19 April 2016
Thanks to the support of individual donors, law firms and the Australian government, 2014 saw the awarding of the inaugural Sir Ninian Stephen Menzies Scholarship in International Law, named in honour of former Governor General of Australia, Sir Ninian, who was Chairman of the Menzies Foundation from 1992 to 1998.
The scholarship was designed to support outstanding Australian law graduates who wanted to pursue courses of study in international law at a prestigious overseas university. We caught up with the first two recipients of the scholarship, Christine Ernst (2014) and Patrick Wall (2015) to see what impact it has made to their life.
Christine, who completed her Bachelor of Civil Law at the University of Oxford in 2015 and is now back in Australia working within the Office of International Law at the Attorney-General's Department, which advises the government on Australia's rights and obligations under international law.
Patrick is currently in the final stages of his Masters of Laws in International Law at the Graduate Institute Geneva. His interests lie in the relationship between international law and international politics, particularly in how they influence one another. When he returns to Australia later this year, he hopes to deepen his understanding of these relationships through professional experience.
As it could be expected, the scholarship has had a big impact on both Christine and Patrick. We caught up with the two of them to see how the scholarship has helped them develop personally, professionally and as a leader.
Did the scholarship open any doors for you? If so, what ones and how?
The scholarship provided the perfect opportunity to reorient my career firmly in the direction of public law. Studying at Oxford not only sharpened my legal and academic skills, but also gave me the chance to step back from day-to-day practice and evaluate the various career paths I might follow. Being surrounded by people pursuing impressive, creative career opportunities made it impossible not to be inspired! It was while at Oxford that I applied for roles in the Constitutional Recognition Taskforce (Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet) and the Office of International Law (Attorney-General's Department), thereby facilitating my move to Canberra and transition to the public service. I have never looked back.
Certainly. Without it, the study in Geneva would not have been possible. I would not have had the opportunity to learn from the superb members of the Faculty of International Law at the Graduate Institute, nor the ability to soak up everything that happens in and around Geneva.
In just the last three weeks, I have had the opportunity to see Australia's human rights record reviewed by the international community at the United Nations Human Rights Council, hear the Dalai Lama speak at the Graduate Institute and attend a press conference held by some of the negotiators in the Syrian peace process.
I've also had the opportunity to meet a lot of very interesting people doing exceptionally interesting work in fields ranging from human rights and refugees to trade law and international investment arbitration.
How have your studies helped you to become a better leader?
Above all, my studies challenged me to think critically about the challenges that face our society, and about appropriate solutions to those challenges. I think that good leadership is about having the vision to devise constructive solutions, and the open-mindedness to accept that the prevailing approach may not be the best one.
I think only time will tell. One thing that I am very much aware of is the opportunity that I have had to work with people from a wide range of countries and cultures. Our programme is very small—only eighteen students—but there is a great mix of people from Europe, Africa, Asia and the United States. I think that—regardless of what I end up doing—being able to work with people from different backgrounds will be very important.
Where would you like to be 20 years from now? What impact would you like to have made?
I would like to be a lawyer specialising in public law - the body of law that governs the relationship between citizens and our governments. I am especially interested in developing a practice in human rights and international law. I would like to be actively engaged in the community, participating in law reform initiatives and speaking out on important legal issues. Although the law is far from perfect, legal principles can be a valuable lens through which we evaluate the appropriateness of government action and ensure that governments are held to account.
I'm not really a big believer in long-term career planning, or even medium-term career planning, to be honest. When I started working at the Attorney-General's Department in Canberra, I was a member of a committee that organised occasional lunchtime events with people of prominence in fields relevant to the Department's work. At our request, the speakers would often begin their remarks by tracing the contours of their careers. Over time, I realised that the people who had the most interesting careers and who had the widest range of experiences were not the ones who had progressed along a pre-planned path. The people who seemed to have the best experiences were those who were always open to pursuing new, interesting and unexpected opportunities. I think I'd like to take the same approach.
If you could give advice to one of this year’s scholars about to embark on their overseas study, what would it be, and why?
This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Enjoy the freedom to explore and express your own ideas.
Always question your assumptions. Principles that are taken as given in one society or legal system may be completely foreign to, or incongruous in, other systems.
Take time to ruminate. Sometimes it can be difficult to devise novel solutions to difficult problems without allowing yourself time to think about them deeply.
Be confident in your own judgment, while at the same time being open to new ideas and to learning from those around you.
Take every opportunity you get. You only have a limited time in which someone else is going to pay you to live and study in an interesting place, so make the most of it. Take extra classes if you're interested in them, go to public events, meet interesting people, and have fun!