The pressure cooker of law school: Is it all that it’s shaped up to be?

The first day of law school was one of the most confronting days of my life. 

After years of receiving instant social and internal validation for my academic escapades, I was suddenly surrounded by others who had also experienced just that. 

I was no longer extraordinary, just ordinary. 

From that day, a competition between me and them was born. 

Law school is no light journey. It requires hours of reading and constant revision of concepts – leaving many chained to their desk for hours on end. 

Whilst some may lie and say they are only motivated by internal drive and success, every law student is fuelled by one thing and one thing only – being better than everyone else. 

As soon as grades are released, specially engineered group chats ding with “how did you go” or “what grade did you get”. 

If you ever happen to be in the law library when a large cohort’s grades are being released, you may as well have entered a lion’s den. 

Some are beaming with happiness, others sit silently fighting back tears, some beeline to the bathrooms for privacy. 

If it’s bad news, I run to the river as fast as I can.  

No matter the emotion, everyone needs to find out how they compare. 

The most shocking but popular line to come out of any law student’s mouth is “oh, how did you get that?”

Delivered with an implication that you’re not smart enough or good enough for the grade you get. 

Our thought process skips the possibility that they may have put in the hours or, God-forbid, have a better understanding of the topic than you did.

I’m guilty of beating myself over a grade I was happy with, if I find out someone I thought I was smarter than got a better grade. 

Senior in-house counsel for Megaport, Mel Scott, acknowledges that most law students have the same characteristics. 

“We are high-achieving, over-thinking, type A perfectionist people, it’s who we are, it’s what we do, we’re amazing, it makes us amazing lawyers and students,” she said. 

According to a recent study from the University of Queensland, more than 50% of law students frequently experience severe symptoms of stress and anxiety. 

Academics as early as 1957 have acknowledged that law school is a “breeding ground for depression, anxiety, and other stress-related illness”. 

Whether to our benefit or detriment, law students place self-worth and self-importance on how well we do.

Naturally, this becomes an extremely competitive environment as we are surrounded by hundreds of like-minded people. 

It’s an intense pressure cooker. 

For me, this constant self-comparison has been the most damaging to my self-belief. Knowing that I could have done better, if that’s the grade they got. 

It seems like we have curated this for ourselves, but have we really? 

From the first day, two messages are engrained in us law students: 
1. Academic misconduct is the worst possible thing that could ever happen to you. 
2. If you want to get anywhere in the industry, you must have a GPA of 5.5 or higher 

Whilst having a good GPA is important to attain positions in the top six law firms, we shouldn’t define ourselves on a grade basis. 

The big firms that have budgets dedicated to recruitment are the ones who are sponsoring and marketing the idea of success to law students. 

There’s the Clayton Utz first-year moot, which entitles the winners to participate in a program run by them. 

Minter Ellison, Ashurst, and King & Wood Mallesons are the exclusive speakers at career nights. 

We are fed this narrative that success is attaining a position at one of these big firms, and to get it we must remain vigilant and view our friends and co-workers as enemy number one. 

We are told that this is what success looks like, and being who we are, most of us then have tunnel vision to get there. 

And if we don’t get a job at one of these places or don’t want to climb the ‘corporate ladder’, then we’ve failed. 

But we are not failures, we are just victims of the strategic advertising pipeline. 

Some of my classmates want to reach the top of that ladder, trading off a portion of their souls along the way, and others want to settle into government jobs, but we all must nurture our mental well-being to be able to achieve anything. 

Mental well-being is a key factor in achieving goals, and as law students, our brains are our greatest asset. 

A brain cannot thrive in unhealthy and toxic conditions. 

We must train ourselves to ensure that we value things like sleep, food, and socialisation to ensure that our brain receives all its nutrients. 

If it’s the one thing we do.  

As a Law and Journalism student at QUT, Matilda thrives on balancing the world of words. She is an unapologetic passionate procrastinator, who often finds inspiration in the eleventh hour. A social butterfly by day, Matilda values her moments of solitude to overthink. You can connect with Matilda here

Matilda Yates
Matilda Yates
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