Jonathan Steffanoni reflects on his experiences completing a Juris Doctor degree, and what now lies ahead.
I recently completed a Juris Doctor at RMIT, one of the first wave of law graduates from an institution which has a rich and unique history with the legal profession. No doubt, the well-respected RMIT Articled Clerk’s course which ran between 1962 and 1978 will be familiar to many in the Victorian legal establishment.
Mirroring many other aspects of legal practice, the young RMIT law school represents the nexus of the old and the new. RMIT has embraced technology, with the course being available online through Open Universities Australia, or on campus. The Melbourne City RMIT campus is home to the Old Magistrates Court, the Eight Hours Monument, the Old Melbourne Gaol and the site of a planned memorial remembering the first judicial executions in Victoria in 1842.
It is a place which is has deep historical connections to the Victorian justice system.
It’ impossible compare the experience of law schools objectively. However, in saying that, I feel that it’s valuable to consider some of the defining characteristics of the RMIT Juris Doctor course, viewed through my personal experiences.
The first thing that seems to define the RMIT JD course, is that teaching is not scheduled between 9-5, Monday to Friday.
Lectures and sessions are held in the evenings and on weekends, which can certainly test the commitment (and social lives) of students. Having said this, it makes studying law accessible to those of us who decide to study and practice law later in life.
Being a post graduate evening course, students often bring an established area or knowledge or expertise, and have a developed an understanding of what is expected in the ‘real world.’ Not to belittle the academic staff, fellow students were always able and willing to enrich the lectures by illustrating legal practice and principles through every day experiences.
The opportunity to include a research thesis in the course was one component which I found particularly challenging and rewarding. I chose to define my own research topic, while other students undertook primary research while shadowing a magistrate or judge.
I was encouraged and guided by both my research supervisor Dr Penny Weller, and Stan Winford from the RMIT Centre for Innovative Justice in completing a detailed paper on reforming the sentencing jurisprudence for minor drug offences. The opportunity to engage in a serious research project focused on law reform provided a great insight into an often overlooked aspect of the law.
Contrasting with the academic discipline required in the research thesis, a clinical practice placement at the North Melbourne Community Legal Centre provided me with challenges of a different kind. The prospect of dealing with real clients with real issues during my studies was one which I’m certain I will take much from.
The nerves that come with meeting a client, and not knowing much of what they have come to see you about, can be initially daunting, to say the least. Yet when you realise that you do have much to offer, and can make a difference, those initial fears are replaced by a great feeling of personal satisfaction and empowerment.
Advocacy and mooting are two areas of the law which are often seen as being an area for those who intend to head to the bar.
I believe the strong emphasis that the RMIT JD course placed on advocacy and mooting by requiring that all students pass multiple mooting assessments is one which will hold all graduates in good stead, regardless of whether they head to the bar.
I am sure that I would not be alone in recalling inner and silent and panic the first time one waits for the judge to enter the Old Magistrates Court. I would also say that I’m also not alone in taking a great deal of confidence and self-belief out of the experience.
RMIT’s Centre for Innovative Justice was recently established and is headed by former Victorian Attorney General Rob Hulls. The Centre is focused on promoting and guiding students to consider new ways of doing law. The focus of the Centre is on researching and promoting effective alternative approaches to improve criminal justice, civil dispute resolution and legal service provision.
Whether it was by way of guidance on researching my thesis, attending networking events or simply knocking on the door for a chat, the Centre has encouraged a more holistic consideration of the law. I think this epitomises my experience of the RMIT Juris Doctor programme in many regards.
While the law has such a rich tradition, it’s important to remember that the law exists for the purposes of supporting the social, economic, cultural and political hopes which we all share.
Jonathan Steffanoni (pictured) is a senior legal and regulatory consultant with QMV Super Solutions