This weekend, I took myself on a date to see a play called Mocha Is Not Coffee!, one of the Victoria Law Foundation’s Law Week events. The play, produced by Norbury Productions (headed by Verity Norbury, a Monash Law alumnus), centered around the lives of four law students and the issues they faced as they plugged away at their final years of law school. It dealt not only with law student specific issues like clerkship anxiety, toxic levels of competition in peer groups and the choice between corporate law or a more social justice-flavoured career, but also delved into broader themes like identity, the consequences of mental illness and sexual assault.
While it wasn’t the most uplifting Saturday night viewing, there were so many reasons why Mocha Is Not Coffee! was absolutely fantastic. It was great because presented the realistic and, at times, mundane, reality of studying law. But not only that, it was the first time I had seen a dramatic interpretation of law students and legal professionals that genuinely legitimises the problems we face presented to a mainstream audience.
Truthfully, I think the legal profession is going through a bit of an identity crisis. There is a surplus of law graduates for the number of jobs we can offer them produced by far more law schools than have ever existed before. We are far more aware of the state of our collective mental health and its damaging consequences to individuals and to businesses. The role of the lawyer has changed dramatically from what we have traditionally perceived it to be and our profession is just simply not what it was when my grandfather did his LLB in the 1970s.
Within our own circle, I think we’re coming to terms with this. The conversation around mental health is alive and we’ve seen both firms and law schools begin to address both causes and stigmas to enable people to get help. We’re starting to understand and empathise with law graduates around the particular problems with the job market, even if we haven’t quite thought of a solution. We’re reconceptualising the role of lawyers in the modern day in a positive way.
Beyond our own, however, law students and lawyers get a pretty bad rap. While lawyers seem to be viewed as a competent and intelligent profession, academic literature consistently ranks us low in terms of warmth and trustworthiness. And as for the reputation of law students a meme which says, “I’d rather lick a bus floor than talk to a law student”, is pretty representative of how we’re viewed by our non-law student peers.
So why is it that the non-law world collectively hates us? I think there are a few reasons, the first of which being how we’re represented in mainstream media. On one hand, lawyers are portrayed as pre-royal Meghan Markle whose law degree is entirely paid for by her firm despite her family being incredibly well-off and a human cyborg who practices without a certificate with the help of his aesthetically perfect fairy-god-lawyer who knows literally every kind of law which has ever existed.
Beyond Netflix, lawyers are either ambulance chasers or corporate cronies, they’re a politician’s career prior to politics or selling their souls by defending the guilty. And when these are the images which permeate mainstream society, it really is no wonder we’re viewed so negatively, despite being more fiction than fact.
As much as I enjoy watching fictional lawyers doing cool and/or ethically inappropriate things on Netflix, I think this representation of our profession in is particularly damaging. Such a negative perception of us in the community not only robs us of the integral role we play in the fabric of society and the administration of justice, but it invalidates the legitimate struggles our profession acutely and disproportionately faces (which are far more sinister than ‘how am I going to spend all the money I earn?’).
What kind of message does it send to law students who are struggling with mental health issues when tens of thousands of people engage with a meme (and several other similar memes) saying they don’t care about their problems? Why is it that society thinks that the problems spawned from long working hours, emotionally challenging subject material and a culture of destructive perfectionism can be cushioned with a prestigious title and an above average pay cheque?
But here I am preaching to the choir. You all already know this. You know the realities of the challenges we face, and you also know the worth you bring to your communities. But now we must rise to the challenge of changing our collective narrative in society and we need to change the way in which society views us. And while I think events like Law Week are a great start, we need more. We need more opportunities for the public to interact with and understand our contribution beyond the engagement of legal services.
To those shrugging and wondering why this is our responsibility, we can only stand to gain by humanising lawyers. We will gain when clients remember we have families who want to see us at a reasonable time. Our business will flourish when our personal connections with our clients are enriched. And we can fix this endemic mental health crisis by deconstructing the narrative that we must be perfect.
That was the genius behind Mocha Is Not Coffee!. It both validated my struggles and unveiled my reality as a law student to the outside world. But more importantly, it showed the world how the unattainable and exclusive brilliance of the legal profession is a constellation made up of very real humans with very real problems.
Flynne Tytherleigh is a law student at Monash University.