Law is one of the most difficult degrees to get into; with most law schools accepting only the best and brightest students from across the nation.
Traditionally, entry into a law degree has been based on a school leaver’s Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) – previously known as the Universities Admission Index (UAI), and the Tertiary Entrance Rank (TER) before that.
The ATAR measures a student’s overall academic achievement compared with other students – e.g. an ATAR of 80.00 means that a student is in the top 20%.
As discussed in a previous blog, the top Australian law schools generally require an ATAR above 90. The University of Sydney – Australia’s oldest law school – requires an ATAR of 99.5, meaning that it generally only accepts the top 0.5% of students.
But there has been debate about how these entry requirements can discriminate against students from low socio-economic backgrounds – because schools in ‘poorer’ areas can attract less qualified teachers, and may not be able to offer higher scaling subjects.
It has also been reported that a student’s ATAR can be affected by how well other students in the school perform. It is argued that this has led the top law schools to become an ‘old boy’s club’ – with students from high ranking private and selective schools far more likely to make the grade.
Now, one of Australia’s leading law schools has set out to change how students are assessed for entry – with the University of New South Wales (UNSW) announcing that it will introduce a ‘Law Admission Test’ from 2017 onwards.
What is the Law Admission Test?
The Law Admission Test (LAT) is billed as a fairer and more effective way of assessing the calibre of candidates. A student’s HSC results will not simply be ignored – but will be just one of several factors taken into consideration when assessing applicants.
According to the UNSW Law website:
‘Your LAT result, together with your ATAR or academic result, will provide us with a more rounded view of your aptitudes and skills for our Law program.’
The LAT will require applicants to undertake a two part, two-hour exam the year before they plan to commence a law degree.
Each part will consist of a written component, which is ‘designed to assess aptitudes and skills that are critical to success in the Law program including critical thinking and analysis, and organising and expressing ideas in a clear and fluent way.’
A More Level Playing Field?
According to the University, the LAT will set a more level playing field, with Law School Dean Professor David Dixon describing it as a ‘constructive attempt to improve the entry system.’
Heads of other law schools also agree that entry should not be entirely based on a student’s HSC results, with the University of Notre Dame’s Vice Chancellor Professor Celia Hammond stating that an ATAR ‘… doesn’t actually give you any detailed information on whether somebody is suited to the particular course they’re going into.’
The Attraction of Law
Many students have a misguided belief that the legal profession is glamorous and prestigious.
US television shows often portray lawyers as flashy, wealthy individuals who work on a case or two at a time. These shows fail to show the less glamorous side of being a lawyer – the long working hours, heavy workload of dozens of cases at any one time, unrealistic expectations and the high incidence of mental health problems including depression.
Newly-admitted lawyers generally start on a relatively low salary compared with other professions and trades – even though they will have worked very hard to gain entry and complete their law degrees. This is partly because the initial stages of being a lawyer require a great deal of training and investment to shape graduates into good lawyers.
Indeed, graduates will generally take a lot more time to complete tasks which come naturally to experienced lawyers, and the senior lawyers will – in the right firm – give up their own time to ensure that juniors have the necessary training, guidance and supervision to independently conduct more difficult tasks such as defended hearings, and sentencings or appeals in the higher courts.
High Dropout Rates
Law has always been known for its high dropout rates – with only a fraction of gifted, dedicated and persistent students going on to become fully fledged lawyers.
Initiatives such as the LAT aim to reduce the proportion of students who drop out of law school by ensuring only those who are best suited are accepted in the first place.
Some law schools have gone a step further by requiring applicants to take part in an interview to assess suitability. For instance, the University of Notre Dame in Sydney requires applicants to attend face-to-face interviews with lecturers prior to admission. This allows for the consideration of factors other than a student’s academic results – including their personal qualities and motivation for studying law.
With more and more universities looking beyond academic scores, it is hoped that law schools will attract only the most suitable candidates in the future – those who display what it takes to become a lawyer – not just those whose ATARs are propped up by coming from privileged backgrounds.