Launching a New Student Society: Lawyers without Borders

By Stephen Watson.

Just last week, we had the pleasure of officially launching the Law School’s Student Division of Lawyers without Borders. This division is the first of its kind in Australia. Lawyers without Borders is an international organisation seeking to promote the rule of law by channelling pro bono services.

I believe that I can speak on behalf of the founding committee in saying that our motivation behind founding the student division is a passion for using law as a force for good. It is a drive that brought many of us to law school. This was meaningfully revealed in a video message from Christina Storm, the Founder and Executive Director of Lawyers without Borders. Christina emphasised how this same passion has united lawyers all around the world. Regrettably, this passion can sometimes get lost in a law school with a very strong commercial focus.

Our launch event was made all the more special as Mr Matthew Albert generously offered his time to be our guest speaker. For me, Mr Albert’s inspirational speech signalled a perfect opportunity for reflection. I reflected on how far we’ve come in the last year: from the mere wisp of an idea to a vibrant student society with well over one hundred members. More importantly, I reflected on why law is so crucial, and how life-changing encounters with law may be.

It reinforced the value of pro bono in creating access to justice for all. Pro bono work should be much more than merely the ‘penance [lawyers] pay for serving a capitalist system’, as Judge Laurence Silberman, in a somewhat Faustian analogy, once remarked.

Mr Albert spoke about his experiences as a barrister representing refugees trapped on Nauru, and those facing the pointy end of the so-called ‘Malaysia solution’ — a misnomer considering the inhumane treatment they would have faced there. For these people, their only hope is that, despite the odds, the rule of law will prevail.

Sonia Sotomayor, Justice of the US Supreme Court, said: ‘I firmly believe in the rule of law as the foundation for all of our basic rights.’ The rule of law becomes visceral at the point where theory ends, and human life takes its place. At law school, we can bury ourselves in textbooks and statutes and forget that somewhere, someone’s life, health or freedom depends on such words. It may depend on the words we will speak one day.

Our launch event was a humbling reminder of how powerful law can be, and the privilege we have of studying it. And I believe that this places us under an obligation. That obligation, to quote Sotomayor once again, is ‘a professional and moral duty to represent the underrepresented in our society, to ensure that justice exists for all, both legal and economic justice.’

One image from Mr Albert’s speech that remains with me vividly is this: the judge on the bench in Nauru desperately following signs from a government official, trying to assess their reaction to ensure he decided in favour of the government.

If anyone is above the law, everyone is under tyranny. Without the rule of law, our legal lives will take place only in — to borrow Robert Cover’s immortal phrase — ‘a field of pain and death’.

Lawyers without Borders at Melbourne Law School welcomes new student members! Join us in crossing borders to make a difference. Sign up (for free) here:

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