28 May 2012


I spent last night reading Richard Hil's Whackademia: An Insider’s Account of The Troubled University (Sydney: Newsouth 2012), a somewhat depressing complement to critiques such as The Australian academic profession in transition: Addressing the challenge of reconceptualising academic work and regenerating the academic workforce (Melbourne: Centre for the Study of Higher Education 2011) by Bexley, James & Arkoudis; ‘The ERA and Journal Ranking: The Consequences of Australia’s fraught encounter with ‘quality’’ by Cooper & Poletti in 53(1) Australian Universities Review (2011) and Margaret Thornton’s Privatising the Public University: The Case of Law (Routledge 2012). More hope is offered  by the marvellous Prue Vines in 'Working Towards the Resilient Lawyer: Early Law School Strategies' (UNSW Law Research Paper No. 2011-30).

She comments that
We know that law students suffer disproportionate levels of depression compared with other students. This paper draws on research which suggests some possible reasons why and approaches to the development of resilience within the academic environment. It is argued that the resilient lawyer (one whose mind is well-furnished beyond the black letter law and whose understanding of self and ethical and other life problems has been developed ) is a reasonable goal for law schools to keep in mind. In planning for the first year experience it is useful to keep this in mind and begin to bed down some of the skills and attitudes which are most likely to enhance the development of the resilient lawyer.
Vines goes on to argue that
Many legal academics are concerned at the swing towards thinking about the mental health of students. There are many reasons why they are right to be concerned. We are not counsellors; we are not specialists in mental health, and we should not see ourselves in those roles. However, we are concerned with our students’ minds. And we waste all our time when a bright student sinks and falls, taking with them all they’ve learned. As people who teach law to people who may or may not be lawyers our interest is in helping to shape people who benefit society through their understanding of the rule of law in the broadest sense, as well as the details of legal argument etc. The Council of Australian Law Deans has suggested that the mental health of law students might become one of the standards or goals of Law Schools: One must be cautious not to over-reach, but a possible articulation of the relevant sentiment might take the form of Standard 1.3.4: 
"The law school’s objectives include demonstrating a high regard for the mental wellbeing of its students and to improving their awareness of the stresses associated with legal education and practice and the means to manage them." 
... It is relatively easy to present students with realistic ethical dilemmas, building from plagiarism treated as an ethical problem up to significant professional ethical dilemmas such as your boss requiring you to do something repugnant where you have to weigh up your need to have a job against your ethical standards. Giving realistic scenarios for role plays allows students to practice what they might come up against. Discussing them in class helps students to develop a ‘grammar’ for discussing such dilemmas. This can be done not only in Legal Ethics courses, but also in torts or contracts or property courses. 
The literature suggests that people who choose law for themselves (rather than because their parents told them to do it or they got the marks) do so because their personality type is more likely to be a ‘helper’ type. These are the students who want to fight for justice; they are also the ones who are most discomfited by ethical dilemmas. I suggest to you that these are the ones we really want to be practising as lawyers. The importance of building their sense of authentic self with a grammar for discussing ethical issues is vital for them. For the others, that ethical sense may need to be awakened in some way, although young people are very often extremely idealistic. When we can harness that idealism to a practical ethical understanding we have the best chance of developing the kind of lawyers I believe our society needs. If the aim is resilience, though, it is important that the students do not get the Hollywood version of ethics ‐ the pie in the sky, it will all come right in the end and we’ll live happily ever after version. The reality is that ethical problems can bite deep, and they can take away one’s livelihood.