Money things I learned in law school

16 November 2015
Law school taught me a bunch of valuable lessons I’ve never forgotten. Mostly I learned how to fall asleep with your eyes open in a lecture. But more importantly, I learned money things that I use in my everyday life.

It seems like a long time ago now – just long enough to have achieved nostalgia status, while still close enough to remember that it was seriously hard work – but the lessons I learned while completing my law degree have stayed with me. Here are some of the money lessons I gathered over those long years:

1. Contracts are binding

From eBay “buy now” clicks made in a microsecond, to 3-month temp job contracts and 24-month mobile phone contracts, to 5-year car loans and 25-year home loans, we regularly enter into binding legal agreements with other people and companies. Always read the boring terms and conditions before you hit “agree” or sign on the dotted line. That way, you know what you are required to do to keep the contract going, and you know what your rights are if something goes wrong.

2. Second-hand textbooks are not second-rate

I fell in love with my second-hand bookstore at uni. Not only did they sell me the same textbook at a cheaper price, but at the end of the semester when I’d taken as many notes as I wanted to, they even bought those same books back off me! I saved literally thousands of dollars over the course of my degree by buying “pre-loved” books.

These days I apply this “second-hand is not second-rate” principle to many areas of my life. As a young woman, I love op shopping for a beautiful bargain. As a new wife, I’ve enjoyed setting up home with hand-me-downs from family and friends, then upgrading as things aged past the point of repair – only when we could afford it, of course!

3. Get your tax right

When I studied the Tax Law unit, I cried a lot over the amount of maths I had to do, but the upside was that at the end, I had a stronger understanding of the various types of income and deductions. Seriously, guys, the ATO website is a life-saver – it has so much information on it about what individuals and sole traders need to include in their tax, deductions you can claim, repaying HELP debts, and more.

My number one piece of advice is to not leave reading about tax until tax time. You can learn what you need to a lot easier when you’re not under the time pressure of the end of financial year and getting your tax return in on time.

4. Shop smart

Everyone hates buying a pair of boots they thought were good and having the sole peel away from the shoe within the first month. But under the Australian Consumer Law, I have the right to receive goods that matched their advertised description (section 56), are of “acceptable quality” and not faulty (section 54), and are fit for their intended purpose of being worn (section 55).

And knowing just a little bit of the Sale of Goods Act 1896 (Qld), which also exists in other states, and the Trade Practices Act 1974 (Cth) means I know I have the right to say, “No, I don’t want store credit. I would like a replacement or a refund, thank you.”

(There are a few exceptions – you can’t get a return just for changing your mind, or if you don’t have a receipt, or when you bought something from a factory outlet. For more tips, read ASIC’s MoneySmart factsheet on this topic.)

5. Know your rights as a patient

Studying Health Law helped me to realise what my rights are as a patient to my medical history, to access medical services, and to make a fully informed decision about my own treatment. I’m a big fan of Googling everything I can about a medical subject before I head to the doctor, so that I know all the questions I want to ask the doctor.

I’ve usually had great doctors who make it easy to make an informed decision, thankfully. But the few times I’ve hit a dud, knowing my rights has made me feel more confident that I won’t be bullied into making rushed decisions “in blind faith”.

6. Dispute resolution is always a good thing

Simply put, anything that’s cheaper and quicker than the “half a house and several years” it costs to sue someone is the way to go. Court cases can go on for years – years of inner turmoil caused by the uncertainty of a result or an appeal and the fact that it just keeps getting dragged up again and again for you.

Dispute resolution is done by trained mediators in a less formal setting than a courtroom, so it’s cheaper and you can just book in and get it done. In financial situations this means going through your bank’s internal complaint resolution process, followed by the relevant banking or financial ombudsman if you’re still not satisfied.

7. Corporations are not simple

Starting your own business is easy – but establishing a corporation certainly is not. While anyone can run a business as long as they have an ABN, a corporation means setting up a completely separate legal structure, complying with government regulations, and reporting regularly to ASIC. On the other hand, if you choose to incorporate, it means that if your company fails financially, it doesn’t make you the owner personally bankrupt and liable.

8. The law is not fast

Don’t expect any law to change quickly. Two awful subjects I had to do were Constitutional Law and Administrative Law. “Const” deals with how our Australian Constitution affects what laws Parliament can and can’t write. Admin deals with how people who’ve been unjustly done by in the legal system can get their own back. Both subjects reinforced for me that law and justice are slow-moving beasts.

I hear all the time from people in the innovation sector of various industries who want the government to “catch up” with where technology has reached, but those people will simply have to learn patience. After all, the ACT has only just now legalised Uber ride-sharing services – the first Australian jurisdiction to do so – six years after Uber was founded.

9. Be nice to your neighbours

When you’ve read enough Torts cases about people literally suing each other because one person’s tree is dropping leaves into another person’s yard, it makes you think. Surely being nice to your neighbours is worth the legal fees you’ll save. When you aggravate them, or vice versa, a history of niceness makes it more likely that you can have a rational conversation without anyone getting stabbed with the gardening shears.

We all have a different story, and those stories teach us different lessons about dealing with life. What are the lessons you’ve learned about money in your studies or in your working life?

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