Mental Health > Law Degree

 Credit: Lachlan Gandy

Credit: Lachlan Gandy

Imagine re-living year twelve. Recall being constantly reminded that over 40,000 other students in the state are going to be sitting the same exam at the very same time as you in November. Remember the tactical guilt trip employed by teachers where they would remind you that every other High School Student was (supposedly) studying over the school holidays, while you binged the latest Netflix series and tried to look after your mental health. And don’t forget the stress, anxiety and pressure of trying to obtain the best ATAR score, a literal ranking of your performance in comparison to the rest of the state. 

But worst of all, imagine surviving this only having to do it again in law school. My first year of law school was very much contradictory in nature. On one hand, we were warned once more that we would be positioned on a bell curve to reflect our performance against other students. On the other, we were told to expect our grades to fall by approximately thirty per cent of what they had been in high school. Law school, without a doubt, tends to attract very similar personalities and work ethics. The legal profession tends to attract people who are highly driven, competitive and perfectionists. And it is this combination of traits which pre-dispose law students to mental health issues, including depression.

Perhaps this is a particularly millennialist perspective but in a society which is constantly growing towards acceptance, equality (and yes participation awards), it may be time for law schools to reconsider the way in which students are assessed and compared to each other.

I have always been oddly attracted to teaching. Between volunteering at local primary schools and teaching English overseas, I had even started to question if I was in the right degree. But after becoming a Contract Law tutor for the Law Student Society this year, I had realised I would quite happily pursue a career in academia and dedicate my life to a niche area of torts law like probabilistic causation or loss of chance damages. 

But regardless of what capacity I am teaching in, one of my most important aims is to be the kind of tutor that I have always wanted to have. I believe that kindness and providing a safe and encouraging environment is of top priority. 

However, after receiving a poor result in a subject where I very much admire the lecturer, I realised that my view is not universal. My grade was fair and the result of a combination of food poisoning the week before the due date and simple misinterpretation of the topic. This is a common occurrence in law school. Sometimes you just don’t interpret a question in the way an examiner wants you to. I always think of the time I told my dad that my cousin had gotten a new tattoo. When he asked me where she got it I told him I think it was on her arm. He meant what tattoo parlour had she gone to. 

Yet when I received my grade it wasn’t the number which caused a sinking feeling in my chest so much as the lecturer had implied that the results across the board were the result of simply not doing good enough. From my own teaching experiences, I believe it is fair to say that in the course of studying we are all doing our best to get by. I had spent weeks on this assignment, locking myself up on the higher levels of the law library, reading journal articles on the floor of the library after working hours and creating draft after draft, seeking perfection. In the course of seeking employment (or in my case the best path to post-grad), law students are subjected to the pressure of not only maintaining good grades, but also applying for clerkships, participating in an array of curriculum activities (most of which are volunteer positions) and often working to support their studies. 

I struggled most of all with the idea that I had failed a lecturer I had admired by not doing good enough when I had given it my best. It is because of this that I think law schools could do well by adopting the idea of catching more flies with honey than vinegar. I do not believe in telling a student there is such a thing as a stupid question. And I do not believe that lecturers should assume that a student has not given an assignment their best in a climate giving rise to high risks of poor mental health. Monash University no longer publicly posting an online Order of Merit list which reveals the class rankings of graduates is only the beginning. 

The feedback on my assignment may have had little to no utility beyond the merits of the paper in question, but it reminded me of the importance of looking beyond a numerical grade. Restructuring this cut-throat nature embedded in the traditional landscapes of law schools can start within us students ourselves and providing recognition to our own successes. I truly do not believe you can be disappointed if you have given something all you had.