So You Wanna Be A Lawyer?

So, you wanna be a lawyer?

The first few steps seem fairly obvious: you study hard in high school, maybe pick up Legal Studies and a couple of advanced English subjects if you can; you sit your HSC and you use your hard-earned grades to apply for the many various entryways into law school at as many universities that will take you as possible; you accept the best offer you get and hey presto – you’re a law student!

But what do you do next?

This is a question I’ve been slowly discovering the answer to. And it’s not as straight forward as you might think – or hope.

In NSW Australia, once you finish your studies as a law student you must then complete your Practical Legal Training in order to practice as a solicitor. And that will set you back another $10,000 on top of your already towering HECS debt (because law school wasn’t expensive enough).

As part of your Practical Legal Training you must do just that – acquire some practical legal training. You can do this on a paid or voluntary basis, and you can work full-time or part-time while you complete your diploma (depending on your study load and course conditions, of course). There’s all kinds of work that counts towards your PLT, like tipstaff or paralegals or clerks – it’s a fairly broad range.

Sounds super simple, right?

Wrong.

You see the above spiel is touted in order to convince law students that things aren’t as bad as they seem. You’re so close to becoming a lawyer, you’re almost there! However you quickly learn that it’s not all sunshine and daisies, and at times it feels like you’re even further from being a lawyer than when you first signed up for Legal Studies in year 11.

What they don’t include in the advertisements for PLT courses is that every other law student is also looking to do their PLT. This may seem too obvious to be a revelation, but when you realise the implications of this, it’s nothing short of shocking.

Consider your graduating class. Think about how many there were just in your year. Think about how many bright, young, capable people you once competed with for marks and rankings. They are now your competition for a job. Oh, and don’t forget the many other students who studied law in all its other manifestations but who weren’t necessarily in your graduating class: Law/Arts, Law/Science, Law/Psych, Law/Commerce, Postgraduate studies, Juris Doctor students – nervous yet? (Given the crazy rates of depression in law students, I’ll bet the answer is ‘a little’)

Now broaden your thinking and consider the many other law schools in your area. If you’re in Sydney like I am, then think of all the other universities full of graduating classes. Students that didn’t really have faces or numbers because they were all moulded together into otherness and stood simply as your outside competition. Well, now they are your direct competition. Cast your mind even further and you find yourself considering over 40 law schools throughout Australia – all of them with graduating classes, and all of them now competing with you for a job so that they too can pursue their long-held dreams.

According to The Australian Financial Review you will be competing with upwards of 14,600 law graduates. And that’s just for YOUR year. Each graduating class represents another 14,000+ graduates bursting out of law school and scrambling for whatever legal-related work they can find. Once you consider that most students also look for work while still studying, you’re about ready for a nervous breakdown.

But Jessica, it’s hard to get a job for everyone! I’m sure that even if it takes a long time everyone can still find work!

Sure, you’ll find work. But if you think that employers don’t know they out-number you in a dangerously disproportionate way, then you’re in for the biggest shock of your life since about 30 seconds ago when you realised you were competing with 14,600 students just to finish your studies.

A lot – a lot – of the positions offered for PLT placements are on a volunteer basis; that is, they are unpaid positions. Now of course you are being paid in the sense that you are earning valuable knowledge and you’re working towards completing your 75 days of placement. But you’re also a law graduate. Law graduates have typically spent the last five years studying and are aged 23+ with no time for volunteer work. We have bills to pay. We have rent that’s due. We really need an income.

This is helped in some ways by the fact that most positions are part-time, meaning if you find a volunteer position you can still work part time or casually at a second job that pays in a more material sense. So even though you’ll be exhausted, at least you’ll still be able to survive. The drawback of course is that it will take longer to finish your diploma because you probably can’t work full time and study full time. You also need those 75 days of experience, and if you only work 3 days a week that ends up being a looooong time.

Or you can pay extra and only do 25 days. Oh boy.

I am incredibly lucky that I found an amazing volunteer position and I am learning a lot. However I would be lying if I said I wasn’t struggling a little money-wise. It’s difficult to keep your chin up when you’re 24 years old and still living with your parents with little to no savings because every penny is going towards food and bills. While I am lucky to have very supportive parents and a patient partner, I know many students aren’t as lucky.

And to clarify – this is just to complete your PLT. You aren’t even applying to be a lawyer yet.

Junior solicitor roles will typically require 1-4 years of post-qualification experience before you are considered as a candidate. Junior solicitor roles. And how do you get experience, you ask? I hope you’re really into volunteering and living off soup because you’ll be doing that for the next 1-4 years AFTER finishing your PLT.

I know I sound all doom and gloom right now, but I’m merely reflecting the state of the playing field here. The fact is there is an oversaturation of law students. There are only 66,000 solicitor jobs in Australia and yet each year the number of law graduates is increasing at an exponential rate. Each year students are left in the deep end once graduating and nobody is doing anything about it. Instead all I hear about is how lazy Gen Y is and how we don’t want to work.

Maybe it’s because we were raised being told “if you go to University, you can get a good job”? Maybe it’s because when you’re 18 you don’t really understand the job market like you will five years down the track? Maybe it’s because we have $100k of student debt we want to pay back and we can’t do that working part time until we are 30? But I know so many law students and graduates who are sinking as much time as they can into working for free whilst working two jobs, so it’s definitely not laziness inspiring them to do so.

We need to step back and consider the situation for Gen Y as it actually is, and not how it is painted to be. We aren’t lazy. We aren’t picky. We are simply trying to get by just like every generation before us. The difference is that we were set on a track back when we were teenagers, and now we are getting off the train and we have no idea where we are. This wasn’t what we were told. We weren’t warned. And now we are struggling because nobody wants to take our circumstances seriously.

If you want to be a law student I hope you really, really want it.

Small Victories

“I need a win today.”

I spoke those words to myself as I was driving to the train station this morning. I was running late because my printer can smell fear and decided to stop working at 6:30am. But let me go back a little.

Lately I have been feeling stagnant. I’ve felt like a half empty glass of water; parts of me constantly in movement but still never moving. I’m working two jobs but when I reach the end of the day I feel like I’ve accomplished nothing. What do I have to show for my day? My week? My life?

I’m 24 and I’m living at home. Why? Because I spent the last six years studying full time. Now I work five days a week, but four of those days are unpaid because legal experience is more valuable than money for law graduates. Both jobs are in Sydney because work where I live is scarce, so every day I sit on a train for four hours. That’s my life. Working. Commuting. I spend my life on a train and yet I feel like I’m going nowhere.

Of course it’s probably just post-graduate blues – that quarter life crisis I keep hearing about. It’s not that bad, I know. Things could be worse. I know. But despite being fairly self-aware it was still getting me down.

So yesterday I applied to College of Law. Although I’m not thrilled about going back to the textbooks, a part of me was missing the passive guilt of not studying. It was progress – and progress is progress. I had finally taken a step towards completing my studies once and for all and finding my career, officially. I had a start date. I had an end date. And it felt great.

I then tried to apply for an amazing graduate position I found online. But unfortunately I needed certified ID to apply, and like most people I just don’t have that kind of thing lying around the house. Oh, and the deadline for submissions was in 24 hours. Classic Jess.

It’s amazing how just one thing can start a domino of dilemmas when you have anxiety.

Nothing was particularly dire, nothing was unfixable. But all the little things were adding up. I won’t go into the nitty gritty details, but I – like everyone – have a lot going on. And when you have so many little things building up inside you it can take just one for it feel like too much. I was stressing over so many little things that my brain wasn’t sure where to focus. It was like dodgeball, except some kid had screamed ‘MULTIBALL’ and thrown in 50 extra balls and also you’re wearing a blindfold.

So that’s how I found myself arguing with the scanner at 6:30am this morning. I finally got my ID printed and headed to the station, praying I didn’t miss my train. I had a long list of things to do in my bag along with my laptop and once I got on my train (panting and spluttering because I’d had to run to make it) I set about crossing things off.

When I arrived at work I was greeted with some positive feedback from one of my supervisors. And it was like the start of better things, because after that one small victory things started to look up. Life wasn’t so bad. I was able to keep crossing off the many tasks from my to-do list, and was receiving great feedback from my managers and peers. I got my ID certified. I submitted my application. And every single one of those little things throughout my day felt like a win.

Sometimes it’s just about how you frame things. I was really down and stressed out. But because I celebrated my little victories and recognised my accomplishments – even small ones – I was able to get through the day. Now I’m on the train home and I feel like I’m moving.

Don’t downplay your successes. Don’t tell yourself it’s not a big deal. Don’t tell yourself it was nothing. Own it and embrace all your successes.

I often hear that our generation was coddled growing up; that all these participation awards were bad for our work ethic and set unrealistic expectations for the ‘real world.’ Well the real world is rough. It’s really, really rough. It can get you down for big reasons and for little reasons, and sometimes nobody will be in your corner but you. And that’s why you have to celebrate yourself. Pat yourself on the back when you finish your to-do list. Be proud of yourself for getting through a rough day. Give yourself a break, because the world probably won’t do it for you.

It’s okay to need small victories every now and then. So let yourself have them.

Arts Students

I have an arts degree.

I have two degrees actually. That used to be considered bragging but I find that there are a lot of people out there these days with two degrees. Or maybe it is still bragging and I’m just trying to justify it.

Anyway, I have an arts degree and my major was writing. Not media or publishing or screenwriting. Just writing. It was like a hybrid course between English, cultural studies and media. I learnt how to analyse the writing of others, I learned practical skills to apply to my own writing, I learnt about the publishing process including manuscripts and editing, and I flexed my creative muscle writing short story after short story.

Seriously, so many short stories.

Now that I have graduated there are a few things I have realised about my arts degree that I wanted to pass on because I don’t think we talk about it often enough.

The first is much less important but still needs to be said, and that is: while you don’t need a writing degree to be a writer, it will definitely make you a better writer. A lot of people have natural talent and can hone that talent themselves. But formal training, in any form, can make you better. So whether it’s a couple of free online classes you find, or a Masters at a top university, getting training for your passion can help. It will help.

The second thing I have realised about my arts degree – and this has been much more important to me as I stumble through adulthood – is that my degree was not a waste of time.

We are all familiar with the societal status of the arts degree, at least in academic circles. Typically the arts degree is the butt of the joke and I get it. An arts degree can have a very loose structure and deal with arguably less practical topics like anthropology and writing and linguistics. I’m not saying that these pursuits are impractical; just that they are perhaps less practical than an engineering degree or a commerce degree. Hey, I was an arts student too – I get it.

But do not mistake less practical with useless.

Sure a sociology degree doesn’t immediately lend itself to a profession, but the knowledge and skills sociology students have obtained through their studies are still relevant and useful. A student with a history or politics major might not land a job as a historian or a politician, but they have learned something that not everyone else has, and have been taught how to critically analyse and understand complex ideas.

As a writing student I was often told my degree would be useless. I remember one of my law professors telling me that creative writing was the exact opposite of legal writing, and I have heard the same thing from lawyers as I’ve ventured out into the real world. Why study writing when I could have done something practical like commerce or criminology that would help me with my legal career?

But my writing degree does help me. It helps me every day.

When I’m at work and I’m writing submissions my degree helps me structure and formulate my work. When I’m communicating with clients my writing degree helps me understand the different ways I might need to communicate what I am saying based on how they are relating to what I am saying. Whenever I sit down to write anything I am using my writing degree. I am thinking critically, I am thinking intellectually. I am thinking.

Because no matter what you study, you’re still studying. That’s the point of an arts degree as far as I can see. The structure of your course and the majors and minors you choose are important, but what is more important is that you are learning. You are studying. You are thinking.

Of course this wasn’t the only reason I chose writing as my major. I wasn’t aiming for life skills; I was aiming for writer. I really enjoyed my arts degree and I always looked forward to sitting down and opening my writing notes once I’d closed my law notes. It was my happy place in the middle of my law degree – a place I could retreat to give my mind a rest. Or so I thought. What I was really doing was picking up new skills and actually learning how to learn – an independent skill we aren’t really taught how to do in high school. That’s what I ended up getting out of my writing degree.

So don’t let anyone make you feel bad for being an arts student. Yes your degree probably doesn’t have many practical world uses on the face of it. No you probably aren’t applying for internships like the law students are because how exactly do you intern in philosophy? But you’re still learning, you’re still growing, you’re still studying.

Arts students are still students, just like the rest of us.

Productive Procrastination

If there is one thing I’ve learned over the last 19 years it’s how to procrastinate. In fact I’m something of a professional at it.

It isn’t that I’m lazy, or that I manage my time poorly. I juggled two jobs, two degrees and indoor netball for a while there, so I don’t have any issues organising myself. I just found that I worked best under pressure. I can’t really concentrate unless there is a target staring me in the face and threatening me with failure (I am also rigidly afraid of failure).

I think I really hit my stride once I started university, and for my entire tertiary career I don’t think I submitted a single assignment outside of the 24 hour period before it was due. Sometimes it was the night before, sometimes it was five minutes before. And at first it was terrifying, my eyes darting rapidly between the clock and my word count. But over time I relaxed. I learned who I was. And who I am is a person driven by the threat of a deadline.

I can already hear potential future employers crossing me off their short lists.

But as I waited for these impending deadlines to come to me, I learned how to procrastinate. It’s not something that comes naturally to everyone. I like keeping busy, and more importantly I need to keep busy. Wasting time really bums me out, so I learned to fill my time with activities that felt productive even though in actuality they came from a place of pure time consumption.

Here are five of my favourites: how to procrastinate productively from a professional procrastinator.

Procrasti-reading

Are you reading this blog-post instead of studying for your exam? Awesome – you’re doing great. I can’t recall how many times I read random news articles or blogs or pulled books off my shelf instead of opening a textbook. But it was more often than I care to admit. At least if you’re reading you’re keeping your mind working. It’s probably  a little better than a Netflix marathon, right?

Procrasti-cleaning

Can’t concentrate on your research report? Get up, turn around, and sort your room out. My room was never cleaner than when I had a big assignment due, because even if your life is a mess, your room shouldn’t be. Clearing away the clutter and finally sorting out your floordrobe does not help with your essay writing, but it will at least make your mum happy.

Procrasti-baking

This is such a common and classic form of procrastinating, it even has its own hashtag on Instagram. Not only does this fill your need to feel productive in the days leading up to exams, but you wind up with some delicious baked treats to enjoy as you cry over your textbook.

Procrasti-writing

This blog is an excellent example of my side-career as a procrasti-writer. Writing about anything and everything other than what you’re supposed to be writing about might seem like a waste of creative energy to some; if you’re going to write, may as well write out your essay notes, right? Nah. At least you’re at your computer and practicing your writing skills.

Procrati-cising

I hate, hate, hate exercising. Except when I have an essay due. Exercising is a good way to burn some calories as you burn time, but it’s also really useful if you’re struggling with ideas for your assignment. Going for a walk or a swim can help clear your mind and help you to de-stress, which is often a barrier to essay writing on its own.

The Beginning of the Rest

In the early hours of Monday night I submitted the final assignment of my undergraduate degree. And it was possibly one of the most pure moments in my life to go unnoticed.

It was 4:16am exactly. All the words of my research paper had started to blur together on my screen. I’d read the word ‘proportionality’ so many times I was starting to question if it was even a real word. I had thirty tabs open across two different browsers. I was on my third energy drink when the recommended daily intake is two. I was a total mess, and it was a familiar feeling.

Then I hit submit. I hit submit for the last time, and I simultaneously felt everything and yet nothing. Nineteen consecutive years of navigating my way through the NSW education system had finally left me here: hunched over my laptop in bed, somehow yawning with exhaustion and yet shaking from the excess caffeine. I’d finally reached open water. It was exhilarating, satisfying, and just a little bit terrifying.

Everyone in the house was asleep, so there was nobody physically present to share the moment with. No point calling my parents, who sleep so early I’m starting to suspect they are afraid of the dark. Nobody was online except me to care about my research paper on the culling of pest animals in NSW. Or my degree in general, really. It was just me and the moment.

It was only a moment. A moment that filled me up and then emptied me just as quickly. For the last nineteen years I have been Jessica Sheridan, student. That’s the answer I put on every form I fill out at the RTA. Every time someone asks me what I do for a living. Every time I walk into the bank and speak with a teller who wants to charge me higher fees. Every time I go to the movies or shop online at ASOS. Why am I still living at home, you ask? I am student.

And what am I supposed to do with all this student-based knowledge? All these suddenly seemingly useless skills? I can write a research paper like nobody’s business. Essay plans? Sorted. Thesis statements? Too easy. Hypotheticals? In the bag. I was a seasoned veteran, taking down take-home exams and using the word ‘juxtaposed’ in the appropriate context. I guess some of these skills will prove to be transferable – or so they keep telling me – but it still feels as though it’s all been used up.

This is it. This is the end.

Or rather, the beginning. The beginning of the rest. What that means, I haven’t yet decided. It could mean the start of everything else – a grandiose and epic journey as I chase my passion for writing and my dream of saving the world. It could mean the next chapter of my life as I enter the workforce and find myself a new word to write on all those RTA forms. It could mean a literal rest – a break from life to decompress and maybe read one of the many unread books on my bookshelf. I haven’t yet decided.

When you’re young people always ask you to draft out what you want to do with your life. And everyone always answers with something similar, like a fireman or a hairdresser or maybe even a cat. Then you get a bit older and you start to entertain different ideas, changing your answer to things like doctor or actor or journalist. Then at the precipice of adulthood they ask you to submit a final copy of your life plan along with your university application and/or CV for full time employment.

And that’s crazy, isn’t it? I’ve been a student for nineteen years, and I am still not sure if I’m ready to submit a final draft. I’m not sure I would even be happy to settle with just one submission. There’s just too much in this world that I want to be.

I’m not sure what I’m going to do next. All I know is that I am no longer Jessica Sheridan, student.

I’ll try and figure it out sometime.