When things go wrong | Law

When things go wrong

Being a law student can be very challenging. The challenges can range from those which arise from Law School requirements - academic issues, getting things in on time, understanding the material and so on – and those which come from life in general – how are you feeling today?, have things happened which are interfering with your ability to study or feel OK?, do you know what you are doing or where you are going?, do you feel in control of things or not?, and so on. Both these things are very important and attention needs to be paid to both aspects of life as a law student.  

When one is able to rise to a challenge it can be exhilarating and exciting. We hope that that is your major response to your time as a law student. However, if the challenge feels overwhelming, problems can arise.

In this section we suggest strategies you can try when things seem to be going wrong.

When things go wrong emotionally

Law students, stress and depression 

One reason we pay attention to this in the Law school is that we know that law students have a higher rate of depression and anxiety than other students (See ‘Law students attitudes to education: Pointers to depression in the Legal Academy and the Profession? by Massimiliano Tani and Prue Vines, (2009) 19 (1) Legal Education Review 3-40) and that lawyers also have similarly high levels of depression in general (See 'Courting the Blues: Attitudes towards depression in Australian Law Students and Legal Practitioners' by Norm Kelk et al (2009) NSW Brain and Mind Research Institute.

It is important to note some things:

  • It is not inevitable that you will suffer depression if you are a law student. The majority of law students do not.
  • If you do develop depression it is very treatable and most people will not have a recurrence. Law students, like many bright people, often think they can fix themselves – but it is far more sensible to get help from someone who knows how to help.  You wouldn’t dig a hole with a toothpick, would you? So why would you try to treat depression with a person who isn’t an expert? 
  • Anyone can become depressed if they are subjected to enough stress. It does not mean you have a weakness.

Psychologists say that our critical needs for psychological well-being include:

  • Self-esteem (feeling that we are valuable )
  • Competence (feeling that we are competent)
  • Security (a background feeling of safety)
  • Social connection (friends and relationships)
  • Autonomy (a feeling of control)

They also think that a significant contribution to the development of depression is made by a lack of social connection and a lack of autonomy (which is sometimes called ‘learned helplessness’).

It is possible that problems with those things may increase the likelihood of depression – we know that many law students feel that things are out of control and they may be new to Sydney or to university and therefore have less social connection than is ideal. So it is not surprising that some students become depressed and anxious.

There is some literature about what causes stress for law students which you might find useful. Lawrence S Krieger, in The Hidden sources of Law School stress: Avoiding the mistakes that create unhappy and unprofessional lawyers, has written about some of them. He sees them as including these:

  • Heavy workload
  • False values
    • eg (1) The Universal Fallacy – that the road to happiness runs through the top of the class
  • eg (2) Outside stressors - doing what others want rather than what you feel is right
  • Losing faith in yourself
  • Losing your connections with other people
  • Fear of failure and the illusion of control
  • Financial worries
  • Ethical issues eg lying.

Where can I get help?

What can I do if I am feeling depressed or anxious?

Everybody feels bad sometimes, but sometimes people become seriously depressed or anxious to the point that they cannot carry on their ordinary life. When things are going wrong in your life it is normal to feel bad about it.

It is important to know that if you are feeling bad or depressed help is available. Talking to a friend is a really useful thing to do.

If you feel you can’t do that or it doesn’t seem to help then try to see a counsellor, for example at UNSW Counselling or ask your doctor to refer you to someone.

There are also telephone counselling services such as Lifeline. Lifeline is a 24 hour telephone counselling service offering trained counsellors who are experienced in dealing with people with severe depression or suicidal feelings or other problems. 

  • Lifeline's telephone number is 13 11 14 - available 24 hours a day.

If you are looking for information about symptoms and how to deal with depression and anxiety there are organisations such as Beyond Blue and the Black Dog Institute (which is part of UNSW) which can help. They have information and advice about what to do and where to go for help.

Beyond Blue also has a useful online resource for University students called The Desk to assist students with well-being and mental health issues. It might useful for students to use this during stressful periods such as exams or submission of final assessments. Please visit The Desk Website for more information. 

I don't know anyone and I'm lonely

Starting at law school can be quite lonely and it is important to make an effort to get to know your classmates. The UNSW Student Law Society will help by running functions and events which will help you get to know people.

The Law Mentoring program, LawPLUS Mentoring, will also help you to make friends and to understand how law school works so we highly recommend that you sign up for it as soon as you get here if you are a first year student.

The Peer Tutor Program will also help you to get to know people, although it is mainly for academic purposes.

UNSW Advantage is a university-wide program which offers many extra-curricular activities. A great way to make friends is to do something you like with other people who like it.

Problems impacting on academic work

If how you are feeling is impacting on your academic work you should apply for special consideration with evidence (eg a counsellor’s or doctor’s letter) of how long and how it is impacting on your work.

Special Consideration is the uni-wide procedure in place for taking into account medical and other conditions beyond the student’s control when marking a student’s assessment piece. All assessable work is included in this procedure including formal end of session examinations, class tests, seminar presentations, research assignments etc.

A full list of eligibility criteria, the steps in applying and information about relevant supporting documentation is available on the Student’s A-Z Guide on MyUNSW.

In addition to this, some tips to keep in mind when applying for Special Consideration follow:

  • The circumstance in which you apply for Special Consideration must be unexpected and beyond your control. Work commitments are not normally considered a justification!
  • If you are absent from an exam, you must include a medical certificate dated the same day as the exam when you submit a special consideration application. Even if you were present in the exam but weren’t feeling well during the exam, make sure you seek medical attention on the same day and seek a medical certificate for submission with your Special Consideration application.
  • Apply for Special Consideration as soon as possible after the assessment piece was due – within 3 days of the assessment due date/exam date. Submit your completed application at Student Central (not the Law Student Services office).
  • Apply some patience after you apply! After you submit your application to Student Central, your application is initially processed there and only then sent to the Faculty for assessment and detailed processing. This process involves several different staff members so some time delay in reaching an outcome for your application is to be expected. The Faculty and/or Student Central will contact you as soon as an outcome for your application has been reached.
  • There are many different possible outcomes from a Special Consideration application, and not all outcomes result in a potential increase in the student’s grade for that course. Some possible outcomes to your application include:
    • Creating an additional assessment piece to complete
    • Extending the deadline on a previous assessment piece
    • Granting a supplementary exam
    • Being awarded a grade calculated on the average of all completed assessments for that course
    • Recommendation from the Course Authority (your lecturer or course convenor) to apply to withdraw without penalty from the course or
    • No action taken or provision granted.

Medical help

The University has doctors and a dentist available for students of UNSW to attend. The medical centre is in the Quad at F17 on the map.

Australian students (covered by Medicare) are bulk-billed. International students will need to use their Overseas Student Health Care card (this may not cover dentistry). You can ring the medical centre on 9385 5425 to make an appointment. The doctors there include general practitioners and some specialists.

Financial help

See the university website for some general help.

HECS-HELP is a loan available to eligible students enrolled in Commonwealth supported places. A HECS-HELP loan will cover all or part of the student contribution amount. Click here for further information.

FEE-HELP is a loan given to eligible fee-paying students to help pay part or all of their tuition fees. You can borrow up to the amount of the tuition fee being charged by your provider for your unit of study. However, over your lifetime you can borrow only up to the FEE-HELP limit. This amount is indexed each year. Click here for further information. 

Some international students can get advice on how to get financial aid from the University’s financial aid office. Click here for further information.

The university has a range of scholarships available to students. The eligibility criteria for each scholarship is a little bit different:

  • Some are Uni-wide (meaning any student can apply for it), some are Law School specific. Some scholarships are aimed specifically at students enrolled in particular programs (eg Commerce/Law, or the Juris Doctor, or sometimes both!)
  • Some are aimed at first year students, some at second year upwards. Some scholarships are even aimed specifically at one year group (eg Final year students)
  • Scholarships can be awarded on the basis of Academic Achievement, Leadership Skills, Socio-Economic background, Financial Need, or even other criteria.

Use the scholarship search function on the scholarships website to find scholarships that you are eligible to apply for. Use this same website to construct and submit your application online.

Some tips and advice for submitting scholarship applications:

  • Know the eligibility criteria for the scholarship and select appropriate scholarships to apply for. Don’t apply for a scholarship aimed at Commerce/Law students if you are enrolled in Arts/Law!
  • Know the selection criteria for the scholarship you are applying for. If the scholarship is going to being awarded to a student with strong leadership qualities, demonstrate your own leadership potential and discuss examples. If the scholarship is being awarded on the basis of Financial Need, demonstrate how the scholarship will directly benefit and enrich your student experience, in ways that would not be possible without that financial aid.
  • Know the application closing dates. Most scholarship applications close on either 30 September or 30 November and are usually awarded during the Summer following the application closing date. These dates don’t necessarily correlate with other key university dates so you should use an effective calendar system to ensure you don’t forget to get your application in on time!

When things go wrong academically

I got a very poor mark for my assignment

When an assignment comes back with a disappointing mark, you first need to check whether your expectation of a higher mark was justified. Did you do the work? Did you answer the question? First read the comments and feedback (there may be a feedback sheet which comes back with the assignment) and make sure you understand those comments. If you still don’t understand, make an appointment with your teacher and ask them to explain how you could have done better. Most teachers will be happy to spend a little while doing this. If you feel the mark is unjustified you may request a remark. To do this you will need to pay a fee. Remember that a re-mark may result in your mark going down OR up.  Don’t assume it can only go up.

Click here for further information.

In university the marking scale will operate something like this:

FAILStudent does not answer question or does not demonstrate understanding of material
PASSStudent answers question and demonstrates understanding of material and ability to apply the knowledge eg law to facts
CREDITStudent answers question, demonstrates understanding of material, ability to analyse (critique) material and ability to apply the knowledge.
DISTINCTIONStudent answers question, demonstrates understanding of material, ability to analyse (critique) material and ability to apply; also can synthesise understanding and analysis into an argument of their own.
HIGH DISTINCTIONStudent does all the above in a way which demonstrates mastery of the topic.

I am terrified of exams

Most people find exams quite intimidating and anxiety-provoking. This is normal and indeed can enhance your performance if you are on top of your material. However, if your fear of exams is more than this, for example, if it is an exam phobia, you will need documented medical evidence to be presented to the Student Equity and Disability Unit (SEADU), and register with SEADU for assistance with Exam Provisions.

Click here for further information about this and all of the services that SEADU provides for current students in need

I don’t think I am being treated fairly by my teacher/other students

If you have concerns about your teacher, the first place to go to is the Convenor of the course. If you have concerns about other students go to the teacher of the class first. In most cases, with goodwill relationship difficulties can be managed. It is extremely important to maintain respectful behaviour to all people at all times.

I don’t understand what is required of me in assignments and exams

See your course outlines for what is being asked of you. Your teacher should be able to tell you the details. If you don’t understand the general university approach to assignments and exams, go to The Learning Centre.

I need to change my subjects

UNSW has a general expectation that students finalise their enrolment for the upcoming term by the time that term commences. However students can vary their enrolment for a period of time even after the term has commenced, depending on the teaching period that the course falls into:

Courses from Teaching Period T1 (Term 1), Teaching Period T2 (Term 2) or Teaching Period T3 (Term 3)

  • Last day to add a new course – Sunday of Week 1
  • Last day to swap into a different class within the same course – Sunday of Week 1
  • Last day to drop a course without receiving academic or financial penalty (CENSUS date) – 17 March (Term 1), 30 June (Term 2), 13 October (Term 3)
  • Last day to drop a course without receiving academic penalty (financial penalty still applies) – Sunday of Week 7

UNSW is moving to a new academic calendar model from 2019. Please click here for more information.

If you are in a position where you must vary your enrolment, you will be able to do so online via MyUNSW as long as you comply with the dates listed above. If you are unsure about which teaching period your course falls into, you can contact the Law Student Services Centre for assistance on (02) 9385 2264 or via email at law@unsw.edu.au.


I need to withdraw from my course after the Census Date

Sometimes unexpected events occur after the university Census date and you will be in a position where you must drop the course.  Where the circumstance leading to your withdrawal from a subject is beyond your control, you can apply to be withdrawn from the course without having academic or financial penalty applied, this uni-wide procedure is called Special Permission to Withdraw without Penalty.

Before applying for Special Permission to withdraw without penalty, ask yourself if your circumstance matches all of these criteria:

  • Circumstances beyond your control prevented you from withdrawing from the course at the appropriate time (before Census date); and
  • The circumstances were unusual, uncommon or abnormal; and
  • The circumstances did not make their full impact on you until after the last date to withdraw for the course/s you wish to withdraw from; and
  • The circumstances make it impracticable for you to complete the requirements for the course.

To apply for Special Permission to withdraw from a course without penalty, you will need to follow these steps:

  • Complete the form and approach your Course Authority (your lecturer or course convenor) and Program Authority (any member of the Law Student Services team) to complete the relevant sections on the form.
  • Submit your completed form plus any relevant supporting evidence to Student Central, who in turn will consult with the Faculty regarding your application and inform you of the outcome of your application.

There are three possible outcomes from this application process:

  • No action, meaning that you will remain enrolled in the course, and receive whatever grade your lecturer allocates to you for that course.
  • Withdrawal without failure, meaning that you will be withdrawn without academic penalty, however you will retain full financial liability for having initially enrolled in the course and not withdrawn by the relevant Census date.
  • Withdrawal without penalty, meaning that you will be withdrawn from the course without both academic failure and financial penalty.


I cannot manage my reading

The reading required for law studies is onerous. If you are an international student this can be even more difficult. It is quite normal for a beginning law student to have difficulty getting through the reading. You will get better at it. If it remains a problem for more than half of the first term you should talk to your lecturer about it.

If you really cannot manage you will need to decide whether you should withdraw from your law studies (see above)  or find some other way to improve your efficiency. You could, for example, consider doing a speed reading course.


I have a disability which affects my academic work

See the UNSW Equity and Diversity unit. 

What is the Learning Centre?

The Learning Centre is the study skills support unit at the university which is open for all enrolled students. We offer individual consultations, academic skills courses for credit, workshops, online resources, small group consultations for postgraduates, and more Faculty-based programs. We also co-ordinate and teach a range of bridging and academic preparation programs. Our approach is to help students with the nuts and bolts of academic reading, writing, speaking, and researching. We help explain the rules of the game, and ways of playing, and then encourage you to develop these skills in your own writing.

For further information: http://www.lc.unsw.edu.au/