Brew Basics: Law school

8 mins

We’re starting on a new series called Brew Basics! I’ll cover concepts that we take for granted as lawyers and well, go back to the basics. This week, a journey back to law school.

The why

This Brew Basics series is inspired by a good friend who happens to be an engineer. As any lawyer knows, engineers and lawyers are like oil and water – they don’t mix (well). To many engineers, lawyers are the ultimate party poopers with their arbitrary human rules.

To be fair, the law isn’t always sensible. It doesn’t always provide the kind of justice outcomes that we think it should. When lawyers move on from law school, we don’t often question the fundamental principles that we’ve been fed. This is where Brew Basics comes in–to question the basic assumptions that we all have.

Just this week, I was asked about why “a third of the people in prisons in NSW who haven’t been convicted of an offence”. Well, the answer is really quite sad. The reality is that it takes time to dispense justice. Not everyone has the money to apply for bail, and not everyone (often justifiably) gets it. Most people don’t realise that it can take around a year for a criminal trial to even begin because of the series of steps it takes to prepare for a case, including pre-trial committal hearings. It may be two years after the actual event that a case fully winds its way through the courts. In some ways, waiting for judgment is worse than the sentence itself. This is why we have to continue talking about what justice means to us in society, and how we can move closer to it.

Law schools

From the public’s point of view, there is a fair bit of mysticism around law schools (yes, we utter magic words–no just kidding), law school “brand” names (like bags), and what you actually get out of it.

Early law schools

While most early societies had some form of community-sanctioned justice system, the best place to start would be the early practice of law in Ancient Rome. It’s the foundation of many Civil Law systems that you now see around the world. In Australia, we have the Common Law, which is based on the English legal system developed over time, which you can read more about here.

In short, the modern legal tradition had its roots in the jurisprudence of the Roman state, which “had a continuous existence and development for … over 2,200 years”. In its earliest form, the law was not a formal area of study and evolved through the work of priests who acted as skilled legal advisers in the royal and early republican courts of Rome.

Gradually from 100 BC, Roman law in relation to wills, legacies, guardianship, contracts, and so on were classified and turned into a discipline by one Quintus Mucius Scaevola Pontifex (great name). Roman legal practitioners or “jurisconsult” not only answered legal questions, acted in court for clients or drew up legal documents, but also wrote on legal subjects and taught law to a private following of students. The court advocacy of Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 BC – 43 BC), statesman, lawyer and philosopher, for example, is still studied today for its persuasion and technique.

Fast forward to 200 CE, law schools were popping up all over the Roman Empire in Rome, Constantinople (now Istanbul), and Berytus (now Beirut, Syria). The teaching of law gradually became a state-sanctioned activity. Fast forward again to the 12th century, and you have the law school of Bologna, today the University of Bologna and oldest university in the world, described as the “mother of modern universities”.

In Australia, the first law school was Sydney Law School. It was established in 1855 with funding from a substantantial bequest from John Henry Challis, a merchant and landowner of Potts Point, NSW.

Why do people go to law school?

In most places in the world, including Australia–getting a law degree is a basic requirement to be admitted to the legal profession. However, this is not always the case. You may be surprised to find that in the UK, there is no need to complete a three-year law degree to become a lawyer. There, you can study any undergraduate degree, such as English or engineering (booya!), and then convert that non-law degree by studying a one-year conversion course. Outrageous stuff! But it goes to show that you can learn a lot from actual practice.

In Australia, you can choose to do the LLB (abbreviation for Legum Baccalaureus). “Legum” is the plural of “Lex” which means law. “Baccalaureus” is the origin for “Bachelor’s degree”. Alternatively you can choose the postgraduate version which is called the JD (for Juris Doctor) also known as the Doctor of Jurisprudence. There is absolutely no difference in the core subjects or content that you study in the LLB or JD. However, you’d expect a slightly higher standard of work and analysis coming from postgraduate students in the JD.

I did the JD and enjoyed it because my brain at 21 was very different from my brain at 18. I believe that you get a lot more out of studying law with a bit more life experience.

There are also other informal reasons for why people embark on law school. Common reasons included, “I wanted to keep my options open” and “I finished an Arts degree and realised that I couldn’t get a job I wanted.” So by default, law degrees have become a generalist degree–when it really shouldn’t because what you study is so specific!

Having a law degree doesn’t make you a lawyer

Every law student has some family relation who says, “Oh, you’re studying law right? You’re a lawyer then. Can you read my contract?” It’s a classic misconception. And the answer is, “no.”

Once you finish your law degree, you need to work supervised as a graduate in a law firm for around 12 months and study an extra course known as “practical legal training” or PLT. After that, you can apply for admission to the Supreme Court in your state where you need to prove that you’re a “fit and proper person” to become a lawyer. This involves revealing your naughty infringement history of speeding fines, and peeing in laneways (I kid you not) after a big night. To be absolutely clear, I was squeaky clean.

Also, don’t forget about the additional application form for admission to the High Court of Australia, which is a cursory hoop you jump through. It’ll be granted as long as you’re admitted as a lawyer in your State.

Then you’re still not quite a fully-fledged lawyer. Ohmagawd!

After your admission, you still have something called a “supervised legal practice” condition on your practising certificate for the next 18 months to 2 years, until you apply for it to be lifted. What it means is that you can’t trot off and start a law firm immediately or dish out legal advice whenever it takes your fancy (which shouldn’t be the case anyway).

What do you learn at law school?

Lots of stuff! You spend the first half of your degree doing a lot of compulsory subjects, which are the important building blocks for practice. They include administrative law, constitutional law, contracts, torts, trusts, property, criminal law, corporations law, evidence and proof, and legal theory.

Some subjects suit logic / mathematically-minded people, for example, torts, contracts and property law have legal principles which are formulaic. Others, like administrative law and legal theory, are more theoretical and students with an Arts degree often thrive in those subjects.

Do your subjects matter? 

They really don’t. But you should focus on doing well in your compulsory subjects. They’re the building blocks for everything else. I’m constantly surprised when, years on, I have a problem that requires me to go back to consider a case that I read about at university.

Do your lecturers make a difference?

Always a controversial question. Most try their best!

Do you need a good memory? 

It helps to have a memory that is marginally better than a sieve. But you don’t need to have a perfect memory to do well. I often don’t remember what I had for lunch the day before, for example. However, if you have an eye for spotting details–that also helps.

Dreaded exams

Most compulsory subjects at law school involve 3-hour exams, some are 100% of your final grade or some 80%-20% split with other assignments. They are stressful. You have to keep within the time limit for each question and write really quickly. But it’s OK as long as you’re prepared.

You learn to never aim for perfection because those exams are built to be “quick and dirty”. Your paper looks like a scrawl or something a cat stomped all over. It’s almost miraculous that your lecturer gives you marks for writing something barely legible.

Then there are winter exams. Your feet are ice blocks. Your hands are about to fall off. Well, I exaggerate. But it’s always cold in the exam hall. Post-exam “feels” are… always anticlimactic.

Life gets better when you move towards the end of your degree when your elective subjects tend to involve a 100% final thesis component which you can write at your leisure. But it can never quite be described as “fun”.

Overachievers apply here

If you don’t already have enough on your plate, you can also take up extracurricular activities like mooting (pretending to be a barrister), the Law Review (pretending to be an academic), or joining a law start-up/tech competition (pretending to be anything but a lawyer). But they’re optional. Don’t feel pressured into doing any of these.

One downside from your second year of law school onwards is having to think about your career. It’s when the race for “clerkships”, i.e. law internships, starts. It’s not a pretty process and yes, overachievers–please apply here.

If I could turn back time?

Here are some things I would tell my past self if I went back to law school:

#1. Do your pre-reading, always. It’ll stop you looking like a gopher (pictured above) whenever your lecturer says something about the pre-reading.

#2. Handwrite notes, don’t type them. There’s something about a pen hitting paper that helps consolidate your thinking.

#3. Get enough sleep (a.k.a. no all-nighters)–if you need more evidence, simply refer to this article.

#4. Don’t be intimidated by the boisterous kids in class–they are often not the high scorers.

#5. You don’t need to spend all your time studying. Like please #getalife. A good antidote is having friends outside of law school.

#6. Your first year is the worst year–trust me. Once people realise that you don’t get better marks by hiding library books or ripping pages out of textbooks, it’s all uphill from there. Law librarians sure have good stories to tell.

And actual legal practice? It’s a whole lot more rewarding.

Image credit // Iñaki del Olmo

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