The right path of the law

This is an abridged version of the speech delivered by University Medallist Melissa Chen at the Sydney Law School prize winners’ ceremony on May 5

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Good evening Dean, distinguished guests, faculty members, our generous prize donors, and of course, tonight’s prize winners and their wonderful families and friends. It is such a privilege to give this year’s address and I can only hope that my questionable oratory skills can do this honour justice.

My instructions for this evening are to provide a “celebratory reflection on the year”. And certainly, there is a whole lot to celebrate about studying law at the University of Sydney.

However, for me to focus on these positive things here tonight would be disingenuous and misleading. What is left out of most speeches at formal events like these is a realistic reflection on the day-to-day drudgery and frustration and stress of completing a law degree. For me, some of these experiences were as follows: receiving a 68 per cent in an assignment and locking myself in the Law School Society office and vowing to study 20 hours a day until I could remedy that ‘poor’ mark and subsequently being woken up at 4am by the cleaner vacuuming under the table where I had fallen asleep; having my skin break out into rashes and having a constant sense of nausea around exam time; my friend’s nose spontaneously bleeding from the sheer stress of completing his honours thesis; comforting one of my friends, who was in tears, outside this very lecture theatre, because her grandfather had passed away and the week before she had turned down an opportunity to fly overseas and see him for the last time because she was so worried about failing her upcoming law assessments.

It is an oft-cited statistic that more than 30% of law students will experience anxiety or depression at some point while they are at university; upon entering the legal profession, these mental health problems get worse. There is such an obsession in this law school and in society on being “successful” and winning scholarships and prizes and medals, when really what we should be talking about is how to achieve our goals in life while also looking after ourselves in a sustainable and healthy way. No doubt it is exciting and fulfilling to receive public affirmation for the things we do – but if we build our identity around these things, as perhaps in the past and even now I am tempted to do, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment – as inevitably, the public accolades will dry up and we’ll be left staring at ourselves in the mirror with emptiness and dissatisfaction.

But I don’t want this speech to be a massive downer.

There are two factors that have helped me to not only stay committed to and passionate about studying and practising law, but also – and most importantly – have enabled me to lead a happy and healthy and sustainable life.

The first factor was finding balance in life – between my career and education, family relationships, social life and health and wellbeing.  I look back at the first four years of my law degree in utter disbelief that I used to think it was okay to eat a packet of Pringles, Natural Confectionery snakes and a carton of chocolate milk because I was “too busy” to cook something healthy for dinner; that I used to scoff openly at those who suggested that I exercise and go for a walk once in a while for a study break; that I used to ignore invitations from my family and friends to celebrate a birthday because I was so stressed about my course load. The greatest tragedy I think would be for you – tonight’s prize winners, intelligent, motivated people with so much to offer this world – to remain so focused on that single goal of academic and career “success” at the expense of all other areas of life, that you die of a heart attack at your desk at the age of 42 – perhaps with a lot of money in the bank and a large property portfolio – but with no friends and no family to mourn your loss. It is well worth reflecting tonight on your achievements and the method in which you achieved them and how, in the future, you can continue pursuing your goals and dreams in a healthy and sustainable way.

The second factor which helped me through the last few years of law school was to rediscover my original motivation for studying law and formulating career goals and aspirations that were consistent with that motivation. It is almost a joke at law school, delivered with a smirk of knowing derision, that first year students arrive on their first day, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, with optimism in their eyes and a desire to use the law to change the world for the better in their hearts – and that by final year, these very same students, inevitably have prestigious jobs at top tier commercial law firms or investment banks or management consultancies. So many of us who had these original dreams and desires to help people using the law seem to finish law school with a real pessimism about the ability to do this.   

Having now volunteered and worked in the community legal sector for the last four years, and hopefully far into the future, it has become clear to me there are more reasons now than ever for students interested in a career in social justice to maintain a dogged determination to their goals of using the law to obtain justice for and empower the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of our society.

Without such dogged determination we will not be able to put pressure on federal and state governments to reverse the 30 per cent cut in funding to community legal centres which are already so stretched to the limit and which assist thousands of individuals – who otherwise would not have the money to obtain legal advice – with their legal issues. Without such dogged determination, we will not be able to fight against the many injustices that could be remedied, rather than perpetuated, by the legal system – injustices which include the fact that there remains today Indigenous families living as tenants in town camps less than 1km from the Darwin CBD in absolute squalor, surrounded by garbage and excrement and broken toilets and lights and doors because their landlords have no money to fulfil their obligations as landlords; the fact that there are homeless young people with fines exceeding tens and thousands of dollars, and facing imprisonment for these fines, because police and transport officers do not seem to understand that indeed being homeless and suffering from mental health and drug and alcohol abuse problems probably means that you cannot buy a train ticket; the fact that there are asylum seekers being tortured and sexually abused and psychologically destroyed in offshore detention centres, burning themselves to death because they think this is the only viable means of escaping their situation, under the cover of Australia’s “national security interests”.

If indeed you entered law school with a burning optimism about the positive things the law can achieve – I implore you to hold tight to your aspirations and allow them to inform your decision-making and career pathways as a law student and a lawyer. Our system needs intelligent, hard-working people like tonight’s prize winners to keep fighting the good fight, so that the law can be used as a tool for social justice rather than a tool of oppression.

I would like to spend a few minutes expressing my gratitude to the people who have supported me throughout law school and without whom I would never have had the privilege of addressing you all today.

To the lecturers and tutors at this great institution – thank you for imparting your enthusiasm and dedication to the law to all your students.

To my employers throughout law school, including Ragni Mathur who is so kindly here tonight, thank you for teaching me how to translate theory into practice, and for being such wonderful and patient mentors.

To my family – in particular, my dad, grandmother, and brother – thank you for loving me unconditionally in the way that only family can.

To my friends – thank you for supporting me throughout the ups and downs, honestly, I would have quit law school for med school long ago if it wasn’t for your support. In particular, I would like to thank my long-suffering study buddy Nicholas Condylis, who is the pure embodiment of the idea that with hard work and humility you can achieve absolutely anything.

Finally – I would like to thank the one person who has supported me for my entire life and would sacrifice anything for me, and who would love me equally whether I was here giving this speech or had just been accused of defamation following a corporations law exam – my mother, Karyn May. Now, when I was in primary school my mum began attending university as a mature age student – having never been to university before – and I distinctly remember to this day watching her study diligently on the weekends and weeknights while also somehow managing to raise my brother and I as a single parent – and not only did she do a damn good job of that, she also managed to top her course at university. Having a role model like this in my life instilled in me the greatest sense of strength and independence and fearlessness. And I sincerely hope that all of you here tonight are lucky enough to have someone like that in your life and that you are able to take a moment to really, truly, express your appreciation to that person for everything they have done. So mum, to you I say, though words are clearly inadequate, thank you so much – these awards that I receive tonight are as much yours as they are mine.

On that note, prize winners, congratulations on your achievements. I wish you all the best in the pursuit of your own goals and pathways in life, I hope that above all you remember to look after yourself and your friends and families, and I look forward to working with you all at some stage throughout our careers. Thank you.