A surplus of dreams: studying law in the age of scarcity

This article was originally published in Overland Literary Journal.

Why are record numbers of undergraduates pursuing a career in law when getting a foot in the door is harder than ever?

In 2014, 14 600 Australian law graduates entered a field with a capacity to take 66 000 professionals. Assuming no growth in jobs, and that about sixty per cent of those graduates intend to pursue a career in law, that means that around eleven per cent of solicitors would have had to vacate their places for the graduates of 2014 alone. Yet, that same year, the number of graduates grew by nine per cent. What could explain the persistence of this influx?

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Image: ‘The Danish court Rigsretten in session in the Landsting Chamber, Christianborg Palace, 1877′; Fred. Norgaard & Hans Jensen/Wikimedia

Like law schools, law firms are very much aware of this problem; but, while they constantly give advice to students on how to manage their careers and expectations, they almost never tell students to set aside their dream of law and consider their next-best option. It is, no doubt, in the economic interests of universities to enrol more students; likewise, it is in the interests of firms to have a greater pool of graduates to choose from, as this gives recruiters more choice and puts downward pressure on wages and working conditions. The prevalence of surplus dreams is good news for the industry.

A recent Australian Financial Review column highlighted the severity of the problem in the legal profession, prompting another article in the Sydney Morning Herald, which pointed the finger at everyone and suggested a few solutions. The latter’s business-minded approach would be reasonable if it didn’t rely on such a sharp division between rational and irrational motives of students in choosing to undertake these studies – an argument which fundamentally misunderstands human nature and decision-making, as well as the unpredictable nature of today’s economy.

The article proposes a range of measures for governments (and prospective students themselves) on how to help young people make better decisions, given the tens of thousands of degree dollars and years of study at stake. Certainly, conducting more job market research and demanding more accurate information from universities will lead to better-informed decisions, while compelling students to pay a portion of their fees upfront and to commence work in the early part of their degrees will surely give them a better appreciation of the weight of their investment.

However, these proposals overlook the inherent value of university education, in that it shapes young minds that will become much, much more than mere functional appendages of the economic system. As complex young people navigating an uncertain world, students use this transitional phase for more than simply making and pursuing choices: they critique, apprehend, revoke and embrace the choices that they and others have made. The idea of becoming a lawyer, doctor, teacher or software engineer becomes much more than a goal, or an expected return on investment. It is a dream that gives structure to one’s present life; a signifier of certainty or ambition that lends meaning to the speculative projects of one’s youth. What is missing from this analysis is how the meaning of a degree has changed – and, just as importantly, the dreams that accompany it.

A degree in law was once an assured precursor to a career in law. However, as more universities established law schools and expanded their intake, leading to an increase in demand and thus a scarcity of jobs, its meaning changed. The measure of a law degree’s value is no longer equivalent to that of the career it might lead to, but rather thepossibility of such a career. Its value, no longer tied to the real-life concerns of students and early graduates, has come to incorporate such things as prestige, privilege and exposure – not as means to an end, but as ends in themselves. The law degree has taken on the character of a dream.

Of course, for the privileged and talented, the progression from law school to graduate positions remains as assured as ever. Yet, for those who have entered law school with an aspiration to become something more than their predetermined selves, the dream – much like the Australian Dream – has become an illusion.

‘… the fetish confronts us with the paradox of an unattainable object that satisfies human need precisely through its [the object] being unattainable. Insofar as it is a presence, the fetish object is in fact something concrete and tangible; but insofar as it is the presence of the absence, it is, at the same time, immaterial and intangible, because it alludes continuously beyond itself to something that can never really be possessed.’ – Giorgio Agamben, Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture

Detached from the pragmatic realities of its actualisation, the dream is instead structured around the fetishism of a law career as a commodity. Agamben talks of commodities as objects that satisfy human need by standing for something unattainable. In terms of law, this kind of unattainable commodity is best represented by the proliferation of legal dramas on television. Such depictions – a kind of cultural clutch – present law as cantering around justice, fairness and the right person always winning. A more sober, realist lens would depict it as time consuming and meticulous; a practical matter of people sitting in cubicles filing paperwork.

This fetishisation is evident in most, if not all, careers available to millennials. This generation tends to intuitively understand the overall state of affairs, and increasingly protests against sacrificing the best years of their lives scraping enough together for a deposit or steep monthly repayments; yet, the ideological pull of fetishist dreams is inescapable. ‘They know it to be true, but they do it anyway’: such is the function of commodity fetishism. Young people continue to seek entry into careers for which, every report tells us, there are too many graduates for too few positions.

Rather than question the dream itself, millennials who reach the point of failure often blame themselves and their immediate shortcomings. When the best years of their lives have been spent in suspension of disbelief, to question the dream becomes an unappealing risk that only promises trauma. As Caroline Durlacher puts it, ‘Neoliberalism foists on career-minded millennials a self-relation which resembles that of alcoholics in the throes of addiction.’ Instead of asking why they have such desires, many millennials succumb to them, going from addled dream to addled dream like an alcoholic from bottle to bottle.

In order to keep the dream alive, millennials are often forced to accept ever-lower standards of opportunity. Nowhere is this truer than in the area of unpaid internships. An unpaid internship was once considered a marker for punching above one’s weight; for having gained experience at a prestigious organisation that would not normally hire young people because the work was too specialised or high level. Only in a system that relies on surplus dreams could the kinds of unpaid internships millennials currently undertake – low skilled, psychologically demanding and often exploitative – be considered an acceptable, even necessary step for moving up the career ladder.

Uncoupled from reality, forever reaching towards an unattainable point beyond, the dream does not collapse once the aspirant reaches their notional goal of entering the profession. As Joshua Krook has previously outlined, a legal education diminished by fetishistic attachment to a narrow understanding of law impoverishes the entire profession that follows it. Moreover, the dream survives as a set of signifiers – values, goals and achievements – that sustain their meaning only in relation to each other, generating further signifiers with no greater attachment to reality. All the things that youth hoped would attach itself to the dream – mental well-being, a balanced family life, coherent commitment to social values – will be enjoyed, even where they are not possessed; for the prize craved was never the actualisation of these things, but merely their possibility.

Joshua Krook (co-writer) is a young writer, novelist and graduate of law.

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