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First Year v Final Year Me: My Law School Transformation

Graduation cap

I have a photo of myself taken on the day I found out I was really doing it; I was going to law school. My skin is clear, my face is beaming, my hair is shiny and there is a distinct glimmer of hope and pride in my twinkling eyes.

I remember the day vividly. I received an early offer and in a state of shock and utter confusion, printed it and asked my boss to double-check what it what in fact telling me. With a grin, he walked around his desk, hugged me and said “Congratulations! You are going to be brilliant!” My mum took me out to a little Italian place down Little Lonsdale Street and we toasted my success and obvious brilliance. That summer, family BBQs were filled with, “well done counsellor”, “great work Your Honour”, and the occasional “how are you going to manage parenting a toddler, working and now law school?”

The following March I started two projects. I was about five weeks pregnant with my second child on day one of law school. I spent an intensive weekend on campus feeling like a ‘real’ student and for the first time in about three years had a weekend all by myself doing something just for me. I could hardly contain my excitement and joy at finally, after a long and winding road, making my way to the hallowed halls of law school. I shook hands, made friends, learned what the term gunner meant and saw them in action.

Once we were all in the lecture theatre for that first contract law class, I felt woefully underprepared. I had only just picked up my textbooks that morning and was still gazing lovingly at them and the knowledge I just knew they would impart, when I discovered that about 30% of the class had already done the readings! Now as with most law students, I was a clever student in high school and managed to get through without really trying or preparing, and I naively thought that we would not be engaging in the Socratic method on day one.

Oh how wrong I was. There were already people dressed in suits and shaking hands and being glamorous and fabulous and charming and witty, and there was I, in vegemite-stained jeans, with brand new and as yet unopened textbooks, stammering my way through conversations and waiting for the moment the Dean would no doubt inform me that there had been a terrible mistake, and really who was I kidding thinking, I could cut it at law school.

I made it through the weekend thanks to new friends, a couple of kind lecturers and a guest speaker who spoke to me and gave me a lift when I was feeling deflated.

That year I tried to do all the readings, recommended readings and keep up with lectures and tutorials, while toilet training a toddler and battling an ever-expanding waistline, swollen feet and pregnancy waddle. I wanted to be the perfect law student. Everyone else seemed to have it so together. I wrote out the lectures verbatim and completed every revision question, and did not get nearly enough sleep.

I spent six weeks preparing my first law school essay on submissions to release David Hicks from Guantanamo Bay (that dates me a bit… sssh). I read the Patriot Act and every military law book I could get my hands on. I had a 128 page exercise book full of notes and quotes and made a case for the protection of due process and habeas corpus. I was so proud of it and waited for my inevitable HD I was sure to get. Imagine my shock three weeks later when my assignment was returned with a mark of 66. My lecturer pointed out that I had written a lovely dissertation on the need to protect due process and habeas corpus but I had not actually answered the question he posed. It hit me like a punch to the stomach. I had never received a 66 in my life, except for PE and that time I was given a low mark for Home Economics due to allegations of egg throwing.

The reality of law school hit home from that point onwards. This would not be as easy as all my previous studies had been. This was not something I could waffle on and sound clever and pass.

The other lesson I learned in first year was that having a lot of practical knowledge about a particular area of law did not automatically ensure a high mark in the subject. I had been working in criminal law for over five years at that point and considered myself quite savvy, and then learned three very important things in my first year at law school:

  1. Sitting an exam whilst 36 weeks pregnant with a baby kicking at the desk as you try to write is not as easy as it looks.

  2. Lecturers by and large do not want to be wowed by your opinions on the efficacy of the system.

  3. To get the marks use the source material, lectures and class notes, not your experience. There are no additional marks set aside for witty repartee.

I look back on first year with mixed feelings. I was naïve and dreadfully unprepared, but I had hope and passion and believed that great minds together learning great things was a privilege denied to many but that I was blessed to partake in.

This year I completed my degree. 32 subjects. Some awful marks, some stellar. The baby that kicked at the table during my criminal law exam is now finishing grade one and engaging in epic Nerf battles with my husband and I. The toddler is finishing grade four and is very savvy and cynical, much like her mum, but to my delight, she can also explain the neighbour principle and separation of powers to any and all who will grant her audience.

I was a very different student in my final year compared to my first year. I was more prepared but did less of the additional readings. I was just as anxious but more organised because now I was armed with the information about how the system works. I knew what to do if I needed to apply for special consideration. I knew to borrow library books for research assignments early in the semester because they would all be gone by week four. I knew how to communicate with assignment groups and partners long distance. I knew to never ever question the text or remark on terribly it was written when said author is the coordinator of the subject. I also knew not to spend too much time on one subject at the detriment of the others, because this will always come back to bite you. I knew how many pages I could write in one sitting, and I knew that staying up to study all night did not bode well for me.

I have learned a great deal about the law over the last seven years but a great deal more about myself. I know what I am capable of, and it is much more than first year me could ever have imagined. I never imagined winning mooting awards, concussing myself during witness examination and still getting back on my feet to complete my questioning of the witness, and passing tax law, let alone getting a halfway decent mark.

My skin is no longer as radiant, my hair no longer as clean but the moment I received my final marks informing me that it was finally done, the hope and passion that once glimmered in my eyes came back.

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