Out of the frying pan

People often describe the jump from High School to University with a proverb – ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire’. This article instead looks at the transition out of law school, and into working life. Some would describe the jump from University to working life as ‘out of the fire and into an even bigger fire’ (a proverb of my own invention). This applies especially to international students studying in Australia who plan to go back to their home countries to either find employment or undertake further study. 

Below are summaries (with links provided) for the various requirements law students have to meet under different countries. Standards for admission into the bar (or the corresponding equivalent) may vary between states. Therefore, plausible to discuss bar admission and I will only recover the requirements to begin work.

Working in Australia 

Victoria

After completing or in some cases during your law degree, you may choose to undertake Practical Legal Training (PLT). This may be done after passing the 11 core units referred to as the ‘Priestley 11’. These subjects range from Administrative Law to Torts Law and focus on teaching you the fundamental aspects of the law in Australia. A full list may be found here

The PLT is run by The College of Law, and constitutes a 15 week course involving teaching participants how to apply the skills and knowledge they learn in Law School under a practical setting. More information may be found in the PLT Handbook, downloadable here. After successfully completing your PLT, the ensuing certificate of practice will grant you the ability to work as a solicitor in Victoria. 

Interstate

Some students studying at Monash travelled from different states within Australia. Generally, certificates of practice will allow you to work as a lawyer in other states. However, this should be taken with a grain of salt as there are variations between jurisdictions. Some states may implement minor changes into the application process such as additional eligibility criterions. When applying to practice law in another state, a search for admissions requirements will suffice. These are typically contained within a state’s law society website.

Below are some helpful links. 

Australian Capital Territory

New South Wales

Northern Territory

Queensland

South Australia

Tasmania 

Western Australia 

International 

Being the diverse nation Australia is, Monash consists of many international students. While I cannot cover every individual one, I did my best in going over all the countries I have a reasonable knowledge of.

According to public ‘pocket statistics’ published by Monash, the 5 countries below make up the largest percentage of the international student population. 

China 

For Chinese citizens with an Australian law degree, a national judicial examination is required for practice as a lawyer in China. For those who can read the language or are just simply interested, this is know as the ‘国家司法考试’. After passing, you will then be eligible to undertake a 1 year traineeship. In a way, this is similar to a PLT where you will conduct work under the supervision of a qualified Chinese lawyer. Once this has been completed, you will be considered a full licensed lawyer under Chinese jurisdiction. At this stage, it is common for many to be retained by their mentor and continue working for them. Otherwise, you can venture off to discover your own independent path, the opportunities are endless!

India

Unlike China, the process to practice as a lawyer in India is quite simple. If you have an Australian law degree, the only requirement is that this award was obtained from a recognised university. Many countries possess a list of recognised universities and India is no different. A large quantity of Australian universities meet this criteria including Monash. It is likely that if you achieved a law degree from the land down under, it will be recognised in India. Again, take this with a grain of salt as just like the law, universities are subject to constant review and may be taken off this list. Nonetheless, it is always important to do the research and check your university’s acceptance status, I have included a list here. 

After getting called to a state bar, you may practice in any state across India without restriction. 

Malaysia

For Malaysia, applicants must be 18 or above, a citizen/permanent resident and are of ‘good character’.

For Malaysia, applicants must be 18 or above, a citizen/permanent resident of Malaysia and are of “good character”. They must also have received a qualification from a recognised institution. Click here for the list of recognised universities. 

Applicants must additionally do a pupillage under a law firm, or a practising lawyer. These vary in duration, with a minimum of at least a period of 9 months. Many firms in Malaysia take in large batches of pupils, and opportunities can be found periodically every few months. 

Singapore 

For Singapore, applicants must be 21 or above, a citizen/permanent resident of Singapore and be of “good character”. Applicants must also have received qualification from a list of approved universities. The Singapore Institute of Legal Education has set out a list here. Applicants have academic requirements such as being in the top 70% for academic performances out of the total number of graduates for that year.

Additionally, they must also undertake a national examination referred to as the Part A Singapore Bar Examination. This exam tests examinees on the 5 following subjects: Company Law, Criminal Law, Evidence Law, Land Law and the Singapore Legal System. 

After passing their part A or concurrently with studying for the exam, they must complete at least 6 months of relevant legal training (RLT) attached to either a law firm or a practising lawyer. Many overseas graduates undertake extra lessons while studying for the part A examinations to better prepare.

After completing both their Part A and RLT, applicants may practice law as a solicitor. To be called to the bar, applicants must complete a further Part B examination. 

Indonesia 

For Indonesia, applicants must be a an Indonesian citizen, at least 25 years of age, not be working as a civil servant or state official and be of good character. They must also have never been found guilty of an offence punishable by imprisonment of at least 5 years (so no murdering that one friend who steals your notes). 

While Indonesia does not have a list of recognised universities, they require all graduates from any law school to take a special education for advocates course, run by the Indonesian Bar Association. 

Indonesia also requires applicants to be called to the bar to practice in or outside the Courts, as they do not distinguish between solicitors and barristers. To be called to the bar, applicants must have interned continuously for two years at a Law office and pass a national bar exam run by the Indonesian Bar Association. 

Foreign lawyers

Of the five above countries, none allow foreigners to be called to the bar and practice. However, that is not to say that there are no opportunities for foreigners to work in the legal field. 

Given the globalised state of the world, many countries have firms looking to expand overseas, or firms that already deal with international or foreign matters. As a foreigner, one would still be able to work on such matters as foreign representatives and still be able to practice in those countries, albeit being restricted to working on these matters. However, do note that work visa requirements and some qualification requirements to regulatory bodies still apply. 

Calling back to the proverb (of my own invention), hopefully the brief insight this article provides turns the ‘fire’ down a few notches for those transitioning out of law school and into the legal sector. Whether its those coming in, those struggling through, or those graduating from law school, here’s wishing everyone the best in all future endeavours!

Written by Ryan Foo

Realisations of a first year COVID-19 law student: Surviving big changes in tough times

I received my undergraduate degree by lounging in lecture halls, scrunching into tiny study nooks and splaying on the many lawns of my university. I never thought I would miss all the different ways I could plonk myself down to stare at a textbook or lecture and absorb absolutely nothing. I am starting to believe that having such diversity of locales not only brought enjoyment to my undergraduate degree, but made the content I was learning that much richer and engaging.

At the end of 2019 I changed universities. I left behind the halls, nooks and lawns I had learnt in. I thought I was changing them for new scenery and the new knowledge a Juris Doctor would award me. I was misled, not by Monash, but by life and the pressing threat of a pandemic. So, this year I have spent less than ten weeks in the unique environments, situations, and spaces of the Law Chambers. I am completely disconnected from that physical realm of learning and it dragged me down mentally, physically and emotionally.

Not only have the physical boons of having a campus to attend been stripped from my first-year experience, but so have the traditional aspects of socialising, in a physical community. These are all things that personally I find essential to having a well-rounded university degree and help justify the amount of debt I am diving into. If I had my way and this year was still in my control, I would have been heavily involved in these activities. Yet, we do not get these aspects of our degree anymore. Instead, we get online learning, the isolation that comes with it and the struggle of chasing after even a scrap of motivation and volition to do any study. 

Clearly, for me the first-year experience has not been great, and I am sure many others have similar stories of woe that come from studying through a pandemic.

Having said that, I do not want my message from this year to be that studying under extraneous circumstances is a horrible, stressful and completely worthless experience. That would diminish the strength, ingenuity, and pure goddamn grit that many have shown during these times.

As a newcomer to the Monash law student community, I have witnessed people band together and support both friends and strangers. I have experienced zoom mates working extra hard to ensure the community is fostered and connections grow. Even though times have been tough, I have yet to feel that things are completely hopeless and will be so forever. Rather I have seen people tackle issues with humour and overcome the many obstacles this year has thrown at the student community with determination. 

While these difficult times make it hard to adapt to change, there is a way through. I have come to the realisation that building a support network regardless if it is a small group of friends or an entire cohort of students is vital to my survival as a law student. 

This year has been a challenging experience and I am positive there are more down the road. Yet, I find it reassuring to know that there is a friendly, passionate and determined community who are always ready to help. 

Written by Gianna Fermo

The 5 most common questions of a first-year law student during COVID-19

  1. How do I get in contact with group members or class members when I have never met them?

Be forward and reach out! Everyone is in the same situation, taking that first step by initiating a conversation with someone will be both appreciated and reciprocated. It may seem daunting at first but the potential to make a new friend who will make your law school experience that much better is too good to pass up.

There are multiple way you could reach out to your group members; posting on forums, sending out emails or even a casual message through Facebook, it all comes down to whichever method you feel most comfortable with. When it comes to organising your group and allocating the workload, there are a wide range online platforms at your disposal. For example, Zoom is a great tool for meetings, its simplicity, user friendly interface and ability to allow for open communication is perfect for ensuring COVID does not get in the way of you and your group. On the other hand, Google Drive is also another fantastic option as it enables you to create, edit and share documents with each other simultaneously.

Overall, if you are finding it difficult to take that first step do not hesitate to contact your lecturer. They always want to ensure that every student has an equal opportunity at doing the best they can which is why they will be eager to assist with connecting you to your group members.

  1. Are online copies of textbooks provided?

So far it seems that we are not constantly going to receive the holy grail that is online copies of textbooks. Instead, some publications and e-journals have dropped their paywalls but there is no consensus amongst the law faculty or the textbook publishers on whether online textbooks will be offered. In all honesty, it is most likely very subject specific. So, with that in mind, make sure you check Moodle or the Monash library catalogue for e-book options or email your subject coordinator. You never know! Perhaps an influx of emails will make your subject coordinator realise that free online copies is something they should be offering.

  1. What is the difference between the safe exam browser and e-invigilation?

Monash has provided a comprehensive page on the different types of exams and it is quite useful. You can click here to have a look!

The Safe Exam Browser (SEB), which was used for the LLB’s semester one exams, is a program which shuts down your computer to securely run the exam. This seems to be the same program used for the invigilated online exams run prior to this year. Unlike the e-vilgiation option, the invigilation of an exam while using the safe exam browser has to be external. In the case of semester one exams, this was done externally via Zoom on a second device.

Alternatively, e-vigilation seems to simply record you and your screen while you are undertaking the exam. This means it doesn’t shut down all your computer’s functions, but it can see what you’re doing on the screen. This system also means that your supervision is built into the system so a second device isn’t required.

  1. What do I do if I fail or I am unhappy with my WAM?

Failing, surprisingly, is an important step in learning. This unfortunately doesn’t make it any less crushing, but it does mean you can always learn something from the experience. That being said, there are options available in these situations.

Firstly, depending on the relevant criteria and your circumstance, your faculty may reach out to you and provide you with the option to sit a supplementary exam. Due to the current circumstances, this requirement has been dropped to include marks within 40-49. Secondly, for both semester one and two in 2020, Monash will withdraw students from failed units, meaning that it will not appear on your academic transcript. However, you will still be required to pay for the subject and to retake the unit if it was a core unit/pre-requisite. 

If you are unhappy with your subject marks, within a two week time period after receiving results you can elect for your marks to appear as SFR. This means that your WAM will not be affected and your unit marks will not be recorded on your academic transcript. When choosing this pathway, make sure you think about your own particular situation and how your personal circumstances were affected during this pandemic. 

  1. How to stay focused while studying at home

Studying at home can be the epitome of a poor workplace, but only if you let it. Try and set yourself a designated work area, whether it be a room or simply a specific seat at the dining table. This should be where you take all your classes, do all your readings and complete any other task you would normally associate with university. You should also avoid doing anything aside from studying in this place as the physical location will allow you to distinguish work from play.

Be kind with your time allocation, it is important to consider what time of day best suits you, early birds may find they are more productive during the morning hours of the day while night owls might focus better once the sun has set. Regardless, you should experiment and determine which hours you are most switched on at to truly capitalise on your productivity. Once you have decided when you should be studying, the next step is to solve how you should be studying. Although powering through your endless pile of work may seem like a smart option, you are likely to become restless, bored and tired. This can then lead to a significant decrease in your work ethic and at that point, you may be better off not studying at all. This is why it is crucial to develop and practice different study techniques to ensure you are consolidating the content and not letting procrastination take over. For instance, you could adopt the pomodoro technique which involves breaking down your work into short blocks of time. A typical example is 25 minutes work, followed by a 5 minute break. Separating your workload into small intervals will enable you to prioritise one task at a time. Adding in mini breaks means you are less likely to procrastinate which will then cause that work quality to go up!

If you are struggling with distractions from your phone, you can try leaving it in a different room or turning it off.  If you are finding yourself stuck on Facebook or YouTube, you could consider downloading programs that temporarily block your access to certain websites. such as the SelfControl app for Mac.

A Tale of Transition: From Regional Public School to First Year Law

“So, what school did you go to?”

It’s an innocent question and you hear it quite a lot during those awkward first year icebreakers, especially among Victorian students. When I explain I went to a public school in Geelong, reactions vary from blank to surprised. I suppose people have a vague sense of Geelong as a small town somewhere ‘out in the sticks’, a world away from trendy, hipster Melbourne. They’ve never heard of my school, only the private school on the other side of town where Prince Charles was educated for a year.  My actual hometown, about half an hour out of Geelong, is pretty unknown.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve met lots of nice people who went to elite Melbourne private schools and none of them have ever made me feel bad about my so-called humble origins. They are not the entitled snobs that people from my high school might imagine them to be. However, it was inevitably jarring moving from an underprivileged school to an elite university course full of driven, intelligent people, some of whom come from legal families.

I always knew I wanted to move away for university. It’s not that I didn’t like where I used to live, I just couldn’t picture myself staying there forever. I quite liked the idea of being closer to the city and I felt the Arts/Law course at Monash was much more suited to my interests than any course I could have taken closer to home.

The first challenge I faced moving to the city was not knowing anyone. This is a common first year experience but it’s exacerbated by the fact that most people from my school can’t afford to move out of home and Monash is too far to commute. As the only student in my graduating class who came to Monash, I always knew I wouldn’t see any familiar faces in my first tutorials. Some students, on the other hand, seem to have half their school here and don’t need to desperately seek out new friends.

Meanwhile my high school friends are all moving on with their lives in a different way. They’re living at home, working retail jobs and saving up money for travel or uni next year. They still catch up at weekends and have impromptu sleepovers. I love them a lot and I’m keeping in touch, but sometimes I worry we’ll grow apart living such different experiences.

At high school, I was always ‘the academic kid’, the person everyone predicted would get dux at the end of year 12. It wasn’t hard at a school where most people didn’t have high educational aspirations. Law school, however, is full of people like me. Everyone’s studious and well-informed about a range of subjects. A lot of people are good public speakers. I thought I’d be unique as a French speaking Law student but there are a surprising number of us. While this is all very enriching, it’s sometimes hard to accept I might not be the most talented person in the room – something people from bigger, more academic schools are more used to. I am gradually learning not to hold myself to the same ridiculously high academic standard though, it’s not good for my mental health when I expect to be the best at everything.

Although I’ve got no idea what it’s like to go to a private school, I get the feeling my university peers have had a lot more opportunities than I have had up until now. Even though I did French up to year 12, I’ve never been on exchange there. At my school, activities like high school debating, model UN and big budget theatre productions were virtually unheard of. I’ve had a fantastic start to the year with Monash Association of Debaters and I can probably get a travel grant if I want to do a French exchange but sometimes I get a bit of FOMO when I imagine all the things I never got to do in high school. I also know I’ll have to rely on financial aid for pretty much every future educational opportunity.

Still, when I tell you I went to a public school in Geelong, don’t assume I hated it. I am saying those words with pride. Academia aside, every student at my school was accepted for who they were and I can’t overstate the importance of inclusivity. I had some amazing teachers who helped me achieve my potential even when the rest of my class were pretty unmotivated. If I could turn back time and magically give my parents enough money to send me to a private school, I wouldn’t even consider it. I’m lucky to have met some very privileged people, some very underprivileged people and everyone in between. After all, a justice system where only the privileged can become lawyers is unlikely to be truly just. Maybe I’m an idealist, but ultimately, I’m studying law because I want to ensure justice is done for people from all walks of life – no matter where they went to school.

Written by Brynnie Rafe

A Case for Good Breaks

Have you ever been studying, cramming or grinding away at a task and you hit a wall? A seemingly insurmountable wall that you just can’t overcome? You check your phone, you distract your roommates or you go snack on some food, finding any excuse to procrastinate whatever it was you were doing. Yeah, we’ve all been there. We waste hours putting off tasks we know we should be doing, but the task is always there – at the back of our minds, gnawing away at our guilt. We can’t procrastinate in peace either, because we know we need to get back to it. A good break is a fundamental solution to side-stepping that wall, and to coming out the other side with guns firing.

There’s certainly no single method to have a good break, and everyone has their own process. At its core, a good break is a period of time you’ve allocated to yourself and given yourself permission to let go of your worries and relax. You could read a book, play some music or even go for a nice stroll. The key is to detach yourself from your stress during the break. As a result, you’ll come back to your task energised, with renewed ideas and hopefully in a much better mood!

1. Doing Nothing

Sometimes, a good break can just be to… do nothing. The concept of doing nothing is a way of thought the Dutch have termed ‘niksen.’ Practicing niksen involves taking conscious, considered time to perform activities like gazing out of a window or sitting motionless. In an age where everyone is glued to one electronic device or another, we forget that the best ideas often come from idle daydreams. If you don’t believe me, how many lightbulb moments have you had while in the shower? Research has shown that daydreaming makes us more creative, better at problem-solving and destresses the mind.If you’ve got an assignment due and you’ve hit that creative wall, perhaps some idle niksen in a comfy corner of your room is really what you need.

2. Nap Breaks

Let’s be honest, many law students stay up late. Whether it’s out of habit, or last-minute panic for an assignment due the next day, we’re pretty nocturnal creatures. I can’t speak for everyone, but my productivity levels drop to rock bottom levels by the 2am mark. The day after a late night up tends also to be tiring and less productive. Instead of changing our sleep patterns as we’ve all been told countless times (and won’t do), I’ve found that power naps work well to combat productivity issues throughout the course of the day.

Power naps usually last between 10-30 minutes, and offer boosts of alertness, memory retention and cognitive ability. An hour or two after lunch is a natural time to nap since your blood sugar and energy levels drop. If you’re feeling drowsy, take a good break with a power nap to recharge!

What if you just don’t have time for a good break?

As law students, we often lead very hectic lifestyles, and this can result in schedules which have no room for hobbies. A potential solution is to schedule in weekly commitments, to act almost as compulsory breaks.Personally, I’ve found team sports to be a great way to break the hustle and bustle of the high-stress law student lifestyle. A weekly team sport session has myriad benefits:

  • Exercise improves cognitive function. Decision-making and problem solving are enhanced after a solid workout. We all know the feeling of coming back from a walk with a ‘clear mind.’
  • Exercise releases mood-improving endorphins.
  • You can maintain a ‘healthy body, healthy mind.’

As a twice-weekly indoor soccer player, team sports have been a significant part of my life for many years now. From short-term benefits – feeling more alert once I get home and ready to tackle whatever work I have; to long-term benefits – keeping in touch with high school friends and making sure I’m staying in shape.

Personally, I’ve really benefited from participating in team sports. I recall a time last year during the semester 1 exam period when I was working 3 days a week, taking 4 units and had active extra-curricular commitments. The work was really piling up, with burn-out right around the corner. However, for 80 minutes each week, I would forget about all my concerns and lose myself in the sport. Afterward, I would inevitably feel better, resulting in greater productivity and a more stable mental state. Being able to switch off during a break is not the same as ‘wasting time,’ and for me, has been extremely helpful.

Of course, team sports are not the only way to schedule in good breaks throughout the week, rather any commitment to a hobby ensures a dedicated timeslot each week or fortnight where it’s just you-time.

Some useful resources to get you started

The hardest step is getting started. That’s why we’ve listed below a number of valuable resources students can access to get on track to having some good breaks and stopping the monotony of the #lawgrind.

Monash Sport

For students at Clayton Campus: +61 3 9905 4102
For students at Caulfield Campus: +61 3 9903 2358

Book a sporting break! Sports and Fitness Groups around Melbourne

https://www.meetup.com/cities/au/melbourne/sports-fitness/ https://www.eventbrite.com.au/d/australia–melbourne/free–sports-and-fitness–events/

Napping Benefits

https://medium.com/thrive-global/the-biggest-brain-benefits-of-taking-a-daily-nap-c82d1b0f15a0 https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/napping

Monash Counselling

Monash also provides free and confidential counselling and psychological services. Call 9905 3020 or 53020 from a Monash phone to make appointments and plan a weekly routine.

Monash Student Association

For students at Clayton campus Phone: 9905 3118 or 9905 3126

Monash Postgraduate Association

For graduate students on all campuses Phone: 9905 3197 or 9903 1880

Written by Kevin Ren

The Great Balancing Act: Law School & a Part-Time Job

We all know that life’s not easy. There are always going to be times when we are busier than usual, where we feel like there isn’t even time to sit back and watch the latest episode of MAFS or make it to a family dinner. There have been countless periods where I have felt like a hamster running on one of those wheels, constantly moving and pushing myself but never really getting anywhere.

It is very easy to lapse into these feelings when you are trying to balance a highly demanding law degree as well as 20+ hours of part time work a week. For most university students a part-time job is not a choice, rather it is a necessary means of gaining financial independence and being able to support yourself (beyond buying a totally unnecessary amount of Grafali’s coffee every week).

Over the past two and a half years of my law degree I have been one of those students who is never at uni and watches every lecture at home after an exhausting day at work. Albeit this is probably not the most conventional way of doing law school but for me it is necessary and after all this time it hasn’t been until recently that I have found my ‘perfect balance’.

Luckily for you, my struggling through the last two and a half years has led me to develop some ‘tips’ for finding the perfect balance between work, uni and life. By no means should my tips be taken as gospel because I am far from perfect and am yet to master any aspect of my life, but they are just some small hints that I wish I had been given before embarking on my journey. So here they are:

1. Time management is key

This is my first tip because I believe it to be the most important. It is almost essential to have good time management skills – this applies to most things in life, not just balancing uni and work. I am the first to admit that when I first started working during university that my time management skills were not up to scratch. It takes a while to develop these skills, but trust me, after a bit of hard work and a little less procrastination you will get there. This is not to say that you can’t enjoy some down time (as you will see in in my 5th tip) but it is just important to know when it is time to work, time to study and time to relax. In order to avoid falling into the trap of procrastination (which I am well known for) I would suggest writing up your own personal timetable every day that specifically states what you are doing that day and what times you are doing it.

2. Its ok to say no

There are often times where covering somebody’s shift at work seems like a far better idea that sitting at home and studying – you get paid and you don’t have to study, what a great plan! I soon learnt that this is actually not the best idea and that if you say yes to covering shifts too often you can be taken advantage of and almost expected to cover shifts in the future. Here I really just want to let you know that its ok to say no and not take on more shifts than you have committed to. Life is busy enough with doing your own shifts and uni, there is no need to stretch yourself even further.

3. Try your best not to let it slip

I am still working on trying not to ‘let is slip’. By this I mean try not to get too far behind on your lectures/notes that it becomes almost impossible to recover. I know first hand how easy it is to miss a lecture and then to tell yourself you’ll watch it next week, but little do you know you have even less time next week than you did this week so you never end up watching it. My advice is to write a to-do list and then tick each item off when you have completed it. It not only feels good when you do tick things off but it also helps you keep track of what you have done and what you haven’t and therefore stops you from getting that feeling of panic and anxiety when you sit down to study but don’t know where to start – now you just have to look at the list!

4. Its ok to ask for help

Although university is not very lenient or forgiving of students who work, there are other areas of your life that can be adjusted during busy times to allow you to spend more time on more important things (cough exams cough). One thing that I do that I find helps me a lot is to limit the number of hours I do at work in the lead up to exams. In my experience, if you are open and upfront with your employer and tell them that you have university exams coming up and need more time to study, they will be understanding of these commitments and will allow you to do fewer hours in the lead up.

5. Allow time for you

Last but definitely not least, make sure you allow a bit of time every day to relax and do something you want to do. Whether it be watching an episode of your favourite TV show, going for a run or catching up with friends for coffee, I believe is extremely important to take time out to do something you really enjoy. I have found that when I don’t take time off, I get very burnt out and not taking a break actually turns out to be counter-productive as working or studying too hard without an end in sight can be extremely demotivating. Although there is no strict time frame that should be allocated to this, I would say that at least one hour of down time each day is necessary.

With any luck after reading this you have got something to take away and apply to your own life. Most importantly, just remember that the whole work/uni thing is not easy an its totally normal to struggle with the heaviness of your law degree as well as your part time job. Throughout it all try your best to remain calm just keep chipping away at your to-do list- you will get there eventually! If I can do it, so can you!

By Claudie Opie

Time for an Awakening: Overcoming the Adversity of Culture and Stigma

CW: suicide, dist. thoughts

In March 2016, international student Zhikai Liu committed suicide by jumping off the balcony of his 21st floor apartment. Travelling more than 9000 kilometres from China to study in Melbourne, Liu found himself in an extremely challenging situation. He was unable to keep up with his study load, had difficulty socialising with local students, and became more and more distant from his long-distance girlfriend. As a result, Liu started to experience serious insomnia and depression, occasionally expressing suicidal thoughts when he was alone in the apartment. Unfortunately, he refused to seek any medical assistance, and insisted he was fine.

On 5 March 2016, Liu expressed his desire to focus on improving his English, rather than spend time at university. He was then told by his father to give the decision some thought. The next day, after a conversation about Liu’s academic and life predicament, Liu’s sister heard him walking towards the kitchen and muttering to himself, “Why is life so difficult? Why do we always have to make difficult decisions?”.

Then the tragedy happened.

In investigating Liu’s suicide, Coroner Audrey Jamieson instructed the Coroners Prevention Unit (CPU) to analyse suicides of other international students in Victoria. To find out what might be distinctive about the deaths, the CPU studied the circumstances of the 27 international student suicides and a cohort of suicides among Australian-born students. The findings by the CPU include the following:

  • A lower prevalence of diagnosed mental illness among the international student suicides (14.8%) than in the Australian-born student suicide cohort (66.7%)
  • Only 22.2% of the international student suicide cohort attended a health service for a mental health related issue within six weeks of death. By contrast, 57.1% of the Australian-born student suicide cohort had such an attendance within six weeks of death.

Studies have also found that international students in Australia are less likely than domestic students to seek assistance for mental health issues because of cultural, financial, linguistic and other hurdles. In a paper published by Dr Helen Forbes-Mewett and Dr Anne-Maree Sawyer, three factors are identified to heighten the stress experienced by international students:

  1. The experience of new and often unfamiliar academic practices;
  2. The broad range of knowledge and practical skills needed to manage day-to-day living in Australia;
  3. The tendency to delay professional help-seeking for mental health problems.

What we can learn from Liu’s story

When I first came across the news about Liu’s suicide, I blanched and pondered deeply over his last words. Reflecting on the very beginning of my time in this country, I experienced a similar type of anxious feeling. Why is life so hard? Why are there so many choices? Why are there so many decisions that need to be made?

Famous existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard described this anxious feeling as the dizziness of freedom, that of crippling possibility, of the boundlessness of one’s existence. Reading the existentialist philosophy was an enlightening process for me. I view this as a precious opportunity to fully grasp my own choices, responsibility, freedom and true being. Anyway, this is slightly off our topic. What is more important here is the cultural stigma international students are facing.

Liu’s suicide shows how international students are particularly vulnerable to mental health issues. There are way more students out there sitting in their own room desperately in need of help. They either don’t know how they can seek assistance, or they simply to refuse to talk to anyone about their issues. Writing from my experience as a native Chinese, the problem for students coming from Asian cultural background, I believe, lies in our inherent conservative cultural values regarding mental health.

Mental health has always been regarded as a taboo in many cultures. Particularly in the Chinese culture, the focus is always on physical health rather than the health of our mind. Emotional or psychological symptoms associated with mental health issues are rarely the topic of conversation. This probably has to do with the “keeping face” culture in Asia, where people fear that talking about their mental health would be a sign of weakness, and could bring shame on themselves and their families.

What’s even more disappointing to me is how some people still express their resistance to the ‘western’ way of treating mental health. They believe it wouldn’t do anything to solve ‘eastern’ problems. This stigma would further undermine one’s confidence of his or her ability to overcome their mental illness. It will lead to people to define themselves by their illness rather than who they are as an individual.

Based on that, here are some of the ways I’ve learnt to deal with the stigma:

  • Get the medical assistance you need as soon as possible. The effects of mental illness, if not dealt with in reasonable time, would lead to further harms to your physical health.
  • Do not let mental illness define who you are. Rather than saying ‘I’m depressed’, say ‘I have depression”. In order to find your true self, you should view yourself as a confident and capable individual.
  • Don’t pay attention to the negative and stigmatising comments. Mental illness is not a sign of weakness and is rarely something you can deal with on your own. Talking about your mental health issues with healthcare professionals will help you further along on your road to recovery or management. Remember that other people’s judgements often come from a lack of understanding rather than anything else. These judgments are typically made before they get to know you, so don’t believe that their views have anything to do with you personally.
  • Connect with others. Joining a mental health support group can help you deal with feelings of isolation and make you realise that you’re not alone in your feelings and experiences. You can also talk to your close friends, relatives and families about your issues.

Written by Dave Yan Sima

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News Flash: We aren’t having the correct discussion about mental health

Every now and then it is important to acknowledge how far we have come. Mental illness is now seen as a genuine grievance worthy of compassion and empathy. All major political parties in Australia have mental health funding as a primary policy objective. Men can open up about their struggle with depression or anxiety without it been seen as an affront to their masculinity. This was only made possible through millions of people choosing to have a more honest discussion of the reality of mental illness.

In the spirit of this gratitude, I want to talk about the danger of people who choose to over-simplify and cheapen the issue of mental health. The particular example I have in mind is the rise of ‘shortcuts to mental health’. The content is usually banal and self-explanatory, with advice such as ‘get enough sleep’, ‘meditate every morning’ and ‘learn to be happy.’ There is nothing inherently wrong with this sort of advice, but …

The problem is that they imply a simplicity to your mental health that just isn’t true. They enforce the illusion that your mental health is some kind of sickness that you fix by treating the symptoms.

I’m sorry folks, but that just ain’t how it works. Whether it is out of ignorance, or a deliberate choice to get clicks by piggy backing off a hot topic, this hurts those of us who still or will struggle with mental illness.

I decided to write about this after I was asked to speak at the 2019 Wellness for Law forum. At the panel, I was asked “What have you found to be the most effective strategy for maintaining your psychological well-being?”

The question bothered me because of how it painted the issue of mental health. It assumed that it was some kind of easy problem that could be fixed with just a few words of advice. Now, I’ll admit that I’m not an expert in mental health. But I can speak from my own experiences, and the hundreds of people who I have talked to about their mental health, to know there is some element of truth to what I’m about to say.

A mental health ‘strategy’ implies that if you execute the following steps correctly, everything will work out. It pushes forward this idea that so long as you’re eating right, and sleeping right, then you will feel better all the time. Even though each of these things are vitally important, we have to think about our well-being holistically. It’s about developing a consideration of our mental well-being as something that is one of, if not the most important aspect of our life.

One of the major themes of the Wellness for Law forum was resilience.

Namely, how can we develop resilience within ourselves so that we can deal with the trials and tribulations of life. Life is just going to get tougher after university, and that is the truth. Anyone that has gone through any kind of hardship knows that you can’t learn resilience. You experience something difficult, you suffer, and resilience manifests itself within you.  It’s not a reward that you get after you complete something. It’s a state of mind that develops once you begin to think in a different way.

Bertrand Russel once said that “if something can be said in a nutshell, that’s where it belongs”. Unfortunately, happiness doesn’t lie at the end of reading a well-being article or at the bottom of a to do list (don’t worry, the irony of me proclaiming this on a website about well-being isn’t lost on me). The solution is much deeper and far more complex than that, and depends on your own willingness to question the structure that have governed your life up until now. I am not saying there is no worth to Buzzfeed listing tips & tricks on wellbeing, but we need to keep the search within ourselves to find real meaning from life. This meaning is what will lead to resilience, and this resilience is what is crucial keeping mental illness at bay.

Written by Christian Lane

 

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First Year Blues: A Short Story on Choosing Your Friends & Your Clothes

First year of law school.

Not easy.

But definitely not as intimidating as you may think.

For me, what worried me most wasn’t just law school being intimidating and hard. It was saying goodbye to my comfortable high school routines, saying goodbye to wearing a uniform, and most unfortunately, saying goodbye to my two best friends who, both coincidentally, moved across the globe for uni. Yeah. I know. To me at the time, it was definitely the worst thing that could possibly happen going into Uni.

I was always someone who enjoyed the convenience of uniform. Summer – put on summer dress, white socks, brown shoes, and if I remembered, a ribbon in my hair.

Winter – a little more complicated… put on my white shirt, my tie, my stockings and my skirt. If it was cold, my jumper and blazer too. Six years of wearing the same uniform allowed me to never have to stress about outfits in the morning.

Uni just wasn’t the same. I remember waking up Monday morning for my first ever Crim lecture. 9am. Yeah…that was already 30 minutes later than high school starting. Should be easy right? NO. Picking an outfit for my first day at uni was actually a chore! I broke a sweat trying on the five jumpers and four (very much the same) pairs of leggings. Thank goodness I had my favourite pair of shoes at the time, otherwise the shoe choosing process could have left me missing my first lecture.

Three years down the track, I can definitely see how I was making a massive deal over a first world problem. But everything feels like a big deal in First Year.

So to anyone starting their first year, I just want to say it’s normal to panic and stress over things you have never worried about before, and it’s normal to not always be on top of everything. Just remember, first year is the best year to learn how uni life differs from high school and to start some new routines. Clearly, I could have laid the outfit out the night before, but being the last minute person I am- I didn’t.

Friends.

A lot of the time, our uni experience is very much dependent on the friends we have and the people we meet. Going into uni while my two best friends across the world, definitely made me feel like I “had no friends”. Each time I spoke to someone in a lecture and they told me “I’m hanging with my high friends friends tonight, we’re going out for a few drinks!” I couldn’t help but wonder how much easier and better life would be if I had my best friends. I would message them and tell them how much I missed them, and consequently start missing high school and my comfort circle. As the year went on, I realised, the only thing stopping me from meeting new people was my constant wish for my best friends to be here by my side. I learnt the importance of taking myself out of my own shell and stepping out into a new world where new people and opportunities are not as daunting as my mind makes it out to be. I realised there were people in similar positions as me and I wasn’t alone in feeling lonely and awkward.

There is always someone out there that will be your best friend, someone you will connect with, and someone you will go through uni with.

I just needed to find them, just like I had to find my best friends back in high school.

Written by Dian Liu (Co-founder)

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The Importance of Individualism: A Conversation with Demetrio Zema from Law Squared

If you are looking down the barrel of another 3 – 4 years of law school, it can be difficult to digest the seemingly long road ahead and to question how anyone gets through it.

The institutions which educate us are designed to create an elite group of students, the best of the best for them to gain traction and recognition as a leading alumni or a certain institution. This inevitably breeds competitiveness amongst students.

The subject matter we deal with is philosophically complex and morally obtuse. From the get go, its hard to know where you stand in your education and career development and this can lead to substantial self doubt. Are you tracking well? Are your grades good enough? Are they better than the person’s next to you? Are you even good enough to be here?

If you are planning on coming out the other end happy and intact, you need to come into university every year in the proper frame of mind. In this article, I write about a conversation Ashley and I had with Demetrio Zema, the founder of Law Squared. As the young founder of a law firm built on more humanistic principles of empathy and individual freedom, Demetrio certainly did not tread the beaten path. In this conversation, Demetrio revealed several of his thoughts about university education and his own self-doubt and ways to combat same.

I hope that fleshing out some of these ideas can help each of us re-frame the way we think about our university lives and the “road to our degree”. We want you to view this journey as a positive and influential step toward bigger goals.


Focus on your own lane

Demetrio did not start out wanting to be a lawyer. During university, he wanted to be a diplomat. By not wanting to go down the traditional lawyer path, this actually freed him from a lot of the competitive stress that bind law students such as applying for clerkships, internships and even articles (or now known as traineeships). He built himself up as the type of person he wanted to be, not what he thought would make him more qualified than everyone else. He focused on developing his own skill-set and this is what set him apart from those around him.

The importance of this lies in the simple fact that there are many different paths that lead to the same destination, and one is not better than the other simply because everyone else is doing it. Focus on your own lane and you will discover that you avoid the traffic in the other ones.

Just because you can do everything, that doesn’t mean you should

The connected nature of our social lives can be a powerful tool if used consciously and intelligently, however it can also be a huge source of achievement-anxiety. We are constantly exposed to other people’s achievements, breakthroughs, eureka-moments and award ceremonies. I know from my own experiences that, if I am not careful, using LinkedIn can just lead me to comparing myself to everyone around me and feeling awful because everyone seems to be doing something better with their life. It’s the Instagram of the professional world, showcasing the best of your life and leaving off anything that might not showcase “the best” (we’ve all taken 100 photos of the same object or view “for the gram” to capture our viewers attention). We all know our social media feeds are anything but the reality that sits behind most peoples lives.

What follows this feeling is the itch to take on more responsibilities and to “better” yourself and to “one up” what someone else has done or is doing. I know a number of students who feel as though taking on that extra roll, or that extra job, or that extra internship, will subside the feeling of mediocrity. Demetrio points out that this feeling can follow you into your working life and can persistently nag you unless you consciously do something about it. As an insurance lawyer, he worked extraneous hours and took on more and more stress because he felt like that’s what he “had to do”. If you spend your university life constantly trying to constantly “do better” and “achieve more” to climb the ladder, than this can carry through to your working life habits.

Demetrio revealed that ultimately, his personal and mental health was jeopardised and therefore when an opportunity arose, he decided to step outside the traditional law career path. Demetrio is a big believer in creating your own journey based on your own values and your own aspirations. Start with introspection. What do you value? What gives you real satisfaction and causes you to feel good about what you are doing? It shouldn’t be what your friends are doing, or what values/expectations your family have set. It shouldn’t be charity work simply because someone you admire did it, and it shouldn’t be learning to code because that’s what LawyersWeekly said to do. Once you have an idea of what you value, you can begin to visualise where you want to go. Demetrio pointed out that there will always be opportunities outside of the traditional law pathway, if you have the resolve to trust and back yourself.

Stay grounded

If you identified that a law degree is a necessary step toward a bigger goal, but are struggling with the idea of forcing yourself through law school, Demetrio has some words for you.

“You can see law school as a means to an end, or you can see it as an opportunity to learn more about yourself, learn more about the profession and to use the time to decide whether pursuing a legal career (either traditional or non-traditional law) is for you”

At the end of the day, your degree is just the start of your career journey. Yes law is a stressful degree, however working as a lawyer is equally if not more stressful and therefore as future lawyers, we need to learn to manage stress and expectations. Law School gives you the foundations for your career, it might not give you all of the tools nor does it give you a blue print on how to be a lawyer, but it does provide the foundational knowledge of an industry plagued with disruption and exciting opportunities.

Getting through law school isn’t about the shiny certificate you get given at the end, it’s about providing you with the foundational skills, to become a lawyer. Remember, you are more than a law student, you are a friend, a son, a daughter and countless other, more important things. Focus on what makes you happy and gives you purpose right now, and trust that the rest will inevitably follow.

By Christian Lane; co-edited with Demetrio Zema 

Demetrio Zema is the Founder and Director of
Law Squared a specialised commercial law and litigation firm focussed on working with high growth businesses and ASX listed companies.

Named “Australia’s most innovative law firm”, Law Squared takes an entrepreneurial approach to the provision of legal services, by offering a model of partnering with its clients as risk advisers to protect them against future risk and to partner with them to advance their business.

In 2018, Demetrio was nominated as Law Firm Leader of the Year (<200 employees) in the Australasian Law Awards and named the winner of the Lawyers Weekly 30 under 30 in Commercial Law, and the Law Institute of Victoria Rising Star. Demetrio and Law Squared have also been listed on the Lexis Nexus Legal Innovation Index.

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