect during my law degree?

Great expectations: What should I expect during my law degree?

What should you expect while studying your law degree? We ask some of the country's law deans what their advice is for students studying law, and what skills and knowledge they should aim to…

What should you expect while studying your law degree? We ask some of the country's law deans what their advice is for students studying law, and what skills and knowledge they should aim to have by the time they graduate.

While students might see completing a law degree as testing one's ability to pass a rigid set of subjects such as contracts law and torts, for those running the courses at Australian universities such as Ross Grantham, the law dean and head of school at the University of Queensland (UQ), law students at his university should expect a much broader education.

"Being a good lawyer is certainly by no means all about information," he says. "What distinguishes a good lawyer is the ability to think through a problem, to apply an analysis to a problem on the basis of theories of fairly fundamental principles and a grasp of how the legal system works."

The dean of the University of New South Wales, David Dixon, says that studying law is vastly different from when he was an undergraduate student at Cambridge and a masters student in Cardiff a couple of decades ago.

UNSW employ the experiential learning model, where students get practical experience outside the classroom, including doing work at the university's community legal centre at Kingsford.

"We don't use the lecture - tutorial model," Dixon says. "What the UNSW has always done is to provide interactive teaching in small groups, which is based on a different teaching philosophy of not just imparting knowledge, but working together with students."

Dixon says that at the end of their degree, students at UNSW should be multi-skilled and flexible, with the skill set to work across a variety of sectors.

"Our graduates should have top-level 'black letter' skills and be able to work in a commercial law firm or in business, or work in a community legal service or for an international legal organisation."

Dixon cites the university's most recent Valedictorian as someone who has embraced this ethos, as she has decided to practice law in the rural town where she grew up.

Law schools across Australia are cognisant of the need to incorporate recent developments, such as the demand for international and family legal subjects, to ensure their courses remain relevant to students.

Health issues such as depression are tackled, with lawyers having one of the highest instances of depressive illnesses across the corporate spectrum. "I think the legal profession has been a meat grinder for some time, with people getting thoroughly chewed up and spat out in a relatively short space of time," he says.

Grantham is hopeful that with the increasing number of female law graduates, the legal system will become less adversarial. He would like to see law schools encourage students to improve and reform the profession after graduation.

"I see our role as training students who in 10, 15 or 20 years time, will be senior members of the profession," he says. "They will be dealing with matters at the edge of current legal knowledge, they will be heavily influencing law reform, they will be judges, and in a sense, making the law.

"What they need in a sense is an education in the law, not a lot of legal knowledge."

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