My desire to write has often been met with a concoction of pity and disbelief. When I first started university at eighteen, I thought I would practise law during the day and write at night, like Franz Kafka or Elliot Perlman. By the time I realised I wanted to work in the arts full-time, I was too far in, HECS debt too large, to quit.
Each year, by conservative estimates, 6,500 law students graduate in Australia. Which is a staggering amount because, according to one 2011 study, there are around 59,280 practising lawyers in Australia. This means that over a tenth of the profession is released into the work force every year. For young graduates, as Beyond Law, a legal employment company has put it, their prospects of getting work is ‘unfathomably small’.
Yet many young people like myself still continue to flock to law. My partner went to law school in the hopes of living the life of William Shatner on Boston Legal. I went because I wanted secure employment, a strong wage and to follow in my father’s footsteps. I also thought it was an opportunity to put my ATAR to good use – I was drawn in by the prestige.
Last year, Edwin Montoya Zorrilla and Joshua Krook wrote in this magazine that the dream of practicing law is ‘structured around the fetishism of a law career as a commodity’. This is entirely true. Lecturers call a law degree the ‘new’ arts degree in the world of employment: a commodity that shows that a student has a well-rounded knowledge of the world. It may not be the reality, but it is sold to students as if it were.
And the prestige makes for an appealing CV. While not all graduates can secure legal work, they can find work in other high wage fields – government, or banking. But when unemployment rates are high the degree can actually create added difficulties. In October 2016, South Australia had an unemployment rate of 6.7 per cent compared to a national average of 5.6 per cent. During this time, while job hunting, my partner took to removing the law degree from his CV, and without it he received double the interviews for lower paying administrative roles.
The prestige of law comes down to perceived intelligence and income. And flowing robes, wigs and well-cut suits are summoned in our idea of what it means to practice. (As a kid, I remember seeing my dad’s horse hair wig and robes in an ink blue bag with his initials stitched onto it. It felt like something beautiful, a tradition carried on from a different time.)
Having the law degree has worked for and against me. It has drawn me away from my love of writing in what my father has called ‘bait’. But it is one of the ways I justify my own pursuit of writing to family members, friends and strangers. In the past few months, I think I have been asked by work colleagues at least four times why I don’t continue with law. When I talk about my writing, words like ‘hobby’, ‘success’ and ‘income’ are tossed around. Sometimes even ‘JK Rowling’ makes an appearance, as though writing is only worthwhile if your net worth is in the billions.
It’s my own fault for even mentioning my law degree, however offhandedly. I qualify my pursuit of writing with it, and so people inevitably reply with, ‘It’s good you have something to fall back on’. I have relied on the prestige of law to cancel out how the arts are viewed: at times glamorous, but something that is better suited to a hobby.
Their reactions aren’t especially surprising. There’s a prevailing idea amongst some that arts workers and culture makers are not as hardworking or enterprising as their legal counterparts. But when we look to the arts in Australia, they accounted for a total of 109,160 people employed in 2010. Arts employment totalled $4 billion in 2006: one percent of the Australian workforce. In 2011 employment in cultural industries had increased by three per cent since 2006. These jobs include internet publishing, broadcasting, creative artists, musicians, writers and performers.
But it is worth noting that the statistics around people in arts employment in Australia do not reflect the reality for writers. In 2011, 738,000 people wrote – fiction, nonfiction, poetry or plays – outside of their primary employment. Seven percent of these people experienced payment of some form for their work including four per cent who were paid a salary. This totalled 54,000 writers who received regular payment for their work. The label of ‘writers’ includes authors, technical writers, copywriters and print journalists. And so people who write creatively are less likely to be seeing money for their work. Crunching the numbers, around three percent of the Australian population writes in some capacity, but 0.2 per cent will see payment for their work. This is not regular payment, but any quantifiable exchange of money for services. As Overland editor Jacinda Woodhead has said, ‘Frankly, you can’t feed a goldfish on what most writers are paid.’
Finances aside, the arts and law also make for an interesting comparison, when considering the emotional states of their industries. The employment market in law has resulted in an aggressive and competitive playing field. The Australian Financial Review reported that Thomson Lawyers in Sydney chose students for clerkships by taking polaroids of them before they met with the firm’s partners at a cocktail party. After said party, the partners ‘jab[bed] their swizzle sticks at their chosen photos, in the process deciding who made the cut and who’d be left on the cutting room floor’.
Mental health is a major challenge for people moving into the legal profession. One in three lawyers have experienced or are experiencing depression. The NSW Law Society puts this number even higher at half of the legal profession: 46.9 per cent of law students, 55.7 per cent of solicitors and 52.5 per cent of barristers having experienced depression. This is a confronting but understandable statistic. Lawyers are tasked with helping people during crises. They experience high levels of burnout from working long hours and being subject to high pressure to succeed, and financially perform, for their firm.
A 2016 study of artists in Australia found that mental health is also a serious concern within the industry. Artists and arts workers are ten times more likely to experience anxiety, and five times more likely to experience depression, than the general population. The study found that mental health directly correlates with problems in the industry such as financial insecurity, poor working conditions and the prevalence of requests to work for free.
Financial insecurities aside, emotionally, my experience in the arts community has actually been one of support. I know that this is not the case for everyone but I have been met by people willing to take a chance on an emerging writer living outside of Australia’s literary capital. I have been encouraged to submit my work time and time again. Organisations for young artists like Express Media and Voiceworks have introduced me to inspiring, talented and motivated artists and arts workers. I have gone from a first year University student who looked forward to reading Voiceworks feedback after my work was rejected to an editorial committee member who is encouraged to challenge themselves and grow. While after high school I didn’t know that writing or arts work could be available to me (I was led to believe one should choose from medicine, law or engineering), I know I have also been privileged to be able to enter this community. I know that people in rural communities and people from lower socio-economic backgrounds don’t have the level of same access.
I want to be clear that I am not trying to misrepresent the figures – 60,000 solicitors, compared to 110,000 people working in the very broad category of arts, (from dance to poetry to film) hardly reflects the reality. This is especially true when considering the average annual income an arts worker made in 2006 was $37,000 – about $6,400 below the average Australian worker. Mix that with an increasingly casualised and freelance workforce, funding cuts and an overreliance on unpaid and volunteer work, pursuing arts definitely isn’t the easiest financial option or secure career pathway in the Australian market. But it has never been perceived as such. As Woodhead writes, ‘terrible pay and work conditions are not entirely a recent development; these were, in fact, one of the reasons the Australian Society of Authors was established in the first place’ (although she acknowledges times are now particularly dire). Young people entering the workforce know the realities. They are reminded by their families, career counsellors, friends, peers and acquaintances regularly. Most, like myself, have accepted that writing won’t be a primary source of income. I have to support myself with casual work, arts related or otherwise. But maybe because of this awareness, we are better equipped to plan for a future than many of the young people pursuing law without the understanding of its hardships.
Choosing a creative life sometimes doesn’t feel like a choice. It is something I need to do despite the likely reality that I will not be a home owner or have much of a disposable income. Writing is what I want despite the questions and raised eyebrows that are often directed at me (and my supportive parents). My best friend, who is writing her PhD, has people question her choice of profession as well. We sit together in the afternoons and write. Laptops, oversized cups of coffee and dogs nestled at our feet. When we can’t get the words to come out right, we groan and complain. At least once a day, we ask each other why it’s so hard, and despite this, why do we still live for this (certainly not for the money)? We never manage to answer each other. We just groan once more, take another sip of coffee, and keep on writing.