New law dean goes in to bat for students

Are our laws school producing more graduates than the market can handle?

Professor Penelope Mathew

It has been a contentious and controversial issue among the faculty of the University of Auckland’s Law School where the number of student enrolments into Part B, where the real study of law begins, has jumped from 332 in 2015 to 423 this year.

But the law school’s new dean, Professor Penelope Mathew, has heard it before.

An internationally renowned academic in the fields of human rights and refugee law whose most recent role was dean of the law school at Griffith University in Queensland, Mathew has been in Auckland for only a week.

But she’s ready to defend Auckland’s student numbers and the policy behind them. “It’s a perennial debate that comes up in different jurisdictions. I’ve heard a lot about that in Australia in the past,” she says.

“The reality is that law is still a very valuable degree. Employers like it and there are good reasons for that. Lawyers are very articulate. And if you wanted to go into business, knowing about the law is very useful. That’s part of the beauty of the conjoint degree.”

There are other arguments.

First, as in many areas, the job market for newly-minted lawyers is cyclical. When Mathew herself entered law school more than 30 years ago, young graduates were finding it tough to get jobs. When she left six years later, “the problem seemed well and truly over”.

And that seems to be the situation now – in Australia, at least. Mathew cites an article in The Australian Financial Review earlier this year, claiming the big downtown law firms were on a hiring spree.

The other thing to remember, she says, is when lawyers talk about over-supply, they’re commenting on their own experience. A hiring manager in a big commercial firm might be deluged with applications from fantastic candidates and will rightly be concerned about the next generation if opportunities are limited.

But, at the same time, that hiring manager might also be talking about a crisis in access to justice, Mathew says. And these big city firms’ experiences won’t necessarily mirror those of a regional legal aid office, where it’s tough to attract young lawyers.

“So, I think law schools need to talk to their students about some of the fantastic opportunities to get an array of experience from small regional firms that they might not get exposure to downtown.”

And there are other pathways. Many students do conjoint degrees with no intention of practising as barristers or solicitors in the traditional sense, Mathew says.

“There are great jobs out there in government, the public service, NGOs and independent agencies like the Human Rights Commission. I think law schools need to expose their students to all these opportunities.

“It’s important to get your alumni in – those who have had these fabulous careers doing lots of things in lots of different places – and get them talking to the students about their career paths.”

Mathew says she’s grateful to the profession for raising job concerns “but I don’t think the answer is to try to be anti-competitive and to deny access to this wonderful degree to whoever might want to embark on a legal career or get legal training for whatever career path they want to enter. It’s really about educating our students about all the options that are open to them.”

Mathew herself took this less conventional route.

A “cluster of things” sparked her interest in human rights and refugee law, including a conference organised by Professor Gillian Triggs, then President of the Australian Human Rights Commission. By the time she finished her first degree, Mathew says she knew that was the area she wanted to pursue.

“I loved international law and the interface with domestic law, and the people focus. I also suspect there were things deeper in my family history that drove some of this. My mother worked as a social worker with the first arrivals of Vietnamese and Timorese refugees in Australia in the 1970s and 1980s, and I remember her working with them and going to some functions with her. My uncle is a doctor who worked along the Thai-Cambodian border.

“So, there were various things in the family background that sparked an interest. So, when I finally learned about this area of law, I had some understanding of the issues facing the people who’d fled from their homes and sought protection elsewhere.”

Mathew did her articles at MinterEllison, then returned to university as a research fellow for Professor Hilary Charlesworth. Then came a game-changer: she got the opportunity to work with the Jesuit refugee service in Hongkong.

“I thought it was very unusual for that kind of opportunity to come up where you could use your legal skills in a way that was helpful. I still think of that as one of my favourite jobs of all time. It was fantastic to be able to use your skills in a way that helped people who really needed your help.”

Around the same time, Australia had adopted its mandatory detention legislation and, as a young academic, Mathew wrote her first conference paper on the illegality of the regime.

“I can remember very boldly saying at a meeting of the Australian and New Zealand Society of International Lawyers that it was in violation of Article 9 of the international Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and I couldn’t imagine who had been advising government.

“I think the reality was the attorney-general’s department was very concerned about this and had been giving advice, particularly on the rights of the child. And, of course, the government doesn’t always act on the advice it receives.”

Mathew’s next stop was graduate studies at Columbia University in New York where she also worked as a teaching assistant and with the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Right, helping to put together a communication for the United Nations about the arbitrary detention of Vietnamese refugees. There was a teaching stint at the University of Michigan law school as well.

Back in Australia, teaching at the University of Melbourne and working as legal counsel for the Human Rights Commission in Canberra before taking up the dean’s post at Griffith Law School, Mathew found she had become a sought-after commentator on human rights and refugee issues.

“Once you got into the field, it was hard to leave it because there was so much work to be done and once you developed a reputation, it snowballed. Lot of terrific refugee lawyers and academics have come to this field because of the retrograde nature of Australian government policy.”

Just how retrograde became clear in a lecture Mathew delivered at the Australian National University in Canberra in 2017.

After the fall of Saigon, Australia started receiving its first boat people – about 2000 between 1975 and 1981. At that point Australia’s compliance with its international obligations was good, she says. But a shift in policy came in the 1980s with the second wave of arrivals, including Cambodians fleeing the conflict in that country, and Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s characterisation of them as “economic migrants”. By the early 1990s Australia had included mandatory detention in its human rights and refugee policies.

“From then, there was a slide in our treatment of those people who arrive without a visa,” Mathew says. “Australia is good with resettlement of people from camps around the world but not so good with unauthorised arrivals. For them, things went steadily downhill in the 1990s.”

It has become a “hot button issue” now, largely because of wedge politics, she said in the lecture. “It serves particular party’ interests to focus on this group of people and whip up a panic. It can look as if the government is protecting Australian citizens by making secure borders and distracting people from asking what we’re doing about climate change or issues like health and education.”

So why New Zealand and why this particular job?

Mathew has become adept at moving and, she says, from across the Tasman, New Zealand looks “terribly progressive”. For example, we have longestablished human rights legislation whereas only three Australian states – the ACT, Victoria and Queensland – have similar law or charters.

“Australia could learn a lot from New Zealand. I was always a fan of Jacinda Ardern, and watching the way she has coped with this terrible tragedy in Christchurch has made her rise even more in my estimation. She has been sorely tested and not found wanting.”

Auckland’s law school is old and well-established, with a high-calibre faculty, she says. Even better, the law faculty is independent rather than being subsumed within a larger faculty such as business or arts, as is often the case in Australia.

Mathew is part of the senior leadership team and reports direct to the vicechancellor. “That, on a personal level, gives me the opportunity to look at what the university is doing more broadly. That was a very attractive part of the job.

“I think you can represent the law school’s constituents better if you’ve actually got a seat at the top table. It’s very hard when you’re getting the news relayed through various other fora. So that was an enormous attraction to coming across to Auckland.”

As Mathew sees it, the dean’s role is leadership, management and administration. It’s about working with stakeholders, including the profession, academic performance, staff reviews and being the final port of call for decision-making.

Another dimension will be in her ability to comment, in her personal capacity as an academic rather than as the dean, on important legal, social and political issues.

“This tradition of academic freedom is one of the reasons I became an academic – that you can comment freely on important public issues. Occasionally, even as dean, I have made time to comment publicly and do some media around refugee issues which is always a hot topic in Australia.

“I do have a vision of what law school and university should be about. Obviously, it’s to teach the next generation of students but it’s also to research and think and contribute to the big challenges of the day.

“In order to do that well I think you need to be out in the public domain, commenting on things. If I think about Auckland Law School, there are people on the faculty here who’ve been involved in big government inquiries - tax, mental health, race relations, indigenous issues. They are out there commenting and giving of their expertise.

“I think that is really important. The university is an independent institution – it’s not beholden to anyone – with people who spend their lives focusing on these important issues. And they contribute, and they shape the public debate and public policy. I’m thrilled I’m joining a faculty where so many people are engaging in that way.”

Mathew hopes to continue her own research but acknowledges it will take second place to her duties as dean.

“It can be done but it is very challenging. I think I will be the chief cheerleader of other people’s research, particularly with the more junior members of faculty. It really is my role to encourage and celebrate and showcase other people’s research. I do hope to keep my hand in though, and I did manage to do it when I was in Australia.”

During that time, she co-authored a book Refugees, Regionalism and Responsibility.

In the past couple of years, much of the debate around tertiary education in Australia has focused on whether the system is producing work-ready graduates. Employers claim graduates lack basic competences, particularly soft skills like communication and teamwork; student complain their tertiary courses are not adequately preparing them for the workforce.

So, what about law graduates?

Mathew says the feedback she got about the graduates from Griffith was that they were highly valued and well-skilled. “I’ve not heard anything to the contrary about Auckland in the week that I’ve been here,” she says.

“Thinking about where our alumni have ended up, it seems we have a very good record of producing good graduates. But it’s always a matter of updating what you do and thinking about how technology is changing the profession.

“I don’t have a crystal ball on that but it’s an area where I’d want to have discussion with the profession about the changes and how the law school can better equip students for those kinds of changes.” 

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