Address at the Griffith University Law School’s “Meet the Profession” annual networking event
Thursday, 7 March 2013
Thank you for the kind invitation for me to speak today at this “Meet the Profession” networking event.
Actually it occurs to me that I am probably the last person in this room you would be looking to network with tonight as I would guess I am the only one present who does not have a law degree and has never worked in a strictly legal field.
Usually this kind of confession counts in my favour but, given that I am overwhelmingly outnumbered, I will hold back on the value judgments in the interests of self-preservation.
Although not a lawyer myself, I have over the years had my fair share to do with the law and with those in the profession.
As a member of the legislature, every sitting week in Canberra brings me into close contact with the law as it is being made through our robust system of democracy.
Two of my three children have studied law, and both of them at Griffith University.
Jessica is now a writer living in China, after having worked as a lawyer, in politics and in PR.
Nick has stayed true to the profession and is now working as a commercial lawyer in Sydney.
Tonight I have been asked to talk to you about how globalisation and the rapid changes in our modern world have affected our law schools and legal profession.
The world today is a very different place compared with when I was going through university.
In the first instance, and to our collective relief, moustaches and flares are no longer considered the height of fashion.
But also, transnational written communications which used to take weeks and months by snail mail can today be sent and received within mere seconds.
People are more mobile than ever – crossing country lines, date lines and hemispheres has never been so affordable or so easy.
The advent of smartphones, combined with the growing prevalence of internet and digital media, also means that people are never out of contact, news is always available and information is constantly accessible.
So, tonight I hope to explore with you a little the role of Australian law students and lawyers in an increasingly globalised world.
At the same time, I hope I can convince you, and perhaps even inspire you a little as you look to embark on your legal careers, that law is a broad and diverse discipline that could potentially open up a wide range of fulfilling career opportunities.
The importance of law
I think that to do well in any profession, you really have to believe in what you do and also enjoy what you do.
A recent report in 2009 found that 41 per cent of law students, 31 per cent of solicitors and 19 per cent of barristers suffer from some form or other of psychological distress severe enough to justify clinical assessment.
Another study found that 11 per cent of lawyers contemplate suicide each month.
Additionally, it has been found that alcoholism and drug use is high amongst the legal profession and that substance abuse is a contributing factor for up to 80 per cent of the complaints levelled against practitioners.
In and among these worrying statistics, it’s important to go back to first principles and remember what being a law student and a lawyer should actually be about.
As you would have experienced by now, in some way, shape or form, law is present in each of our lives.
It’s there when you buy a car or rent a house.
It’s there when you start a business or take on a job.
In less fortunate circumstances, it’s there if you suffer discrimination at work or have your house burgled.
In a way, it’s an expression of the great social contract that spells out our rights and duties, privileges and immunities.
A sign of a well-functioning legal system is often that we don’t feel its intrusion in our everyday life, because the rules and frameworks that govern how we interact with our neighbours and our communities are being respected and followed.
We are fortunate to live in a country where the majority of citizens or residents can generally get by day to day without any extensive dealings with the legal system.
But it can be a different story for the more than 100,000 homeless people on Australia’s streets or for our Indigenous brothers and sisters.
Statistics have shown that Indigenous youths are 25 times more likely to be imprisoned than their non-Indigenous counterparts.
They are also much more likely to be the subject of child abuse notifications and protection orders.
The figures also show that adult prisoners are 18 times more likely to be Indigenous than non-Indigenous.
For those who are not lawyers, a brush with the legal system is usually something to be avoided at all costs.
I can’t imagine anyone who would recall their day in court as the best day of their life.
However, where the legal system cannot be avoided, it is the role of the law to step in to protect citizens’ rights and to see justice done.
Our legal system is one based on a fundamental belief in the rule of law, justice and the independence of the judiciary.
This important principle means that all people are treated equally before the law and that safeguards exist to ensure that people are not treated arbitrarily or unfairly by governments or officials.
It means that, unlike in some societies, the ruling elite may not use our laws to protect their position of privilege.
Of course, at the same time it is very important that people also have proper access to the law.
Our government has been a strong proponent of providing access to justice to the Australian community.
We’ve made the largest commitment of legal assistance funding in over a decade to provide for more legal aid, community legal centres and Aboriginal legal services.
This is because we believe in the importance of making law and making justice available to all Australians, not just those who are well off enough to afford it.
I hope, if it is not already the case, that you too will come to share this belief through your studies at law school and continue to live out this belief in your professional life.
Globalisation and legal education
I mentioned earlier that globalisation has made the world a very different place to live in and work in.
Equally, the globalisation of commerce and higher education is also having an undeniable effect on legal education.
The European countries, through the Bologna Process, have increased consistency and portability across their higher education systems.
This also has implications on the Australian higher education system which must adapt in order to remain relevant and competitive in the global education market.
Recent years have seen the remodelling of legal education in some Australian tertiary institutions, such as the University of Melbourne that now offers a postgraduate JD degree similar to that in the US.
The Honours degree in Australia is becoming less popular as more students are considering postgraduate studies abroad and to follow the Bachelor-Masters-Doctorate (“3-2-3”) model favoured overseas.
To our credit though, Australia is also attracting high numbers of overseas students with our internationally recognised first-class educational institutions.
The latest data shows that there are more than 34,000 tertiary law students in Australia plus an additional 10,000 overseas students in Australia studying law.
Universities are expanding campuses and schools abroad, student exchanges are increasingly popular and cross-jurisdictional studies are being offered to students looking to graduate with a transnational degree.
These are all positive developments and are a sign of the direction legal education is heading in.
Globalisation and the legal profession
In spite of the well-worn collection of lawyer jokes, lawyers are actually highly regarded members of our society.
Their mandate is not only limited to serving individual clients but also to serving the society or public good.
In a local context, lawyers can directly help other members of our community through legal aid, community legal centres or pro bono work.
These days, the scope of public service is not just limited to our local communities but has also expanded to a wider global community.
Globalisation means that law is now a truly global profession and flexibility and an international outlook are the way of the future.
Our regional neighbours, such as China, are increasingly focussing on legal and regulatory reform as priorities for development.
They recognise that countries with weak legal systems and a weak rule of law find it difficult to attract foreign investment and businesses necessary to propel the economy.
Prevalent corruption also contributes to an inconsistent and unpredictable judicial and regulatory system that poses high risks and disincentives to foreign investors.
At the 12th National People's Congress on Tuesday, the outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao delivered a work report that emphasised the role of private investment in promoting economic growth and called for strengthened "political integrity" and better checks on power.
China is set on an undeniable trajectory to soon become the world’s largest economy.
Worldwide, businesses including law firms are manoeuvring to capitalise on China’s remarkable growth and starting to build up a presence in the Asian region.
As a first-world Western country with a strong democratic and common law tradition, Australia is uniquely placed in the Asia-Pacific region.
Australian law firms have for a number of years drawn on this geographical advantage by having offices in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing.
The last year or two has also seen “magic circle” firms in the UK, and firms from the US and China set up alliances with top-end Australian firms to expand legal services into the Asian market.
Singapore in the last fortnight granted four global law firms, including three Australian-linked firms, licences to practice, giving the firms increased access to the booming market for legal services there.
[The three firms are Linklaters (which has formed an alliance with Australian firm Allens), Herbert Smith Freehills and Norton Rose.]
The value of legal services exported from Singapore rose more than 50 per cent between 2008 and 2011, from $S363m to $S551m.
Singapore is also one of the major centres in the region, as well as globally, for international arbitration.
That is not to say you must spend your career earning money for the corporate coffers of the large commercial law firms, although they no doubt would like you to think that.
Lawyers and law graduates can find their calling in a range of sectors, industries and organisations, be it in development, economics, international relations or government.
A good number of my Parliamentary colleagues come from legal backgrounds – though we try not to hold that against them.
Lawyers are also found in our global parliamentary equivalent – the United Nations.
The effects of globalisation have meant that countries which once seemed incredibly far away are now in fact quite near.
Nations are becoming more intimately engaged in the affairs of one another.
For Australia, it is imperative and beneficial for us to engage comprehensively in multilateral forums in order to overcome the “tyranny of distance” that is a result of our geographical positioning.
As you know, after years of extensive lobbying in which I was quite intimately involved at times, Australia recently won a seat on the UN Security Council.
This is the first time we have held a seat since 1986 and it will be our fifth term on the Security Council since we joined the UN as a founding member in 1945 and held the first Presidency of the Council in 1946.
In the first seven or eight weeks of our term, the Australian mission in New York has had an incredibly busy agenda.
Whether considering the situation in Syria, Mali or the Democratic Republic of Congo, Australia is involved and has a voice in significant issues that go directly to the question of international peace and security.
International law is an important part of today’s world that sees ever-growing interactions between countries that are taking on rights and duties as responsible global citizens.
International law gives us globally recognised human rights that the majority of countries, and still counting, have signed up to and made a public commitment to uphold.
International law gives us the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect which argues that sovereignty is not a right but a responsibility, and exhorts us as an international community to prevent mass atrocities when our brothers and sisters in another country are not adequately protected by their own government.
International law also governs our activities on the sea, our collective resources on the moon and our concerted fight against international and transnational crimes.
Law is the fabric of civilised society. It is a vehicle of progress and a force for change.
Wherever your careers happen to take you in future, I hope you will hold fast to the fundamental principles of law school and remember that you have been bestowed with the knowledge to serve the public good.
As future law graduates and lawyers, I strongly encourage you to set out to make a positive difference, whether in our local community, our country or in the world.