Starting at Law School: Wenee Yap on What to Expect
"There’s a lot wrong with the world. Mired in hypocrisy, politik, self-interest. Troubled with wars, profiteering, injustice, climate change, labour exploitation. I see the law, at its very best – and the rule of law, particularly – as holding the promise of a better world."
Why did you go to law school? or What’s so good about law school?
Honestly? A whole mess of reasons. I wanted to change the world. Help the needy. I was born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on the right side of an unforgiving rich/poor divide. Education was my mother’s fast-track out of meagre circumstances, and she passed on a strong sense of social justice to me. I liked Mock Trial in high school. I felt very lucky to have studied, at North Sydney Girls, with a group of young women who were – and remain – talented, driven, ambitious, creative, idealistic.
That’s what I am – a hopeless idealist, really. I remember reading about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, drafted at the tail-end of one of the world’s most senseless, systematically self-destructive wars, and wondering, ‘Who wrote this? Who had this vision?’ And what a vision: equality, fairness, justice, freedom.
There’s a lot wrong with the world. Mired in hypocrisy, politik, self-interest. Troubled with wars, profiteering, injustice, climate change, labour exploitation. I see the law, at its very best – and the rule of law, particularly – as holding the promise of a better world. Like any tool, it can be perverted, made to reflect the darker prejudices of the society in which it was forged. It can be manipulated, like Billy Flynn’s razzle dazzle, ‘How can they hear the truth above the roar?’ It can be inspired, like the UNDHR. It can be corrupted. It can be empowering.
So, that’s why I went to law school. Plus, you know, I loved The Practice…and Legally Blonde:
“I’m comfortable with using legal jargon in everyday language!”
What kind of university life did you have with a law degree?
Well, studying law is hands-down the most demanding experience of my life so far. I hate doing less than my best – which meant a lot of long nights and weekends. Still, I took time out – writing, chilling with friends or my boyfriend, travelling. I’ve been involved in Vertigo magazine and a number of other publications – writing and editing. I did Senior level Negotiation in 2008 with a good friend – and we made the semi-finals. You have a lot of coffee breaks. You can get a lot of odd jobs – whether it’s the serious, ‘let’s get exposed to the law’ job of a paralegal or community law centre volunteer work, or the ‘How did I land this?’ job of film reviewer and rockstar interviewer.
Uni life is what you make of it.
How heavy is the workload compared to other degrees?
Er. Crazy! I learnt quickly that study groups were my best way to learn – and share the huge workload. It was a bit hit-and-miss at first – you have to find the group of friends who suit your level and your study style, and for a few semesters, I went lone wolf and nearly turned albino white from the stress and seclusion. I’m obsessively organised – I time-planned my whole semester, with all assessments spaced throughout, so it wasn’t too bad. Once you settle into the groove and mindset of law, you really come to appreciate what you study. Except at exams. Pulling fire alarms and apocalypses are rather appealing at exams.
How important is networking in the legal field?
Law school is the kind of place where talented, intelligent idealists meet. Sure, a lot of cynical, self-involved types meet there too. That’s life. I think ‘networking’ is a much hyped and touted skill, which essentially comes down to being able to relate to a powerful somebody very quickly…and finding ways to exploit that relationship to your personal advantage. Perhaps I’m being too cynical.
I like to think that if you work hard, stay true to who you are and know what you value, you will be intrinsically satisfied, and are more likely to choose a path that fits you. It’s worked for me so far!
What type of career paths are there from this degree?
Huge! You can be a lone wolf barrister, strategic-thinking solicitor or policymaker, human rights activist, academic, journalist, lobbyist, politician, entrepreneur, artist…
Law allows you to broaden your mind and your beliefs. Nuts and bolts: it fosters strong time management, discipline, delivering a structured, logical flow of argument, eloquent communication skills, leadership abilities. Not every law graduate will come out with these traits – they just seem to be quite prevalent. How you choose to apply your learning is up to you.
How has a law degree helped you?
It shaped who I am today. A peculiar mix of gallows humour cynicism and true-believer idealism. It pushed me further than I knew I could go – intellectually and emotionally. I met some real lifelong friends.
How much can law graduates from your strand earn?
It depends what field you go into. Public servants can start around $44,000 a year, while bankers might start with $80,000. By and large, it ensures a fairly steady, comfortable – even lucrative – quality of living.
What was your motto that helped you survive law school?
Per Ardua Ad Astra. It was my law friend’s family crest motto. (Because everyone just has a family crest lying around!) It means, ‘Through difficulty, we will reach the stars.’ Perseverance, hard work, long and uncertain straits, facing your own self-doubt – and overcoming it – that’s what I regard as important. And what are the stars? Well. Whatever you can dream them to be.
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