When I was in (what I had thought was) my penultimate year of law school a couple of years ago, I fell victim to the hype and pressure surrounding corporate clerkships. Without rehashing all my experiences, which I have detailed elsewhere, I had succumbed to the idea that a corporate career would affirm my value as a law student and may also be a good segue into a career in government and eventually the Bar. After extensive research and consultations with corporate lawyers, the only personal motivation I could find for pursuing a corporate clerkship was the ability to engage in pro bono work and gain litigation experience – skills and opportunities I could easily gain in a small firm or the public sector. So why is it that the discourse around careers in law school are driven by this idea that a clerkship is the most traditional and ideal path to pursue after law school? Why hadn’t my law student society (‘LSS’) informed us of other opportunities? Why had they only hosted “non-corporate careers” presentations after the clerkship hype had quietened down? Indeed, why is the discourse even framed in such a dichotomous way? (i.e. corporate v non-corporate and corporate v alternative careers).
When it came down to it, I saw that there were a number of structural issues within my LSS which had driven this culture at law school, where there is an intense pressure to apply for corporate clerkships and the feelings of worthlessness after being rejected from a clerkship is extremely prevalent among even the most resilient law students. Part of the problem is rooted in the way that LSSs are funded. Corporate sponsors are responsible for most if not all of the funding that LSSs receive, so it is only natural to expect that they prioritise their corporate sponsors when disseminating career information to their members. Comparatively, LSSs are not well-equipped to providing their students with information about broader opportunities in other areas of law or in smaller firms or institutions. This is where Beyond Law comes in. Beyond Law is a particularly important resource as it fills the lacuna that has been left by LSSs. The great advantage of the site is the vast amount of opportunities advertised directly to law students. But the dissemination of information about careers isn’t the only problem.
The way we frame and talk about careers in law also has a significant impact on the well-being of law students and is also pivotal to the discussion being had about mental health trends in law school; as often the way careers are framed, have a great deal to do with how law students perceive their self worth. I always refer to the classic example of when one law student asked me if I was applying for corporate clerkships or whether I was planning on “just settling” on criminal law – a misconceived image of the hierarchical structure of where certain careers in the law fit isn’t just a perception that is held by this particular student. It’s a widespread image and it is fostered by our LSSs’ structures and priorities – where often careers outside of the big corporate law firms are only promoted after the clerkship rejections come rolling in. This image of careers is also proliferated by representatives from LSSs who also opt for corporate careers as the “natural path” that should be taken after law school. But the clear lack of student role models following their “dream careers” (because of a fear that such a career is considered to be a secondary or alternative career) is alarming. Students are no longer pursuing their passions or no longer striving to ‘make a difference’ – an ideal which is now only held by “naive” first year law students.
So what should LSSs do to combat this culture?
First, there needs to be some structural change and an ethos in LSSs which resists against the pressures of sponsors dictating the way career information is disseminated, while still upholding sponsorship obligations. This may mean a structural division in careers portfolios – to ensure that an equal amount of (wo)manpower is committed to disseminating information and producing equally balanced Careers Guides. The discourse around “traditional” and “alternative” careers needs to change and this can only be achieved by proactive student leaders in LSSs who are comfortable and confident to pursue a career which aligns with their interests – rather than a career that their biggest sponsors tell them they should pursue.
As ALSA Vice-President (Education)-elect I will remain committed to ensuring that this cultural change (which I have fought hard to institute in my own LSS) filters through to other LSSs. It’s not just about ensuring that law students have sufficient information available to them; it is also about encouraging students to follow their ‘dream’ career and about ensuring that their self-worth and well-being aren’t tied to whether they get a corporate clerkship. Addressing mental health among law students is an enormous challenge and cannot be done by merely implementing a few tokenistic gestures – there needs to be genuine structural changes to LSSs and to the current law school culture. It is my mission to ensure that every law student knows that their value is not contingent on what career path they choose and it is great to see that the directors of Beyond Law are pushing this same vision.
Marie Iskander is currently the Co-President of the UNSW Law Society and the Vice-President (Education)-elect of ALSA for 2014/2015. She has worked extensively with her LSS to diversify the career opportunities the UNSW Law Society promotes to UNSW Law students and has been involved in structurally reforming her LSS to make it more equip to driving a change in the current culture and discourse around careers in law. Marie has happily “settled” on the idea of pursuing her dream career in criminal law and international criminal law and is looking forward to working in an area of law where she can ‘make a difference’.