Dropping My Law Degree: A Journey to Sanity

CW: mention of eating disorders

In June 2017, about a week after my 21st birthday, I dropped my law degree.

On finishing high school in 2014, I decided to enrol in law for a few reasons: it would open doors, I wanted to help the world, I’m smart and I like challenges. I felt like it seemed an appropriate choice given my ability to critically analyse and debate. Note: none of these reasons included the desire to be a lawyer.

But that didn’t matter. I was told multiple times that law didn’t necessarily lead to being a lawyer, and in school I really enjoyed global politics, so when the time came for choosing university courses my first preference was arts/law at ANU. I got in and found I loved being able to tell people: “I’m going to study law at the Australian National University. I’m pretty interested in international law or human rights law. I’m going to study international relations in my arts degree.” Sounds familiar, hey?

Thankfully, I realised pretty quickly that politics and international relations weren’t my scene. Despite a deep-rooted love of books and writing, I had thought doing English — my favourite subject in high school — wasn’t ‘practical’ enough to study at university. I decided to pick up some courses for fun, however, and fell in love with it all over again. Suddenly, I lived for my English classes.

Meanwhile, I was still enjoying law but no courses clicked for me. I was doing well, keeping up a distinction average and going to talks about pathways in law, but I no longer wanted that UN job. I definitely didn’t want a corporate job either. I didn’t feel like anything I studied was going to be my passion. Until the end of second year, when people asked me what I saw myself doing after I graduated, I would laugh. Who the fuck knew what they wanted to do?

My boyfriend at the time, apparently. He was not only exceptionally bright but loved law and, in particular, labour law. I felt constantly inadequate. It wasn’t because I felt stupid — we were doing equally as well academically — but because I lacked any sense of passion or ambition in the degree I’d worked so hard to get into and dedicated so much of my time to. Dating someone with such a clear focus and drive highlighted for me how lost I was.

After we broke up, I felt completely disillusioned with university and Canberra so I decided to get out. I applied to be an au pair in Germany and in January 2017 I landed in Hamburg. While living in Germany was the hardest period of my life, it was also the most illuminating. Unbeknownst to me, my au pair father had left the mother a week before I arrived, and I walked into a broken home. Lost in grief, the family didn’t have a lot of time for me, and apart from looking after their devil five-year-old I didn’t see much of them. They didn’t eat dinner with me or even cook food I, as a vegan, could eat. They didn’t take me anywhere. I cried myself to sleep every night, missing my family, my friends, my university — and the people I was living with didn’t care. No matter how awful I felt, I still had to face them every morning and be lectured on my misdeeds. Why I didn’t dry out the mop enough after using it, why I wasn’t cutting the child’s sandwiches right, or why the groceries I had to buy for myself were extravagant and ridiculous (chickpeas, lettuce and wholemeal pasta were among the main offenders). It was a true nightmare.

Although I eventually made other au pair friends, the experience was still incredibly isolating; I had time to confront some very repressed issues that I’d tried for so long to ignore. Coming to terms with my disordered eating and distorted body image was a huge turning point in many aspects of my life. I’d hidden so much of myself through restriction and self-loathing that I didn’t know who I was without it. Recovery forced me to be painfully honest with myself, taught me how to listen to my intuition, and how to stand up for myself.

I left Germany in June of that year and spent my birthday in London with family. It was a month until semester two was going to start and although I was excited to get back to Canberra and study, something was wrong. I’d spent all of my time in London reading, writing and thinking about my English degree.

It hit me very suddenly one day: law was another way to hide myself. It was my backup. If I wasn’t good enough to pursue further studies in English and writing, at least I’d have law to define myself by. The truth was, I didn’t daydream about a future as a successful lawyer or research law electives obsessively. I didn’t want a career in public service or business or politics or anything that a law degree might be relevant to. I was just scared of failing in what I truly loved and needed something else to prove my worth by. But that’s not a good enough reason to add two years and tens of thousands of dollars to a degree.

I dropped law a few days later and have not, for even a moment, regretted it since. In fact, it’s become one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I graduate this year and am planning to do English honours next year. I’m able to dedicate the brain space and time to English that it deserves, because it’s my passion and I love it so much. More than anything, I feel driven, focussed and happy. It’s ironic that since dropping a degree that’s supposed to ‘provide options’, I feel like I have more options than ever.

If you love law, or want to pursue a career related to it, that’s fantastic. I liked studying law and I was good at it — but I never wanted to be a lawyer, and I never wanted to pursue it after graduation. Of course, due to the different social, economic and cultural positions we are all in, sometimes just pursuing ‘what you love’ isn’t an option. But if you can, take a closer look at your opportunities. I did law because I felt like I should; I was smart and critical and it should have been a good fit for me. But without passion, you’re never going to be happy in anything you do.

The wonderful thing about university is the time it gives you to figure out what you truly love. As an 18-year-old, I had no plans to be where I am now, and I’m so grateful to law for teaching me what it has. Dropping law was a journey, and it was guided by trial and error and more error — but I got here eventually. I’m not saying dropping law is the answer for everyone. If you’re a bit lost, like I was, just take time to be gentle with yourself, explore your passions and do what feels right for you. Perhaps the answer is dropping law. Perhaps it’s something else. Either way, do what you love, and make your life your own.