A better thinker and a better lawyer than when I arrived

6 July 2016

Eleanor Mitchell In 2013 Eleanor Mitchell moved from Adelaide to Oxford with the support of a Sir Robert Menzies Memorial Scholarship in Law to complete a Bachelor of Civil Law (BCL) at Oxford University. Three years later with BCL, MPhil and an internship with the Legal Division of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva under her belt, Eleanor is now a trainee barrister at Matrix Chambers in London.

We asked Eleanor to tell us a bit about what it means to be a Menzies Scholar, how her time at Oxford impacted her and where she sees her career heading in the future. Here is Eleanor’s response.

I was offered a Sir Robert Menzies Memorial Scholarship in Law to study for the Bachelor of Civil Law at Oxford University in the 2012-13 academic year. I’d been drawn to the BCL both by its tutorial-focused teaching model — which allows students to present, debate, and receive feedback on papers in very small groups — and by its subjects, which included a bewilderingly rich array of courses in international, comparative, and human rights law.

"If someone had asked before I applied what I thought the next few years would bring, I’d never have dared make a list that included all the things I’ve been lucky enough to see, do, and learn."

When I was told the good news, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with myself. I remember calling my parents from a taxi on the way back to Melbourne airport, telling them “I’m going to Oxford”, and wondering if at some point it would actually start to feel real. It was an opportunity that would never have been open to me without the support of the Menzies Foundation, and I can say without exaggeration that it shaped the next four years of my life.

At Oxford, I learned to be a student again — a different kind of student than I’d been during my undergraduate studies, which had largely been practical and domestic law-focused. Instead, my choice of BCL subjects threw me into the intricacies of South African constitutional law, the theoretical underpinnings of anti-discrimination legislation, and the incremental development of the law of armed conflict (known as international humanitarian law, or “IHL”). I was forced to ask “why” and “how” as often as “what”, and to interrogate my own assumptions about the roles of States, legislators and courts in protecting and upholding fundamental rights. I also had the enormous pleasure of being surrounded by teachers and students who were curious about the world and motivated to change it — and I continue to believe that by the time I walked out of my final exam, with a red carnation on my lapel, I was a better thinker and a better lawyer than I’d been when I arrived.

Eleanor Mitchell Oxford (Credit: Margaux Lizé)

Even before I made it to exams, I'd decided that a year in Oxford wasn’t quite enough. I was eager to deepen my studies in specialist areas, and to dive into the incredible extracurricular activities that I’d hardly had time for as a coursework student. With additional support from the Law Foundation of South Australia, I was able to spend 2013-14 writing an MPhil in Law thesis that offered a comparative analysis of the ways courts in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the UK approach asylum claims made by people fleeing armed conflict. I also had the chance to take up a position on the Executive Committee of Oxford Pro Bono Publico, an amazing student group that offers free comparative and international law research to pro bono lawyers and organisations around the world. The life of a research student challenged me to develop levels of self-discipline and self-motivation which I can only I hope I’ll be able to retain into the future.

As my studies drew to a close, I started looking for jobs that would enable me to continue focusing on human rights and IHL in a professional context. Two wonderful opportunities presented themselves: a one-year internship with the Legal Division of the International Committee of the Red Cross (the “ICRC") in Geneva, beginning in October 2014, and a position as a trainee barrister at Matrix Chambers in London starting a year later. I have no doubt that neither would have been possible without the experience I’d gained through further study, and hence without the Menzies Scholarship.

Eleanor Mitchell full profileIn Geneva, I had the great privilege of working across three of the four teams in the Legal Division: updating the commentaries to the Geneva Conventions, working to enhance compliance with weapons treaties, and providing legal support to the ICRC’s field operations. My knowledge of IHL grew exponentially over the course of the year, and I met people whose talent and dedication continue to inspire me. On returning to the UK, I was able to draw on my experience in a new context at Matrix — an intimidatingly impressive Chambers with a thriving practice in international and human rights law — and to enjoy the fresh challenges associated with practising as a barrister. I sincerely hope to remain here after my traineeship ends in October, and to put the skills and knowledge I’ve acquired over the past four years to the best possible use.

In doing so, I'll continue to be motivated by the same goals and values that prompted me to apply for the Menzies Scholarship in the first place. I want to work out how best to use law, both domestic and international, to help those most in need of its protection; and for as long as I remain at the Bar, I want to become the best advocate I can possibly be. I know there will be challenges aplenty, with cuts to legal aid and the continued debate around the repeal of the Human Rights Act threatening to make rights-focused work more and more difficult — but the harder it gets, the harder we need to work, and I sincerely hope that in 20 years I’ll be able to look back and say confidently that — in whatever capacity — that's exactly what I did.

I can’t encourage others strongly enough to apply for any of the Menzies Scholarships. If you have an idea of what you’d like to achieve in the world, you know further study will help make it a reality, and you can’t undertake that study without assistance, the Menzies Foundation offers an incredible opportunity to ask for and receive it. If someone had asked before I applied what I thought the next few years would bring, I’d never have dared make a list that included all the things I’ve been lucky enough to see, do, and learn. I remain intensely grateful to the Menzies Foundation for setting them in motion — a sentiment I’m not the first, and certainly won’t be the last, to express.