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.

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.