What is Wrong with UOW Law School and Law Student’s Society?

lawstudentFirst, let me just say that I’m not especially annoyed that I didn’t get some sort of greeting or commemorative cask wine. My gripe is that I’m disappointed that my old law school doesn’t seem to me to be as good as it could be. For the sake of what should be it’s legacy (IMHO) and the sake of future students prospects and achievements in a career in the law, I fervently wish it were otherwise. So allow me to put my opinion forward for a moment in the hope of improvement…

This past week, I returned momentarily to my alma mater to be a judge for a mooting competition conducted by the University of Wollongong Law Student’s Society. The LSS has a long history of organising this sort of thing, through the auspices of the Law School itself. At various times during my student years, I was a competitor in the same competition, representing the law faculty in what was then known as the Butterworth’s Competition and generally engaging in the art of the moot.

The LSS used to have something of a collaboration with the Faculty – it was productive and positive, encouraging and supportive. At one time or other, I was a Vice-President and worked with a hard working President to advance the cause of the society and the interests of the student members. Even more, the faculty itself benefited from a student population that had a representative body, together with opportunities to expand the experiences of its members beyond that which the faculty provided – into the legal industry itself.

Yet, some things appear to have changed. Upon my most recent visit, I was surprised to see no representative of the Law Students Society, nor anyone from the faculty itself. No one had come to visit or even poke their heads in to see how a former student, an alumni of the University, was faring or what was going on. Interestingly, I sought out a staff member to greet – in his office, though he was busy and of course, so was I.

UOW loves its Alumni, apparently...
UOW loves its Alumni, apparently…

Frequently, I receive surveys from the Wollongong University Alumni Association (or whatever it may be called) asking how they can do their job better. Perhaps showing up to greet alumni who volunteer their time would be a start. Better yet, forging close links between the faculties that compose the university and their relevant professional industries can only serve to enhance the standing of the university in general and thereby benefit its graduates, many of whom will seek jobs in those very industries.

It’s a shame to think that the Law Students Society has fallen into what seems like a middling lack of initiative – so much as to forego the opportunity presented by pressing links with a member of the industry and dignifying the legacy of the institution. What is more of a shame is how this reflects upon the sort of student that now occupies the halls of the university and of course, whom may one day seek admission into the profession.

From a distance, the faculty and its students appear to be surrounded by a successful history – one marked by judicial appointments of successive deans (well most of them) and the high achievements of its former students – from being appointed senior counsel (in the case of Mr Ed Muston, just recently announced) to being outstanding leaders, achievers and shining examples of legal practice. My alumni and I have sought to provide opportunities for students, whenever asked by the faculty – in the form of work placements and PLT placements which for some has lead to paid full time employment in the industry.

Yet there appear to be no photos on the walls, no claims made to visitors that this law school is a proud centre of learning with a rich history in the profession. Indeed, all the indicators that the faculty is even a faculty have vanished beneath the uber-faculty of “Arts” and somehow, the law school has passed into the ether of ambiguity that will almost certainly set the precedent for its relevance to professional practice.

While students pass through halls that seem to be ashamed to even acknowledge that they are law school halls, they have no visible means of reminding them that they are part of an educational and legal tradition – a tradition that builds upon itself to enhance and improve present students, future practitioners and the legal system they shall operate in. While those students lack the furnishings and comforts of the faculty’s legacy, they are left with the blandness of whatever sense of achievement they entertain for themselves – having made it into the law school, whatever that might be. And left to their own devices, students will invariably take leadership from their innate sense of achievement which really ought be nothing compared to the ubiquitous accomplishments of past faculty members and alumni. The result is invariably the arrogance and presumption that underscores a seemingly generational sense of entitlement.

That potential for misplaced presumption can be graphically illustrated in a photograph that headlines the Law Student’s Society’s webpage (reproduced below).

Banner image from Wollongong University's Law Student's Society
Banner image from Wollongong University’s Law Student’s Society Webpage showing what appears to be students wearing barrister gowns. Wollongong Uni uses bright “Smurf” blue graduation gowns.

The  ridiculous sight of not less than four out of five students parading through the Eden-esque grounds of the University of Wollongong, not in UOW gowns but in barrister-like gowns is cringeworthy. The apparently exuberant evangelisation of the barristocracy that comes with being involved with the LSS is no-doubt a lesson that penetrates through to even the densest head in the student body. At the very least, it must play more effectively than the legacy of the law school that has little to support nor promote it. To think that students would publicly ponce about in barrister robes, as if they were entitled to do so, is shockingly infantile and well, straight-up silly. It also bespeaks of a law school that fails to tell it’s students the awful truth about practice and in particular, the necessary and important pathways to the bar that doesn’t involve turning up and expecting a brief as a right.

That the LSS has lost its way into the realms of being exclusively self-supporting and absent industry collegiate networking, is shown in the “President’s Welcome” which holds out the LSS as the “peak” body representing law students at the university (with the loss of PLT and the sublimation of the faculty into arts, haven’t they done a bang-up job). Remarkably, that welcome makes not one single reference to alumni, former faculty members or other achievements of the school or the LSS. Instead it waffles about “what we do” and making repeated assertions that the LSS can connect students with the legal profession. It doesn’t mention specifically how it does that, it offers no case studies to provide an example. What it does do is suggests that any one in the profession who might want to help out with a bit of sponsorship or networking should get in touch.

Im-a-law-studentTo say that is the complete inverse of what a successful LSS and an effective leader ought be doing is to simplify the proposition. It ignores the significant differences between practitioners and alumni practitioners. Presidents should seek out opportunities, not ask them to come knocking via his or her email account.

But perhaps we should not expect any more. After-all, no alumni who works in Sydney is conveniently placed to do much and anyone who practices in Wollongong mustn’t be much chop. And we know that because of the brilliant depth of exposure and knowledge that law students have of the profession. Their insight and incredibly substantial knowledge of practical and academic aspects of practice are so good that they can swan about the university in barrister robes. Not even solicitors in New South Wales, who have a right to robe, chose to do so – and for very good reason.

It is a tragedy that the UOW Law School has fallen into such disrepair. To be greeted by not a single member of the faculty or the Law Student’s Society is a vivid proof of the state of decay that prevails. That not a single person thought through the ramifications of ignoring a member of the profession is remarkable. That not a single effort seems to have been made to stimulate the professional opportunities and links between the industry and the faculty that are so easily attempted, is appalling.

The McKinnon Building, the current but possibly not future home of the UOW Law School. Named after former Vice-Chancellor Ken McKinnon.
The impressive McKinnon Building, the current (but possibly not future) home of the UOW Law School. Named after former Vice-Chancellor Ken McKinnon.

But what is especially awful is that this has happened in the midst of the Goldring Lecture. This lecture which is part of a celebration of the UOW Law School’s founding Dean (and subsequently, outstanding judicial officer) is the very sort of thing that the law school should do but not for it’s own sake, for the sake of being emblematic of the school that Judge Goldring founded. Judge Goldring sought a different approach to the education of law, taking it outside of sandstone universities who taught so-called, “black letter law” in favour of a more contemporary, forward looking education that taught students not what the law is today, but what it will be when they leave law school. The forward view looked towards a legal industry that was then, and remains now, in flux under the burden of constant attacks upon its independence and efficacy in representing rights.

Yet, on a night when Judge Goldring’s accomplishments were being tacitly acknowledged by inviting the president of the Australian Law Reform Commission to give a speech, the actual achievements of the law faculty itself were being allowed to slide into the sunset of memories of happier days.

We can measure how far wrong the faculty of law has gone by considering its reputation. In an obituary published on the morning after Judge Goldring’s tragically early death, the Lawyer Weekly website waxed lyrical about his outstanding accomplishments as a member of the judiciary and in the law reform. It even specifically mentions that while working at the Law Reform Commission he contributed “a number of highly influential reports” about “education”. It doesn’t once mention his status as founding Dean of the UOW Law School. What an incredible demonstration of the extent of the disjunction that now exists between the Law School and how it is seen in the profession (or in this case, how it is not seen at all apparently).

debtNone of that is to say, of course, that the UOW Law School is to blame for something printed in a third party online article. But any university which has a law school would surely receive or be aware of such matters as an obituary and would surely seek to have an article corrected or amended which is neither a laborious nor onerous task.

Returning to the moot itself, it proceeded with the competitors receiving more support from their friends and parents than from any representative of the faculty or the Law Student’s Society and that is embarrassing. To think that family members of students might wander the empty and now corporately blank halls of the law school without so much as a guide or greeting as to the institution’s fabulous past and present achievements, is frankly miserable. To think that students would even bring their parents with them to an ostensibly adult undertaking indicates the increasingly embryonic nature of law student self-identity. To think that no-one sought out the help and encouragement from members of the profession who bother to show up and help out is downright laughable.

Judge Goldrin
Judge Goldring DCJ

Judge Goldring built a temple for legal education. He staffed it with some outstanding and worthy notables who changed my perception of law and helped me to seek out a more profound and earnest sense of what I believed in. With their educational legacy flowing through my legal blood, I happily returned to the faculty to teach as a casual and provide whatever help I might. Yet now, it seems that the transfusion of alumni blood into the ongoing legacy of the faculty, its student representative body and the life of the law, is as forlorn and vacuous as spilling blood on concrete.

It is little wonder that the LPAB Diploma in Law course is increasing the numbers of people who seek admission into the profession through the former principle path to professional qualification – the article clerk. Perhaps the future of legal qualifications for practice will involve a return to traditional methods, while universities simply study whatever everyone else does – presumably while tendering for a research grant on the law of the sea or the legal status of monkeys.

What does the future hold? No doubt those students who do excel and thrive at the Law School shall continue to do so. I have the pleasure of employing many of them. But I fervently wish for a return of the School’s prestige, it’s traditions, it’s achievements and of course its promise for an excellent future for all of its students (or at the very least, as many as is possible).

Meanwhile, there will probably a greater increase in the divide between those that practice law and those that study it. Ultimately, that may be the most appropriate thing – to further enhance the purity and objectivity of academic studies. But it almost certainly will not assist those who study the law to pursue the practice of the law. To do that, those students will need more support to know and grapple with an increasingly complex profession – one that is acting under the condign pressures of business and commercial reality.

Another solicitor sent me this Google search result for the UOWLSS.
True purpose? Another solicitor sent me this Google search result for the UOWLSS.

Perhaps some might prefer that such realities not enter into the fairy tale of be-gowned students romping through the common areas of the Eden that is UOW’s beautiful grounds. Perhaps some might even prefer that the greatest moment of student interaction comes over a pub crawl, a glorified ferry trip with beer or a grandiose law ball (having established their penchant for dressing up). And perhaps those early and earnest moments of intoxication are an important part of the rite of passage. But the path must be marked with more stimulating and lofty claims from the past so as to drive the future practitioners towards a better future.

As Associate Professor Colin Thompson said when I was in Law School,

“Some lawyers have the ability to see down the road they are walking to the next hill. They can make preparations for what lies ahead, give advice and determine what to do. But the really great lawyers are the ones who can see to the next hill, valley beyond and the hills still to come.”

Aaron Kernaghan
(UOW Law School, Class of 2000).

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Kernaghan & Associates nor its employees. 

11 Replies to “What is Wrong with UOW Law School and Law Student’s Society?”

  1. Im posting anonymously because Im worried the LSS mafia will come after me – reprisals, intimidation tactics, all of that are used by that group of self-interested bitches. And the law faculty promotes them and gives them money and helps them out and the rest of us are left to fend for ourselves. no one will help us or take these issues seriously but their real issues for students today.

  2. seen it all before at that uni and the reality is nothing will change and you aren’t going to be listened to.

  3. they took down the image with the ‘barristers’ in it from their webpage someone must be feeling the stress

  4. Have to say I agree.

    Law students wouldn’t even listen to themselves if they came back from the future to try to talk some sense into themselves. They seem unable to accurately assess the cost of the education weighed against the likelihood of employment until it is too late.

    And they’re so sure of themselves as they throw themselves into the abyss. The “certainty score” of new law students is through the roof. They believe they’re doing the right thing, and you can’t tell them otherwise. The Apostles of Jesus Christ had more doubt than law students.

    http://abovethelaw.com/2012/09/if-law-graduates-had-it-to-do-over-again-they-wouldnt-be-so-stupid/

    R.L.

  5. ur brave for saying this though, those people will abuse you for having a view on anything that isnt theres.

  6. Yeah, gotta say, when I was there the LSS did nothing useful and since I graduated I’ve had nothing to do with the place. They don’t seem to care – just grab your money and run with it. But then I guess its a business now and not a law course. Good on you for blowing the whistle on the crap. The profession has to put up with this shit all the time, asshole students who think they are god’s gift and have nothing to offer anyone. My firm won’t even employ Wollongong graduates anymore because of its STINKING reputation. Get this dude to advise the uni…

  7. “To think that students would even bring their parents with them to an ostensibly adult undertaking indicates the increasingly embryonic nature of law student self-identity”. I must say, I laughed out loud at this.

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