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Early Optimism: A study of 1st year law students’ expectations.

In law students, legal education, women on February 6, 2012 at 9:01 pm

"I seek not to know the answers, but to understand the questions."

There has been a burgeoning of law schools in Australia in the last 15 years, matching a rise in demand for law degrees. Yet there has been little exploration of the expectations and aspirations of young students commencing a law degree in Australia. By contrast, a number of studies on features of professional life for practising lawyers are emerging. In particular, recent studies have shown high levels of stress, anxiety and depression among practising lawyers. In addition, there is evidence of high levels of attrition of women from private legal practice in the first few years following admission and a significant under-representation of women in the senior levels of the profession. [read on]

Universities and their law schools have not traditionally focused on preparing students for the realities of the legal workplace, concentrating instead on technical legal knowledge and practical legal skills. We recently set out to ask commencing (that is, newly enrolled) students in their first few weeks of study what they thought legal practice would be like, and what sort of career and lifestyle they would have. In the paper, (which will be available in the Legal Education Review in full here or as an pdf here: Castan et al LER2010) we set out the context for the 2009 study into first-year students’ career expectations and analyse some of the key findings.

Our study found a number of interesting characteristics of first-year law students commencing their studies. The majority (97 per cent) were contemplating working in the law — rather than, for example, regarding law as a ‘generalist’ degree. These students appeared to consider that the high level of commitment demanded in the legal workplace would be compensated by a range of factors, including financial reward, high social status, merit-based opportunities for advancement and opportunities to give back to society. Perhaps these findings are unsurprising in the sense that we might expect students starting a university degree to be generally optimistic about their chosen career. The findings contrast with high levels of depression and stress within the legal profession. However, in this research we did not ask students about mental health concerns, instead concentrating on career expectations.

We found that there was very little difference between the career expectations of male and female first-year law students. In the case of women students, this perhaps also indicates the ‘protected’ environments that schools (and then universities) provide in relation to gender equity and opportunity. The attrition rates of females in legal practice might suggest that strategies to ensure equity and opportunities for females have not been successfully embedded structurally into the work practices of law firms. These differences may be confronting for women who have previously experienced an emphasis on equity and achievement in school and university (see our related article ‘Law’s Supergirl‘).

Nonetheless, the research does highlight a disjuncture between expectations of first-year law students commencing their degree and the rigours and routines of practising law in their futures. Law schools traditionally concentrate on training law students the knowledge skills (although not always the practical skills) needed for legal practice; this study demonstrates that law students are generally optimistic about their aspirations and prospects for working in legal practice. Further research needs to be undertaken as to whether later-year students hold similar levels of optimism as first-year students do. However, given the realities of careers and practices in law, we believe that it is necessary for law schools to consider carefully their responsibilities to students in relation to their prospective careers and to address the preparedness of their students to negotiate the often difficult workplace environment ahead of them.


Melissa Castan, Faculty of Law, Monash University;

Jeannie Paterson, Melbourne Law School, University of Melbourne;

Paul W Richardson, Faculty of Education, Monash University;

Helen M G Watt, Faculty of Education, Monash University;

Maryanne Dever, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Newcastle.

Do you find law students to be an optimistic bunch? Does your experience match the finding from this study?

  1. My personal story as to how my optimism as to working in the law fell goes like this. I felt very optimistic until fifth year, when I didn’t get Articles. That was the beginning of my disillusionment. In the wash from that, I was sexually harassed by a law firm partner at a major firm (who asked me suggestively, “What would you do to work at our firm? How far would you go?” I said, “I’ll write an essay on any topic you choose.” He repeated the questions, I said, “Choose your essay topic.”) Some other law partners were pretty awful too. However, I did get articles, then worked in some good people; not all lawyers or firms are like that.

    Nonetheless, I do not feel that working in a law firm works well with having children. That was probably the end of my disillusionment with law firms. When I was 12 weeks pregnant, I had thought I could take 6 weeks off and return straight to work. Once I had my child, I realised I didn’t want to do that. But with the emphasis on time spent at work (and billable hours in particular) you can’t really get ahead in a law firm unless you spend a lot of time at work. There were some female partners in the LIJ who trumpeted the flexible practices of their law firms – but this mainly seemed to consist in giving these women Friday afternoon off after 3pm (that’s not really “flexible” if you ask me).

    Much as I love the law, if a young woman asked me whether to do law, if I were being perfectly honest, I’d probably say no if she wanted to have kids. Practice is generally pretty difficult with kids if you want to spend any time with them, unless you’re in-house.

  2. *worked with!* the sentence was originally “worked in some good law firms”, but I realised that I didn’t only work with firms.

    • Thanks for your story. Students have told me much the same as to when they become disheartened: they remain optimistic till knocked back for clerkships (short term or articles). I would like to look at the research on later year students’ expectations (ie optimism) to see if it matches the anecdotal reports.

  3. […] recently read a blog about the optimism of first year law students (click here for a further read).  A reference was made to the high level of anxiety and stress experienced by […]

  4. […] profession, and in law school, you might start with The Plight of Law’s Supergirl,  and Early Optimism,  a study of 1st year law student’s expectations both by Jeannie Paterson and Melissa […]

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