“Ladies and gentleman of the class of 97 – wear sunscreen. If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it.”
So said Mary Schmich in the Chicago Tribune in June 1997. And those famous words made their way into a catchy Baz Luhrmann song that most 90s students rocked out to (and I sang along to while writing this!). Mary also surmised that advice, like youth, is probably wasted on the young:
“Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.”
So even though my advice may be wasted and may be an indulgent, rose-tinted form of nostalgia, here’s my two bits on the 5 things I wish I knew at law school – for what it’s worth.
1. Be Brave, Ask Questions, Take Risks
I wish I knew that law school is the perfect time to test the waters of life, personally, academically and professionally.
I recall being too afraid to ask questions at law school, particularly at the beginning. I remember my first tutorial clearly. Every time I had a thought or question, I would often pause and second guess myself. Inevitably, during that pause and moment of hesitation, some other smarty pants with their chest puffed out would shoot their hand straight up smugly and give the exact answer I was too afraid to verbalise. I felt like all the intelligent kids in the room whose Mums and Dads were lawyers and judges and professors or who simply had more balls and confidence than me had something better or smarter to say than I did. I know now that this simply wasn’t the case. I wish I knew that everyone has something valuable to contribute and that 18 year olds straight out of high school sure as hell don’t know much about life or the law. So don’t be scared: be authentic, be hungry and just a little bit reckless. Ask questions, take risks and don’t dance through law school pretending you know everything. Years later, when I was working in private practice, a skilled and kind barrister once told me that smart people always ask lots of questions (silly people don’t) so be brave and ask away!
2. Talk To Your Professors
Too often, students are keen to leave the lecture or tutorial, run off home, or escape after class. I wish I appreciated the fact that professors have so much to teach us; they’ve certainly worked hard to get where they are and they are genuinely interested in thought leadership, problem solving and the tough questions. I wish I appreciated the value of talking to my professors about the lessons learned in class and the best way to approach study, essays, legal research and even student life. I worked at pubs, bookstores, cafes and law firms and barristers chambers throughout university to pay my way through law school and I missed that opportunity. Sometimes I also felt too shy to chat to them – don’t feel that way and don’t miss your chance. Seize every opportunity to pick their brains.
3. Your Friends and Your Network Are More Important Than Your Marks
Sure, there is no doubt that it helps to be the top of the class when you’re applying for sought after jobs and seeking professional opportunities in a crowded job market. But I wish I had known how influential and wonderful the friends I made in law school would be in my life and career. And in fact, I wish I saw and spent more time with those same delightful friends now. Networking at law school and making contacts will place you in a much better position to navigate your future career path and options than a world class transcript. Your next job offer is likely to come from someone you know or a friend of a friend and not from a job board. Invest time in growing your network – you’ll be so grateful you did. As Mary said, “The older you get, the more you’ll need the people you knew when you were young.”
4. The Principles of Equity Are Important
For those intending to practise in English common law jurisdictions, study equity. A lot. A Federal Court Judge once told me that equity is the most important legal area of study for a law student and lawyer to know and understand. It was a shame that the Sydney Olympics were on during the semester that I studied equity so I didn’t quite give it the commitment it deserved (who am I kidding – I bloody well loved the Olympics – Kathy Freeman winning gold and the Heineken Bar, what’s not to love?). Having practised in commercial law and litigation for many years now, I can safely say he was right. When you understand the principles of equity, many areas of the law begin to make sense for you and it all kind of falls into place. Don’t let that textbook sit in its plastic cover for as long as I did – study it!
5. Law School Days are The Best Days of Your Life
For the love of Justice Kirby’s dissenting judgments, enjoy it! Join student societies and university activities, laze around on the grass and drink coffee and talk about philosophy. Do postmodern interpretative dance instead of a boring presentation for your legal assignment (Nick Davis, aren’t you glad we did that? Was it Derrida or Foucault we were trying to interpret?). Find obscure books in the library and devour them. Watch live music and have a beer with your mates. Form study groups to help you stay focused. Actually read important legal cases, don’t just skim over them. Put in the effort. Work hard, play hard. Listen. Pay attention. Learn all you can. Be kind to people. Do Law Revue – I can truly say Law Revue days were the best days ever. Law Revue friends were the greatest people I’ve had the privilege of meeting and being friends with. Relish your freedom and independence and don’t worry if you feel broke and tired a lot of the time. You’ll feel a lot more fatigued when you have a toddler hurtling around the house, crazy bills, a student loan to pay off and a mortgage!! Remember that your law school days will be some of the best days of your life.
Oh, and dance. Even if you have nowhere to do it but your living room. Definitely dance.