Sasha Borissenko: Life in “law school culture”
Last week, I had the opportunity to read and contribute to a sobering read by Janhavi Gosavi of Salient magazine. In ‘Law School’s Culture—It’s Complicated’, she spoke of law school as being ostentatious and
illusory. A cool kids club for some, a snooty prison for others, she wrote.
“Assumptions and accusations run wild: Law school is an elitist, competitive, toxic, cliquey place filled with rich, white, pony kiddos who snub their noses at other degrees.”
The article, in conjunction with Victoria University of Wellington’s new policy to prohibit relationships involving power imbalances, got me thinking about my own experiences:
I chose to pursue law studies at the University of Otago for absurd reasons. My parents were scientists and feeling contrary, moving to the farthest place from my hometown of Tauranga to study something I had absolutely no idea or had absolutely no talent for seemed ideal to me. ‘era.
It could also have been the strong sense of justice I had as a result of attending Catholic school for far too many years. Contraception and talking about menstruation were foreign concepts, no joke.
I applied to reside at Knox College because the castle on the hill tickled my Harry Potter love fantasy – I cringe at the thought.
The college had its own library – the kind with spiral staircases – and additional tutoring. Residents dressed in fancy clothes — bra straps or jeans weren’t allowed — most nights for dinner. And in addition to sports and performance opportunities, residents would learn to dance in preparation for two balls each year. What gas, I thought!
The hall offered a sense of community and opportunity – privilege and all. Choristers, for example, would receive $500 per semester to wear silly dresses and sing in church service every Sunday.
Hilariously, you would be charged around $15 if you missed a session, so that meant one semester I got a bill to make up for my inability to commit to those Sunday sessions.
While I had a blast—obviously, seeing as I ended up becoming a sous-master to avoid an impending breakup in my senior year—the indoor experience wasn’t without its pitfalls.
It was 2007 and gendered and heteronormative rituals were very real. Take the ‘dashboard’, for example – both women and men (no homosexuals existed at the time, apparently) would receive points for kissing and other R18 activity.
The woman with the most points would receive the title, “the Knox Bike” and would be council master the following year (traditionally people stayed for two years).
Then there was the annual Rugby Championship between Knox and rival venue Selwyn College (fun fact Selwyn was once managed by MTB MP David Clark through Covid fame).
The “most attractive” females would be handpicked – God knows by whom – to run across the field while positively pickled. They would be topless except for a bit of duct tape and body paint. Selwyn had a similar tradition – this time the men played naked basketball.
You’d also be bathed in a cesspool of piss and vomit if you didn’t follow the dining room rules – bra straps and such. It sounds heinous in hindsight, and maybe it was, but at 18 my brain wasn’t developed and feminism was not yet in the consciousness.
What was scary was that these traditions were very student driven. We’re talking about teenagers with underdeveloped brains, daddy’s money, deprived educational backgrounds, and a penchant for permitted recklessness.
These characters would go on to go on to graduate from law school with flying colors, work in corporations, live in London, get married in Waiheke, pump 2.5 perfectly blonde kids, become partners, before becoming a lawyer in hopes of one day becoming a judge. You know the gender.
Law school itself was very risky. I spent much of the first year watching Skins season after season, “leaning in” to hipster culture, and devising plans to avoid end-of-year exams 100%.
Diets included – a salmonella milkshake, lying under a car/bus as it rolled slowly on one ankle – I could go on.
The second year was much the same. I still shiver when I think of the pressure of having to spend this whole year in hell, I mean contract, public law, criminal and property. It was so alien and so impossible that I auditioned for a voice lesson thinking I definitely needed other options.
Rather than reading real cases throughout the degree – no kidding, I didn’t – I instead put all my effort into getting good grades. It’s hilarious and ironic that I’m a slave to case reading in my professional life now.
For the rest of my studies, I failed to prepare for tutorials, I attended as few lectures as possible, and it took me a good five years – probably more – to get around a simple statutory interpretation.
It’s no surprise that I found solace in the case law and after an existential crisis learning about access to justice issues, I really thought a career in journalism – communicating heavy topics for the masses – was the answer. Salary opportunities in journalism – not so much.
Should I regret the $30,000 singing degree I earned in an effort to complete the excruciating agony of law school, or have this hideous experience in and of itself? Absolutely not.
Whether it was the weird conflicting issues associated with my residency or the self-flagellation of being a slacker, it existed in a place that fostered community, self-actualization, literacy skills, and opportunities. . It’s the gray areas that keep you on your toes, I think.