Simon Chesterman, law professor

Simon is Dean of the National University of Singapore Faculty of Law. He studied Law and Arts at Melbourne University before pursuing graduate studies in international law at Oxford. After brief periods at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the former Yugoslavia, he lived in New York for six years before moving to Singapore more than a decade ago.

In addition to researching and teaching on public international law, Simon occasionally writes for newspapers like The Straits Times. More recently, he published his first works of fiction — the Raising Arcadia trilogy, about a teenage savant trying to discover how much of her life is a carefully constructed lie.

This letter is written to himself at age eighteen, during the year he spent studying Chinese at the Beijing No. 2 Foreign Languages Institute before returning to start university.

Dear Simon,

Don’t study law.

I mean it. Law is hard. Law is rarely fulfilling. And there’s a reason people make jokes about lawyers having a chasm that separates their head from their heart.

You most certainly shouldn’t study law just because you got the grades. A fistful of ‘A’s could equally see you pursue politics or literature, business or science. Medicine maybe. (Ah, but you had to drop chemistry, didn’t you?) Remember the time you thought seriously about enrolling in veterinary science just because it had the highest cut-off? Don’t. Do. It.

Don’t study law for the money. You’ve met enough lawyers already who earn big salaries without having time to spend them; lawyers who hit a mid-life crisis at 35 with an eye to a heart attack by 50.

Also, don’t study law because you hope to be powerful. Lawyers can have influence, yes, but it can be baleful as well as beneficent. Carl Schmitt was a law professor, after all.

And for heaven’s sake don’t study law because you think you will earn respect. See the earlier reference to lawyer jokes. (E.g. What’s the difference between a jellyfish and a lawyer? One’s a spineless, poisonous blob. The other is a form of sea life.)

So, instead, study something in which you are interested, about which you are passionate, and through which you think you can make a difference.

Really? You still think that might be law? You’re even more stubborn than you are now.


If you must study law, then, do it because you want to understand how power in society is held to account. The rule of law stands between organised society and the rule of the jungle. One day, even as great a country as the United States may find that the rule of law is the only protection against a reality TV star who becomes its 45th President. (I know you haven’t heard of reality TV yet — you aren’t missing much.)

Study law because you love what it entails: doctrines that confront all the vagaries of human experience, theories seeking to uncover hidden forces that shape those doctrines, the strategies and tactics of legal practice. Law in the books as well as law in action. Language that proves on a daily basis that the pen is mightier than the sword because we as a community choose to believe it to be so. Then focus your research on the hardest of those cases, where rulers turn on the ruled, where the institutions of society break down, and the bonds of human civilisation are revealed to be at their weakest. Ethnic cleansing is another term that hasn’t yet been invented, but it will be when genocide returns to Europe in a few years.

And, despite all this, keep on studying law. Research, teach, practise in the hope that doing so might make the world a little safer, a little more just. Remember that, even as a student, you can help in the Aboriginal Tutorial Assistance Scheme and by volunteering at the Fitzroy Legal Service. When you get the chance, encourage more and more students to do pro bono work. (You might think it’s an oxymoron to make pro bono work compulsory, but keep an open mind about that.)

Above all, never stop questioning why you chose law, and what the privilege of being offered such a choice now obliges you to do next.



P.S. The 4D numbers for 10 May 2017 will be 0563. Just saying.

The Gap Year Interview with Gabriel Choong and Charmaine Yap

Rachel Hines, lawyer