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What happened to law student idealism?

Boy sleeping on files

Do you remember the first-ever tutorial of your law degree? That tutorial where everyone in the class said their name, something “interesting” about themselves and what they hoped to do with their law degree. Do you remember how many people said something altruistic, like working for the United Nations in order to effect positive change in society?

I certainly remember that first tutorial. The answers students gave regarding where they wanted to take their law degrees are, in some cases, vastly different to where those students are now. At some point in between that first tutorial and graduation, many law students seem to lose their idealistic spark and motivation for studying law.

Maybe it’s because law students are, by nature, ultra-competitive. It’s just our biological makeup. A Distinction or High Distinction means little when a number of people still manage to beat you. Outside of the classroom, this competitive streak can be seen when it comes to employment and networking opportunities. Studies have shown that law students – more so than any other category of students – see interpersonal interaction and friendship as networking opportunities rather than being meaningful social endeavours.

The same studies also show that law students are – again, more so than in any other group – more predisposed to pessimistic attitudes. We’re taught to look for the faults in any legal problem-solving exercise in order to properly answer the question.

It’s no wonder that three to five years of hyper-competitive and sometimes pessimistic law school life can make cynics of once idealistic would-be human rights lawyers. So how do you regain the idealism you had when you started this whole terrifying law school experience?

There are plenty of opportunities to expand your legal educational experience, regain your social justice consciousness and make positive contributions to the community around you. A good place to start is public lectures by guest speakers who have used their legal knowledge to make a difference in the community. Most law faculties host guest speakers on a regular basis.

Other options include getting involved with a student-run initiative, such as peer mentoring or subject tutoring, or volunteering in a community legal centre. Simply put, you put yourself out there and get involved!

What’s the point in nurturing your sense of idealism, anyway?

Well, the day-to-day study of law can be pretty heavy. Awareness of and involvement in social justice issues can be an important reminder of the law’s ability to bring about real change in people’s lives. This “bigger picture” may assist you to view your studies in a more positive light. It’s far easier to get through your mountain of administrative law or equity readings when you feel that the things you’re learning about matter and can make a difference.

When you’re studying a long and demanding degree such as law, it’s important to know why you’re doing it. A sense of idealism can go a long way to helping you stay motivated – and it’s not just for the wannabe UN lawyers.

-Jerome Doraisamy is the current Vice President (Education & Equity) of the UTS Law Students’ Society.

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