Australian legal education is an indoctrination process by which morally righteous young people are converted into corporate, morally grey adults. The majority of law students are involved in this process. Most students enter law school believing in justice, self-sacrifice and public service, but leave believing in only money and power.
This is the conclusion I reached after spending four years studying law schools in Australia. I went to great lengths to understand how this indoctrination process works, talking to many of the top law deans and dozens of law professors, and comparing their ideas on teaching to competing ideas in the UK, USA and Canada.
Many of you already know that law school is an indoctrination process. For some, this may seem like a good thing. The dreams you had in first year were immature, impractical or radical. Instead, you learnt, in clerkship presentation after clerkship presentation, that a law job was the only option for a law graduate, that the best law jobs were at the top law firms and that social justice was an annual event with less free food.
Gandhi and Mandela studied the law but no - your classes were about judges and obscure insurance cases against the little guy. Sometimes the little guy won and sometimes the little guy lost, but your professor rarely objected either way. Unfortunately, they too were trapped in the cycle – forced to ‘publish or perish,’ to value black letter law over justice and the Priestley Eleven over other, experimental electives.
Your professors called you ‘future lawyers’. The curriculum taught you that law had nothing to do with politics. The case method taught you that law had nothing to do with morality. The assignments taught you to never mention justice or propose law reform based on your moral principles. You lost marks for talking about ideas outside of case law, legislation or policy.
Did you ever stop and question why? Or more importantly, why not?
Why were you not taught about injustice, the apartheid, slavery, the racist parts of the Australian legal system, Nunga Court, customary law or the injustices against Indigenous Australians?
What was your education about exactly, if not to teach you how the law actually works in society? Why were you only taught about hypotheticals, and not reality? Why were you not taught the truth about the psychological toll of the law on real people in real cases? Why did a Russian law student in one of my classes compare his legal education to ours, saying that their government hates it when law students challenge the law and so, due to our curriculum, ours must too?
The answer to all of these questions is simple. Every law dean I spoke to said it. Law school is about teaching legal skills, to help prepare students to become future lawyers. The main job of a lawyer is to advise their clients in a law firm. Therefore, (they don’t say this part) law schools must ignore everything else.
All of these points are false.
There is no need to teach only legal skills in law school, because the majority of law graduates are not going to end up in a legal job. Only 50% of law graduates in Australia end up working in law. This decreases to 20% three years after graduation. To limit legal education to legal skills alone is to ignore the vast majority of law students and their future careers. Instead of narrowly teaching a technical version of the law, law schools should teach how the law relates to society, the media, business, politics and other areas that law graduates actually go into.
Secondly, a lawyer has a duty to act in the best interest of their client, but this is not their only duty. Nor is it a lawyer’s job to rollover whenever the government passes an unjust law and blindly apply it to a case in front of them, regardless of the injustices incurred. A lawyer’s primary job is to serve the administration of justice, and by extension, the public. The best lawyers in human history have fought against injustice, fought for the rights of the disadvantaged and fought against the tyranny of government power. For many of you, this is why you went to law school to begin with. In a democracy, it is the central role of those with knowledge of the law.
Over the last four years, I have had the chance to develop my own alternative law school curriculum that addresses many of the above concerns.
At the heart of my proposal is the halving of the Priestley Eleven. We need to give law schools room to breathe, to experiment and to diverge. If the UK has 5 core subjects, and Canada has 7, we can drop half of ours.
The second proposal is the abandonment of the case method. I believe law schools should adopt a more nuanced teaching method, including critical thinking tasks, reflective tasks, essays, statute law tasks and a flipped Socratic method where students get to interrogate the law professor, the legal institution and the law itself. No authority should be beyond question, no principle too sacred, nor bias unturned. Politics should be brought directly to bear in these assessments, so that law students are confronted by the fact that law comes from society, rather than spontaneously appearing out of thin air.
A new compulsory subject should be introduced concerning the history of unjust laws. Not just in Australia, but everywhere. The law can be wrong, and it is okay, if not essential, to point out to students when it is. The opposite of our passive, corporate curriculum, is a curriculum that acknowledges applying the law to facts is not enough. The effect of that application must be scrutinised and interrogated. The psychological toll of the law must be understood. The empirical reality of jail time for a crime must be confronted. Injustices must be brought up in class and a student’s moral instinct should once again be welcomed into the classroom.
Finally, it should be the job of all law students and all law graduates to assist in the process of reforming the law. Law reform should be at the center, not the fringes, of legal education. If we want to improve our society, we must allow those with knowledge of the law to come to its aid when it fails to meet the interests of the public administration of justice. The government must be held accountable for injustices. The standards of the Western legal system must be held firm and the future must be fought for if we are to forever avoid a descent into tyranny.
Final word to graduating students
It is important to remember that you are not powerless in accepting a corporate job. You are not an appellate court judge, limited by case precedent alone. You are a citizen in a democratic country. As a law graduate, you do not have to be bound by case law. You can protest, write articles, vote for a different political party or campaign on a legal issue. You can do this inside or outside of a law firm, in your own time or in a different career entirely. Heck, you can run for office and change the law yourself. Regardless of how you do it, you can be a human being who does something positive in the world instead of reinforcing a system that has brought us endless wars, financial collapses, mass inequality and now, due to ecological encroachment, a mass epidemic. Rather than bowing to the pressures of law school indoctrination, you can help others rise above it.
Our education may shape us but it is our choices that define who we are.
Joshua Krook is a PhD candidate in law, focusing on legal education, at the University of Adelaide. He writes about law, philosophy and the future of work on his blog www.newintrigue.com