It’s easy to be impressed by Sarah Morton-Ramwell. At the age of 33, she’s already done more than most people will in their lifetimes.
Sarah has been the winner of the Australian Woman of the Year in the UK (2014), the Lawyers Weekly Women in Law Awards (2016), one of the AFR and Westpac’s 100 Women of Influence (2016), and one of the 2011 WorldSpreads’ 30 Under 30.
She is on PILnet’s Leadership Committee and TrustLaw’s Council, is the Vice Chair of the International Bar Association’s Pro Bono Committee, a founding member of the Institute of Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability and a member of the Association of Pro Bono Counsel, and the Business Council of Australia’s Indigenous Engagement Taskforce. She manages to juggle all of this while acting as the Partner and Global Head of Pro Bono and Corporate Responsibility at Ashurst (did I mention that she runs 25 offices in 15 countries?), and being a mother to six-month-old twins.
Despite all these accomplishments, Sarah is impossible not to like. She greets me with genuine warmth and with a relaxed smile, and she tells me how it all began.
“We were in Geography, reading an article about the plight of 14-year-old girls in Afghanistan and how they were literally dying in their quest to seek education. For me, it was a lightbulb moment.
“I realised that by pure luck I was sitting there learning, with all the freedoms and future that entails. In Afghanistan, the exact same person, with the same feelings and hopes and dreams, would not have those chances. It was the first time the weight of that hit me. The gross unfairness just blew me away.
“I was already a feminist, but I became passionate about women and girls’ rights. That’s all I ever really wanted to do from that point, and as I grew older, it grew into a wider desire to work in human rights.”
Sarah’s passion only grew stronger over the years, and it wasn’t long until she was roaming the halls of the University of Sydney, where she studied arts and law.
“My view of lawyers was that they were there to uphold the rule of law and protect people the law was not protecting, so that was the vocational path I wanted to take.
“The arts part of my degree is where I really learned the detail of civil and human rights issues. So I took a mixture of everything, from gender studies to sociology, anthropology and psychology. For me, the two went hand-in-hand for my goal of working in human rights and the plight of those who are marginalized and disadvantaged.”
Ever the ardent traveller, it wasn’t long before Sarah went on exchange to the University of North Carolina. “I actually went there because I wanted to work at the Centre for Reproductive Rights in New York,” she explains. “I was obsessed with it. The centre was a huge focal point for me deciding I wanted to be a human rights lawyer, and I desperately wanted to work there. I’d even written my previous semester’s dissertation on the future of reproductive rights in NSW, with the purpose of having a piece I could show to them. I thought that if I could get in the same country, I’d be one step closer.”
The Centre for Reproductive Rights has specific internship dates throughout the US summer, which did not work with the Australian semester. Sarah rang and they said, ‘No, sorry’, but she kept ringing and emailing, “basically just hassling them and telling them how much I loved them. I was saying things like, ‘I’ll just come to New York anyway, I’ll just get coffee – I just want to be there.’ I was pretty much like a sad groupie.”
As it turned out, Sarah managed to be one of the world’s first successful groupies. They finally rang her back, saying, “You’re obviously very passionate about this, so we’ll find something for you.”
After a whirlwind six months studying at the University of North Carolina, working at the Centre for Reproductive Rights and on the Innocence Project, Sarah moved to London as an Advocate for the International Planned Parenthood Federation. Although she loved it, advocacy work was far broader than what she had done before, and she felt she wasn’t achieving her potential as a lawyer.
Over the next two years, she worked at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer but it wasn’t until her three-month secondment with Liberty (the leading civil rights organisation in the United Kingdom) that everything suddenly fell into place.
“I suddenly realised, this is it,” she says. “Pro bono was the realisation of the best use of my skillsets as a person. It was the perfect marriage of what I loved about commercial law firms and connecting them with those who were most in need in the community. From there I went to Reed Smith and ran Pro Bono and Corporate Social Responsibility, which involved non-legal volunteering, business community leadership, and environment.”
Sarah dove headfirst into her new role at Reed Smith. Her project to fight social inequality in East London won her the Lord Mayor’s Dragon Award for Social Inclusion, and it wasn’t long until she also convinced colleagues from nine offices to investigate global issues of human trafficking, domestic violence, forced prostitution and honour crimes. Out of all her experiences, travelling to Haiti in 2011 is the one that stands out.
“After the devastating earthquake in January 2010, many of the residents of Port-au-Prince were living in tent cities. They had no electricity, it was very dark at night, and sexual violence against women and children was at a horrific level. It was very confronting seeing pregnant 14 year olds who had very little food, lived with no security, and had been raped.
“I worked on a number of projects, including the education that sexual violence and rape is a crime, and the ethical reporting of sexual violence by journalists, as well as working on humanitarian parole cases to help these women move to a new country.
“I remember we would sit at the bottom of a women’s shelter in this tiny, hot, dark concrete room. I’d always been so passionate about women’s rights but it’s one thing to read about it and another thing to hear someone talking about their experiences in person. It was incredibly confronting and harrowing.”
These days, much of Sarah’s work involves reconciliation and support for Indigenous communities, including Ashurst’s work with the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency, Woor-Dungin, and the firm’s NSW Wills Project.
“Having people trust you with their life stories in the creation of a Will is an incredible thing. Talking to people about their lives, and their love of country and community has been one of my favourite parts of my job. It’s a privilege to learn about people’s communities. Indigenous culture is the oldest living culture in human experience; it’s remarkable. And, as an Australian, our Indigenous culture makes me extremely proud.
“I can only hope that in a short amount of time, all Australians will feel like this because it’s something we should all be proud of. Too many of our fellow Indigenous Australians are marginalized and disadvantaged, and I think we all need to do our part to change that. We need to be committed to narrowing that gap because it isn’t acceptable.”
The good news is that pro bono and corporate responsibility (CR) have come a long way since Sarah was in university.
“Back then, it was very much a silo and CR was all about volunteering. But these days, CR and pro bono have become professions. Pro bono at law firms has gone from something that people thought was ‘the right thing to do, but done on the side’, to something that is now considered a full legal practice.
“There are always new challenges, of course. Technology has created both solutions and disruptions. I think many of the groups that were marginalised and disadvantaged are, unfortunately, still in that situation. And although huge advances have been made, it’s not happening as quickly as I would hope.”
Changing the world is no mean feat, and Sarah has her hands full as she works on reconciliation, migration, helping the homeless, young people, those with mental illnesses or disabilities, and more.
Her eyes glow as she talks about her work and it’s clear that her passion has only grown stronger over the years.
“When it comes to human rights, in the end, it doesn’t matter what the issue is because that’s not why you do it. You do it for those who are suffering – those people who are marginalised, disadvantaged and discriminated against.
“In the end, social problems are wicked problems. They are complex and they are not just solved by a legal case or representation. There’s so much more that can be done in addition to the legal work and the more you can do, the better.”
For Law Week 2021, Professor Simon Rice speaks about law reform and the importance of community legal centres for access to justice.
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