Every prospective law student has fretted over this decision to some extent, and with good reason – you’re making a decision and committing to the next three to five years of your life, and you have no idea what the university is like!
Unfortunately, until you’re sitting there in the lecture theatre you will never really know that you’ve made the best choice regarding university or even law. However, you can research and consider the key issues that will make it or break it for you.
The aim of this post is to provide a laundry list of issues for you to consider. Some are completely obvious and for these I’ll provide some other insights for you to think about. This post is for someone who is at the very start of the research process.
Do you want to practice as a lawyer?
If you want to practise as a lawyer then you will have to complete an accredited law degree. That means a bachelor of laws or a Juris Doctor – something like a diploma in legal practice or paralegal studies is not enough. Just so you know, all current law degrees in Australia, including online law degrees, are accredited.
For completeness, I should say at this point that finishing a law degree isn’t enough to be admitted to practice – you will also need to undertake a period of practical legal training, which is kind of like a apprenticeship that runs from anywhere between three months to a year. It involves assessments and you must pass to be eligible for admission.
Alternatively, If you are just looking for a general legal education and have no desire to ever practice law then you have a lot more options available. For example, there are plenty of certificates and diplomas regarding legal services. You could simply undertake a few single units (eg contract law or business law).
Do you need flexibility?
Are you living with your parents, don’t pay rent, and intend to spend all of your free time at the university bar? If so then everyone is jealous of you, and further, you don’t need to rule any university out for not being flexible enough to suit your timetable.
For prospective law students who have significant time commitments (for example, you might need to work part time, full time, help elderly parents or raise young kids) then you will want to make sure that your university is flexible enough to work with your schedule.
You should ask whether your university offers any of the following:
- Lecture times: Some universities will offer each lecture three or four times (during the day and after hours) throughout the week, so you can choose the time that suits you best. Sometimes the places in these lectures are capped to a certain number of students, so it will be first in first serve). Other universities will set one lecture per week and expect you to turn up.
- Night classes: This is a great way to fit in lectures if you are working through the day. Only some universities offer this – more often than not it’s the Juris Doctor courses.
- Recorded lectures: Some universities will record every single lecture and post it online for you. Some have policies preventing even students from recording the lecture for their own use. It might also change for each program, so an undergraduate law degree will records it’s lectures while a Juris Doctor degree at the same university will not. This is important if you have a difficult schedule or unpredictable working hours.
- Deferring: Law school can be really tough, and I think that it’s important to have the option of deferring a semester if you need a break to recharge (after all, it’s a marathon, not a sprint). Ask how easily you can take a semester off. All you should need to do is notify the university and not enroll in any subjects.
- Increase or decrease your workload: Similar to the above, you should be able to increase or decrease your workload to suit your life outside law. Some universities make this easy, and some make it very, very hard.
How much are you willing to pay?
It’s no secret that law degrees are very lucrative to the education industry (see my post on the cheapest and most expensive law school fees here). They have low contact hours, few overheads, and large numbers of applicants and students.
The biggest factor in determining how much you pay for a law degree will be whether you are on a commonwealth supported place (CSP) or if you’re a full fee paying student. Generally, if you apply to an undergraduate degree you’ll get a CSP spot; if you apply to a Juris Doctor you’ll probably be paying full fee (only a small percentage will get a CSP place).
The difference in cost is significant – a CSP place will be around $43k while a full fee place will be around $115-130k. You will finish both courses in the same spot – as a law grad!
Of course, almost everyone (except international students) will have access to a government supported loan to cover costs. The only problem is that full fee places are so expensive that the government loans will cap out and you will have to pay the remaining upfront.
In 2017, loans are capped at $100,879, so if your full fee law degree costs more than that then make sure you have some savings to pay the difference in your final year.
And just remember, universities will raise their fees every year. I would use CPI as a guide at a minimum.
Is prestige important?
You can’t get a much more subjective question that this, and you don’t need to look far to see that everyone has an opinion. The topic of university prestige is frequently discussed on Whirlpool in the education section (usually as a result of someone asking what uni they should go to, and whether a G08 uni is worth it).
My personal view is that it will matter to an extent if you are looking at getting into a top tier firm via the clerkship and graduate program pathways. I base this on seeing G08 law students vastly outnumbering any other law student in each clerkship cohort at my firm. I find it difficult to accept that students from non-G08 universities don’t have great resumes or can’t market themselves just as well, and so my conclusion is that there is a bias.
Of course, if you take a look around on LinkedIn you will see very successful lawyers coming from a whole range of different universities. I suspect that this will be come more common once students from the non-G08 universities enter the workforce and start making hiring decisions themselves (there is the argument that, previously, all lawyers came from a select few universities, and that they are biased towards students who come from their alma mater).
Who are the G08 universities in Australia?
The Group of Eight (G08) Universities are:
- University of Melbourne (VIC)
- Monash University (VIC)
- University of New South Wales (NSW)
- University of Sydney (NSW)
- University of Queenland (QLD)
- University of Adelaide (SA)
- Australian National University (ACT)
- University of Western Australia (WA)
Love it or hate it, G08 universities do have a great reputation both within Australia and internationally, which I will discuss below.
Does the uni rank in the world rankings?
Perhaps a more objective measure of the quality of a university (or at least prestige, I guess) are the various world rankings which are released each year. These evaluate numerous aspects of a university (far more than I care to go into here).
Is it worth spending hours crawling through the data and trying to figure out whether or not a university is right for you? I would say no, and that this is only really important for bragging rights. But nevertheless:
- The QS (Quacquarelli Symonds) World University Rankings place the Australian National University, University of Melbourne, The University of Queensland and The University of Sydney in the top 50 (and another 2 of the G08 unis within the top 100).
- The Times Higher Education World University Rankings put the University of Melbourne and Australian National University in the top 50 in the world (and another 4 of the G08 unis within the top 100).
The QS World University Ranking also rank law degrees – 7 out of 8 of the G08 universities are within the top 50 universities world wide.
Does the uni have “world class facilities”? (Of course it does)
You want the university to have good facilities, and if you’re relying on them during peak times (such as exam periods), you want them to have enough facilities to go around.
At a very minimum, you want your university to have a large number of the core textbooks. Anyone can walk into a university library to look around, so next time you are nearby, or even on a Saturday morning, drop in and look for yourself.
Most older universities will have very large libraries (but these are largely made up of older textbooks that you will never use). Universities with young law faculties will usually have very small libraries in comparison, but if they have all the current textbooks, then that’s really all you need.
It’s also worth remembering that most Australian universities take part in a scheme whereby students can access textbooks from other university libraries. This means you will have access (though with a little bit of wait time) to all the books you could ever want access to.
If you don’t half a laptop or don’t like carrying one around with you, you will also want computers on campus.
Where do you live? Should you consider an online law degree?
In the past you had to live close to a capital city to study law. Today you can study from the comfort of your own home through online law degrees. At present, there are numerous universities offering online law degrees, so it’s worth taking a look to see if that’s an option that would suit you.
All of the online law degrees are also accredited, so you will end up with the same qualification as someone who has attended a university on campus. Head over to my post on online law degrees in Australia for some insights into this mode of study.
Are there any student support services?
Student support falls into a number of different categories. Take a read through and then see what your prospective university offers when you take a look through their webpage and social media accounts.
- Employment: Does the university offer a wide range of student services, including help with resumes and job interviews? Most universities will offer this, both during and up to 12 months after your degree, but it’s worth checking. Sometimes the law faculty will offer additional support, for example with essays and exams.
- Competitions: Does the law faculty have a variety of activities that you can take part in? The common ones for law degrees are mooting, essay competitions and client interviews. These look great on your resume and can help when applying for clerkships and graduate programs.
- Engagement with legal industry: Does the law faculty bring law firms on campus for mock clerkship and graduate interviews, clerkship guide launches or other kinds of networking nights? This is a great way to learn about law firms without having to call the human resources department yourself!
- Mentoring: Many law student societies arrange mentoring for first year students by later year students, which can be a great way to get to know your student cohort. Take a look at the law student society webpage to see what they offer throughout the year.
Of course, you’re ultimately responsible for researching, applying and gaining employment, but these kinds of services can help you along the way. Don’t be that student that asks, in their final year, when they should start applying to clerkships.
Will electives be important for you?
In my opinion you shouldn’t be putting too much emphasis on elective options, unless of course you are looking for a career in academia and have something extremely specific in mind (eg, you have a strong background in chemical sciences and only want to study law to be an IP lawyer).
Many universities play up their amazing elective options and use this as a selling point. In reality, after two or three years of a law degree, most law students will choose electives that fit into their schedule or that have assessment options that suit their personal strengths (eg 100% exam or 100% essay) than any other reason. Further, law firms almost couldn’t care less about your elective choices, as long as you do well in them.
There are some exceptions to the above rule, including practical placement subjects, which are great for networking, or overseas exchanges, which are fun and stand out in interviews. Let’s be honest – it’s way more interesting talking about travelling in an interview than it is about your career goals.
Class sizes – bigger or smaller?
Do you want a small class where you can ask the lecturer questions during the lecture? Or would you prefer to blend into a large crowd and get to the bottom of issues after class in your won time?
Juris Doctor degrees typically have very small class sizes of around 15 to 25 students which means the lecture is more like a discussion. I thought this was a great way to learn, but it also meant that I often got called on by a lecturer to answer questions.
Undergraduate degrees, on the other hand, can have over 100 students in each class – the tutorials are then used as a forum for discussion and problem solving.
Figure out what kind of environment you would prefer, and ask questions accordingly.
What is offered by way of tutorials?
Completing practice questions and discussing them with a group of law students is one of the most effective ways to cement what you’ve learnt and identify areas that you need to review. Tutorials are typically led by a lecturer or PhD student and provide you with a chance to see how the theory is put into action (well, action for the purposes of exams).
You want small tutorial groups so you can ask questions and provide responses. The more discussion the better. Ask how many students will be in each tutorial group and how many tutorials you will have each term or trimester.
You can always (and should) supplement these with study groups, but the advantage of tutorials is that you will have someone who can answer any questions you have, rather than you and a group of your friends trying to figure it out on your own (which is, by the way, also a great way at learning).
How is the law degree structured?
Some universities run on a semester system, much like high school. You will have two relatively long terms, with a two to three month break at the end of the year.
Other universities run on a trimester system. This means that you will only get a few weeks off at the end of the year – not much time to soak up the holiday sun! Each trimester will usually be a little bit shorter than a semester, but it will still end up as being a longer academic year.
The other difference between these two structures is workload. Semester students usually have more units each semester, and trimester students have less. Who ends up having the more difficult workload? I’m sure every student you ask says that they do!
This touches on the above, but it’s worth having a section on its own. Practical electives are great and can help you build up your legal skills before you graduate. This is a great alternative to volunteering in a community legal centre or working as a paralegal (both of which are very competitive to get into).
Practical legal training (PLT)
Again, there’s is no real need to put a lot of weight into this, but it might really appeal to some prospective law students. Some universities will integrate practical legal training into the final part of the law degree (usually over the last year). This means that when you graduate, you’ll be completely done and ready to look for jobs!
The only disadvantage of this is if you go down the clerkship and graduate program pathway, you will have already paid for PLT, which is something the law firms (usually only the large ones) would have paid for!
Perhaps most important of all – are there enough cafes nearby to get you through the day? A good coffee haven might be the small detail that makes it or breaks it for you!
Want more information?
We always want more, and at the research stage this isn’t a bad thing at all. You can seek out some further information from various places:
- University websites: The first stop for all the basic information. University and faculty websites will do their best to highlight what’s on offer.
- Open days: Every university will have a university wide open day, and many Juris Doctor programs will have separate open days just for the degree. These are largely PR exercises, and most of the information in the presentation can usually be found on the university website. That said, you (and other prospective students) have the opportunity to ask questions to bottom out some of the areas that are never well discussed online – for example, what are the general scores you need from a different degree to get in, and what do you include in a personal statement.
- Random Googling: You should be able to find a few forum threads discussing your uni if you look hard enough. Invariably any post discussing which university too study law at will degenerate into a G08 vs non-G08 debate (if you could call it that) with each person loudly claiming that their uni was the best or was perfectly fine, as the case may be. Generally, useless but you can sometimes find someone who is willing to give decent advice.
How do you know you’ve made the right choice?
Lawyers love certainty, but unfortunately, it’s one of those things that we rarely ever get. This decision is more about making an informed choice than trying to chase the idea of making the “right” choice.
As long as you spend the time doing your research, you will be able to sleep well knowing you’ve considered your options and applied for the courses that best suit you.
Good luck at law school!If you found this helpful, please share it around!