Flinders lawyers – trailblazers (and very employable)

Flinders University Law School Dean, Professor Kim Economides.
Flinders University Law School Dean, Professor Kim Economides, is promoting his lawyers’ unique skills.

Flinders University Law School’s Dean, Professor Kim Economides, is a man on a mission.

It’s Thursday morning in his office at Flinders’ Bedford Park Campus and he has been discussing how to get the message out about the employability of Flinders law graduates.

“Unlike most other Australian law graduates, ours don’t actually need to do a Graduate Diploma of Legal Practice (GDLP) in order to qualify as a lawyer,” he says. “At Flinders, our law degree already provides those skills.

“I don’t know of any other law school in Australia – or elsewhere – which has quite the same focus on integrated practical training and social justice as we do.

“Employability! That’s a key message we need to get across.”

It’s perhaps not surprising that a Law School Dean would recommend his own graduates highly – including those studying criminology and socio-legal studies, he stresses – but given Flinders’ strong focus on clinical training, community engagement and work integrated learning, Professor Economides is able to put his money where his mouth is.

“I believe many senior lawyers and judges already appreciate the unique qualities of Flinders law graduates, but I want everyone to understand just how employable they are,” he says.

Professor Economides, a former Law School head at one of the UK’s top ten universities, and a former Professor of Law and Founding Director of the Otago Legal Issues Centre on the South Island of New Zealand, is passionate, articulate and determined to promote the past and future successes of his law school.

“We have such a fantastic history,” he says. “Our record of radical traditions and trailblazing contributions to educational innovation, social justice and law reform, speak for themselves.  That’s a legacy we are determined to maintain and to expand into the future.”

It is Flinders “trailblazers” such as barrister and senior lecturer Bibi Sangha – whose research and campaigning led to a long-overdue overhaul of legislation to allow appeals in miscarriage of justice cases – who particularly inspire Professor Economides.

Then there is perhaps the School’s greatest trailblazer of all, the inspirational Elliott Johnston QC, a former Supreme Court justice, and life-long communist, who rose to national prominence in 1991 as head of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

Elliott Johnston was an Associate Professor at Flinders and maintained a close relationship with the university until his death in 2011.

Despite his controversial personal politics – and decades long membership of the Australian Communist Party – he achieved high judicial office and received many honours, including the Order of Australia and several honorary degrees.

Perhaps his greatest achievement of all, however, was that he did it all without ever losing his empathy for the underdog, or the respect of his colleagues.

Farewelling Elliott from the Supreme Court, Attorney-General Chris Sumner remarked: “Although you have had to fight for unpopular causes in your professional and political life, you have been secure in your personal value system and have never given way to the attractions of an off-hand detached, uncaring cynicism which seems to afflict many people as they leave the idealism of youth behind.”

It’s a fitting tribute to Elliot’s legacy, Professor Economides believes, that South Australia is currently paving the way for the reform of criminal appeals in several other states, and that his colleagues are also currently researching whistleblowing and the law.

Social responsibility, employability and trailblazing – just three of the attributes which, according to Professor Economides, encapsulate the spirit of Flinders Law School.

Victorian Police Assistant Commissioner Luke Cornelius; Renewal SA General Manager Lily Jacobs; and current winners of the coveted SA Young Lawyer of the Year award, Paul Gordon and Claire Victory, are just some of the Flinders Law graduates whose success attests to their personal drive, community engagement and employability.

Meanwhile, Flinders Law School’s intervention to help save the Environmental Defenders Office (EDO) this year after its funding was cut, is a more recent example of a culture of social responsibility which practices what it preaches.

“There is a lot of rhetorical commitment to social justice, but at Flinders we really believe in making a difference, and the EDO partnership is just one example of us taking concrete action in defence of those in genuine need,” Professor Economides says.

“As a law school we’ve always been concerned with social justice and law reform. Legal education is not just about the mechanical interpretation of rules, but also an appreciation of the spirit and impact of the law, which must be made to serve the whole community.”

“When the EDO approached us after their funding was cut, we – both as a school and as a university – were keen to help out simply on the basis that we could see the inherent value in their work for the community, and of course the environment, which cannot speak for itself.

“Thankfully, we also saw a chance to further develop an existing, mutually beneficial relationship by offering the EDO accommodation at our Flinders Victoria Square site, so it was a win-win for all involved.”

Asked how closely his personal feelings aligned with the decision, he is unequivocal.

“I was 100 per cent behind it,” he says. “This was a real opportunity to engage with vital social justice and environmental issues.

“A healthy environment is crucial, and it needs to be protected for future generations, so I believe it’s vitally important that law students and staff are sensitive to and engaged with such issues.”

Flinders Law School’s long-standing community engagement continues through its Legal Advice Clinic, which offers impartial legal advice to members of the public at Flinders University’s Bedford Park Campus and at Christies Beach Magistrates Court.

Meanwhile, its influence in the area of research has also grown significantly, particularly since the launch of the Flinders Centre for Crime Policy and Research (CCPR) earlier this year, which is led by Professor Andrew Goldsmith.

In recent months, the CCPR has achieved significant media coverage by highlighting topical issues such as the use of surveillance drones by Australian police and possible problems with South Australia’s remand system.

“Flinders law school sees itself as a key player when it comes to generating innovative ideas on and about law,” Professor Economides says.

“Last November we hosted the Australia New Zealand Legal Ethics Colloquium (ANZLEC 4) and at the end of 2015, two more major international conferences will put us on the map: the Australia and New Zealand Society of Criminology Conference (ANZSOC), which will see the two nations’ top criminologists converge on Adelaide; and the Law and Society Association of Australia and New Zealand (LSAANZ) annual conference.”

So what’s the real point of difference in a Flinders Law graduate for Professor Economides?

“Well of course I think they’re all pretty special,” he says. “But the real difference in a Flinders Law graduate is that they’ve been taught to do more than simply understand, critique and apply technical legal rules.

“At Flinders we also teach our students about their responsibility as future citizens to use their knowledge to advance the interests of both the individual and society at large.

“And can we motivate them to become trailblazers like Elliott Johnston and Bibi Sangha? If so, we’d be producing the best kind of law graduates of all.”

The 2014 Elliott Johnston Memorial Lecture will take place next Wednesday, October 21.

It will be delivered by Melbourne Law School’s Dr Mark McMillan, and is titled: “Holding on to the ‘hope’ of Law.” For more information, or to register, please click here.

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