Humans of UNSW Law – Mr Chris Pearce, Lecturer and PhD Candidate

What are you particularly passionate about and why?

I’m passionate about doing my best as a teacher. One of the key reasons I decided to become an academic was because I wanted to give students a better experience than what I had as a student. That’s not to throw stones at those who taught me, but simply to point out that just because something has been done a certain way for a long time doesn’t mean that’s the only way it can be done. I know that when I was a student, law classes had this overwhelming feeling of ‘seriousness’ and ‘importance’. And to me that emphasis upon the potential mistakes you could make in the profession just created this suffocating sense of doom that permeated everything you did.

My belief is that I can effectively teach my students to understand the law, appreciate its complexities but also to enjoy it. That’s not to say that the law isn’t difficult: it is. But attending class doesn’t need to feel like you’re attending a funeral either. And that sense of fun really carries over into the other aspects of my job. Law has transformed from something that filled me with all these negative emotions, where I would constantly question and doubt myself, into something where I’m confident to get up in front of a classroom and teach or write a research paper and receive constructive criticism from colleagues. Once you start viewing the law through that kind of positive lens the possibilities are endless.

What were some of your best experiences from law school?

I think it would be the moments where I would be taught something and then say, “oh, that’s how that works”. The reason I had always wanted to study law was because I wanted to understand the world around me more clearly. I also really loved the extra-curricular things I did during my studies. I worked on the Law Revue, did mooting etc. And it was those experiences that introduced me to people I may not have otherwise met – some of whom have become life-long friends.

I also genuinely believe that law school challenged me to be better and to become the person I am today. I was just surrounded by so many brilliant students, and I am a perfectionist through and through. So that environment, while at times very competitive, is certainly a huge part of how I got to where I am today.  And I know that you might be thinking that’s really sick and twisted while you bounce between reading this and watching cat videos procrastinating, but it’s true. On a related note: it’s critically important that you push your exam notes to the side and Google the ‘Lizard People Conspiracy’ immediately.

How do you maintain a balance between research, work and life? 

It took me a long time to reach a balance between each of those spheres of my life, but what I realised one day is that I’m a better teacher to my students, a better researcher, and a better friend and partner when I’m happy and centred. I think it’s so crucial to find time for those little moments of joy each day. For me it’s simple things like hanging out with my friends, playing with my dog and, on occasion, watching an unhealthy amount of reality television (no, I do not Keep up with the Koven).

But it’s also more serious than that. You need to have boundaries for yourself. You can’t be everything to everyone all of the time, and you can’t operate at 110% day in, day out. My job is part of who I am, but it’s not the only thing I am. I value my friends and family and the time I have with them, and that takes priority over everything else.

When I was a student, I expected so much of myself and was just my own worst critic. And that meant that every aspect of my life felt hard and overwhelming. But I’ve learnt that you need to be kind to yourself and realise that you can’t always do everything: and that not being able to do everything on your own and asking for help is perfectly ok.

What advice would you give to yourself when you were in the position of a law student?

The honest truth is that I hated the majority of my undergraduate studies. It took me a long time to realise why that was. But I think I get it now. It just took me a little longer than others to find a part of the law I was passionate about. The way my degree was structured you did Torts and Contracts in your first year, but then you didn’t study Property or Equity until the end of your fourth year.  As someone who has a clear preference for private law, it made the preceding years a genuine struggle, so much so that I was ready to drop out of my degree – I even filled in the forms and went to the office to submit them.

For whatever reason I changed my mind while I was standing in line waiting and decided that I would see the degree out. Luckily for me, the very next semester I studied Property and Equity. Those subjects re-ignited my passion for the law (and I completely understand if anybody reading this thought, “Sure, Jan” to themselves). I just wish that I had been able to step back at some point during those challenging years and take it all in and realise that not every area of law was going to be my cup of tea. I think I would have gotten so much more out of my degree if I could have seen the forest through the trees.  

I also wish that someone had told me and my friends that clerkships are not the be-all and end-all. There seemed to be this unspoken belief that if you were an unsuccessful clerkship applicant you were destined to walk around with a sign on your back saying, “failed at life”. I didn’t actually apply for clerkships, but many of my friends did – some successful, others not. I also watched a few insensitive people in my year walk around gloating about how they had just too many offers to pick from. I wish I could tell could go back and tell myself that somebody else’s path doesn’t have to be my own. I also wish I could tell myself to be even more supportive to my friends who had missed out, and remind them that opportunities are like waves, even if you miss one, another one will come.

So I guess my advice to myself would be: be patient and be kind – you’ll get there. You’ll find something that inspires you, and you’ll survive the horrid people who made you feel less than because you didn’t follow the same path as them, and, in the end, you’ll be the one smiling who can proudly hold their head up high.

What would you suggest law students do to ensure their legal career is fulfilling and meaningful?

I think law students need to realise that once they leave Law School nobody will be taking notes on what job you’re doing and reporting back to others. The only person you’re answerable to is yourself – so don’t pick a career or work in an area of the law because it “looks good” or “sounds good”.

Believe me: I’ve worked in legal jobs that I hated because they “looked good”, and it made every day feel torturous. Not wanting to go to bed on a Sunday night because you don’t want to wake up on Monday morning to go to work is one of the most awful experiences you can have.

I’d watched so much television and so many movies where the trope is that people hate their jobs. I just figured that was what life was like. It’s a total cliché, but it’s also entirely true that if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. I started as a casual lecturer while working in a job I hated, and I’ll never forget the joy I felt the first time I taught a class. And that’s a joy I continue to experience day in, day out. I no longer stay up on a Sunday night dreading work but instead I feel a sense of excitement about what the week will bring. 

The reality is that it’s your career, and you can make as much or as little of it as you want. Any ‘friend’ who judges you for doing a job you love is not really your friend.

So always make career choices for you and surround yourself with people who support you in that choice. Everybody else can just deal with it.

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