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Law Abroad: Life as an Australian Law Student

Law Abroad: Life as an Australian Law Student

It was my parents that first suggested I should study law. I had been a big fan of debating at high school enabling me to develop my passion for reading and arguing, both of which come in spades in a career in law. My parents were right, but I had reservations; I was not remotely interested in law at all. To be honest, the prospect bored me, despite the appeal of a unit such as criminal law and the prospect of becoming a barrister, fighting to convict murderers. This vision is most attractive for naïve high school students dreaming of a law career.

Having deferred and changed courses multiple times, I eventually applied for a double degree in Arts/Laws (later to be Science/Laws) at my local university, the University of Western Sydney (UWS), where I hold a scholarship. Despite my reservations that I would not be attending a more prestigious university, it is here that my journey as an Australian law student began.

0 Week: the start of a journey

The wonderful thing about UWS is that it offers a law camp for first-year students that enables everyone to form friendships before the semester begins. Whether or not these friendships stick is another matter but, for the first week, you feel invigorated and are reminded that you are not alone in your degree.

…it offers a law camp for first-year students that enables everyone to form friendships…

The camp opened my eyes to the type of people studying law: young freshers just out of high school, people who had deferred like myself, and people in their thirties and forties looking for a career change (an extremely brave move for one woman I met who is a single-mother of two). The camp was also great for showing that no matter what degree you study, people will still walk around topless with no shame, holding a conversation with you in your cabin.

At the conclusion of the camp, the real law student hardships began.

The degree structure

Australian law classes vary depending on the subject. In my first year, I attended one three-hour seminar a week for each unit, which consisted of a class of approximately thirty to forty people being taught by a law lecturer. All the week’s reading is expected to be completed prior to class, and this is anywhere from forty pages upwards a week. Realistically, if you are taking notes as well (which you should), this equates to approximately ten hours of work per law subject per week (including class time).

The reading is long and cumbersome, but essential. The benefit of seminars is that the lecturer directs you to the key concepts, so if you did not do the reading you can still get a feel for what you need to know for the week.

A great thing they teach you in that first university semester is how to do a case summary, and the importance of doing one for each case you encounter so that you have them for your exams. Of course, this still means sifting through multiple convoluted judgments, confusing facts where some details are omitted and endless obiter with not a ratio in sight.

The reading is long and cumbersome, but essential. The benefit of seminars is that the lecturer directs you to the key concepts…

The units are divided into core units that must be completed to obtain your law degree, along with eighty credit points (equivalent to a year of study) of electives. The combined degree is thus five years long and the graduate degree four years. The core units are similar to that of the UK, and include: Torts Law, Contracts, Professional Responsibility and Legal Ethics, Criminal Law, Property Law, Constitutional Law, and so on.

All units run for fourteen weeks (the length of the semester) and include exams. Most units have compulsory attendance, but some, such as property law, do not. Compulsory attendance is excellent; it motivates you to keep up with the reading. Some units, such as contracts, have a participation mark as part of the assessment, so this further motivates you to make an effort and contribute to class discussions.

It takes practice to learn to skim read and take notes of the relevant points without rewriting an entire page of the textbook.

During the first semester of my first year, I was buried under all the reading. It takes practice to learn to skim read and take notes of the relevant points without rewriting an entire page of the textbook. Even with weekly summarising, my final notes amounted to close to, if not over, 200 pages worth of work. It helps to search the Internet to see if you can find some notes that have been posted online so you can see what the main points are for the unit.

One thing I have learnt as a law student is that you are not alone; use your tutors and your fellow students. Leading up to exams, a group of us would book a study room in the library and swap notes, filling in the gaps. We could then take these notes into the exam (most units are open book– this is the greatest gift you will ever receive as a law student). The exams are generally three hours long and contain two problem questions and an essay. Of course, nothing is easy in law; problem questions contain multiple parts that need to be addressed to get all the marks. Law students are often shocked by how poorly they perform during their first year (I just managed a pass grade in torts), but realistically this is to be expected due to the huge shift in the workload from high school to university.

Social events and other activities offered by the law school

You may be wondering if I have any fun as an Australian law student. The answer is yes, but only twice a year. In July, the University of Western Sydney’s Law Students’ Association (UWSLSA) throws its annual harbour cruise. It is a wondrous event that sees students dressed to the nines in gorgeous mini dresses (in the middle of winter) and tuxedos for a night of drinking in Sydney’s Darling Harbour. The sights are beautiful and for only $75 (approximately £44), students get pizza and an open bar. This gets students so excited that within the first hour there are usually casualties leaning perilously over the side of the ship, or couples passionately exchanging saliva in a not-so-secluded corner. For me, I go for the dancing and there are plenty of party tunes spinning for the four-hour cruise.

The sights are beautiful, and for only $75 (approximately £44), students get pizza and an open bar. This gets students so excited that within the first hour there are usually casualties…

At the end of the night, many are crying (from joy) and the next day, many are still crying (from the hangover). If they have recovered enough by September, the second bout of fun begins, this time with a little more class.

I have a law degree…now what?

What is the outcome of your degree as an Australian law student? Frankly, it does not look good. There are so many people doing law these days that it is no longer prestigious. Add to this competition from the Group of Eight (Go8–i.e. the top universities in Australia–http://www.go8.edu.au/) and there is little chance for obtaining a graduate position with simply good grades. If you are not involved in your Law Student Society, doing social justice work, holding down a part-time job, volunteering for your community, completing several extra-curricular activities and getting high distinctions, you most likely will not get a look in.

If it does not work out and I do not become a solicitor, I plan to do extra study at university to go into forensics with the Australian Federal Police (AFP).

On the plus side, completing a combined law degree gives you some flexibility for the future. A Bachelor of Science/Laws is a particularly good combination as not many people do it. For me, if it does not work out and I do not become a solicitor, I plan to do extra study at university to go into forensics with the Australian Federal Police (AFP). This is an area where a law degree will come in handy without having to practice as a solicitor.

Despite the hard work that goes into a law degree, life as an Australian law student is so laidback that students are almost horizontal. The lecturers are passionate about their subjects and the students are supportive. Australian law students work hard and play harder. For me, I have had a love-hate relationship with my law degree, but I am determined to complete it because overall it has been an enriching experience. Perhaps parents really do know best…

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