If I could go back to September when I started this law degree, I’d tell myself a few things, which would have made life a whole lot easier. I can’t do that, but I can take stock and perhaps share a few things that might make life easier for others who follow on from me. This may become a mini-series, as I have a lot to say, and to pack it all into one blog post would be quite unwieldy.
Now, first of all, don’t get me wrong here. I know that the entry requirements for law degrees are high. Being accepted to this degree is an achievement, and you should be proud. I also don’t want anyone to think that I’m getting up on my high horse and lecturing kids these days or anything like that, particularly given what I’m writing about today. As noted, this is about what I wish I had known.
So: the theme for this post is humility. I’ll start with the bad, then move on to the good.
I’ll cut to the chase: studying for a law degree has taken me down a peg or two. I’m not an arrogant person, but I kind of assumed that, having extensive experience studying at university level, that I would be well prepared. I also assumed that stepping back from postgraduate study would mean that undergraduate study would be more straightforward for me. This has not been the case. I’m sure the transferrable skills I’ve picked up have made my life easier than it would have been had I attempted this at 18 (I cannot fathom my 18 year old self taking this on). But law (at least as I’ve experienced it) is an intrinsically difficult degree: the work load is difficult to keep up with, the concepts are challenging, and it’s not like many other degrees where you can pick and choose based on your interest and aptitude. I’m not going to be specific here, but there was one subject I studied in my first year which I loathed (and I found the reading really boring). But I had to commit to it just as much as my other subjects, perhaps even more because of my inherent dislike, because it’s compulsory and employers care.
I gather I’m not alone. I’ve had conversations with other people, including some who are quite accomplished in their outside of law lives and whose intellect seems far greater than mine, where they’ve talked about how humbling this year has been for them, too. I’ve even had some frank discussions along the lines of “Why am I doing this to myself, again?” and even “Sod this for a game of soldiers, I’m dropping out” (I should note that no one I’ve had this conversation with has, in fact, dropped out, and most of them have done well to my knowledge). I honestly think that if anyone in my cohort has come away from our first year not having been humbled in some way, they’ve probably missed an important lesson. I regret nothing, but it’s been a bit of a painful growth experience, and I expect that to continue.
As a side note on a similar theme: two things that don’t immediately apply to me (one of which did apply to me during my first degree, and one of which might have done had I studied law as a first degree).
The first is thinking you’re going to be fine based on your study of A-level law. I’m Australian, I don’t know the first thing about A-levels, and I didn’t study the equivalent of law when I did my equivalent of A-levels (the HSC). But let me share my most vivid memory of my first year of university. It was our first ancient history lecture, in a foundational subject focusing on archaic Greece. The first words out of the lecturer’s mouth were “hands up if you did HSC Ancient History”. I, alongside about 90% of the lecture theatre, put my hand up. “Forget everything you’ve ever learned.” Now, that’s harsh. But I’ve found it to be true. University is a different style of learning, and the things we were taught at school which were more or less true, for the purposes of school, were wound back and questioned or replaced by more challenging but more accurate understanding. That may well be less true for law: as noted, I wouldn’t know. Law is less about interpretation than ancient history (not that law isn’t about interpretation!).
The second I say partly as an outsider looking in to this law degree business. I should note that this is by no means a universal trait: most law students, legal academics, and lawyers aren’t like this. But there’s a notable minority of these who think that getting into or having a law degree makes them inherently intellectually superior to the mere mortals who occupy the rest of the world, including academics. Yes, as noted, the law degree is difficult, and it’s difficult to get in. But other disciplines and careers pose different challenges. Although the intellectual standard in my cohort is very high, and I have the utmost respect for the academics in my law school, people with law degrees don’t crack the top 5 of my “smartest people I know”, maybe not even the top 10. As someone who’s been a “non-law student”, I ask that you reconsider this superiority thing, or at least keep it to yourself. It’s not a good look.
Enough of the bad. I promised some good, too.
Yes, you probably need to be humble. But, how humble? Again, my own experience. I mentioned above that I loathed one of my subjects. I continued to work at it, but I was convinced I was rotten at it. When in a bad frame of mind, just thinking about the exam made me break out in a cold sweat. I was worried I was going to fail, or at least barely pass. Maybe this law degree thing was beyond me, after all. I mentioned all this to the unit convenor, who, in so many words, told me to stop being ridiculous. I’m not going to say exactly how well I did, because I feel that would be unseemly (in a word, my result in that subject was astonishing), but, let’s just say the unit convenor got an email when the results came out to the effect of “I was wrong, I admit it, you did tell me so.” (Not that it’s entirely relevant, but now that I’ve worked out that I can, indeed, do this subject, it’s grown on me.) Thinking back to the adjusted expectations I had for this year when I realised the magnitude of the task I was up against, I’ve done considerably better than I expected to. I gather that’s true for many in my cohort (not all, but many).
So, be humble. Know what you’re up against. Be prepared to be humbled, to struggle, and to question why on earth you’re doing this. But also believe in yourself. Most people are up to the task they’ve been set (if not necessarily at the lofty heights of achievement they might have assumed: one goes back to the age old, going to university turns you from a big fish in a small pond to a big fish in the ocean). This is a lesson I’m taking into my second year, and it’s one that I believe will make everything much easier.
What lessons has or did university (whether or not you studied a law degree) taught or teach you?
Please note: this post forms part of a series. This is post one. Post two is on knowing your limits, or, work-life balance.