Insights from a successful deanship

6 December 2018
Why a legal life is a bit like Star Wars
Professor Joellen Riley is about to complete her term as Head of School and Dean of the University of Sydney Law School. As she prepares to teach and research again next year, we asked her to reflect on her deanship.
Joellen Riley Law Dean

Alumni successes span far and wide

Some of my most rewarding times as Dean were with alumni. I’ve been a student or academic here since 1992, so I often meet outstandingly successful lawyers who were once classmates or students.

I recently had dinner in Toronto with six Canadian graduates, who are enjoying successful careers at the bar and in their own practices. It was lovely to share memories with them and hear how they have appreciated our rigorous legal education.

I’ve been privileged to meet eminent alumni at home, too. Last year, Bruce Corlett AM invited me to a lunch at the Union, University & Schools Club, which celebrated 50 years since a particularly famous win by our rugby team. Our graduates at lunch were fit and well. Life in law is obviously good.

The force is with aspiring young lawyers

In an orientation week speech early in my deanship, I encouraged students to think of themselves as ‘Padawan’ or apprentices, in a great, noble legal profession; not as consumers of a legal education. Their teachers could be seen as ‘Jedi’, who are a few steps ahead on the path to knowledge.

When Pete Lead, our wonderful former executive officer, heard this, he gave me a toy Yoda from Star Wars. His gift takes pride of place on my memorabilia shelf, beside my second favourite item, a plastic trophy given to me for being vice president of Sydney University Law Society in 1994. That trophy reminds me we are here for our students.

That’s why I have always loved hearing about their great experiences across our undergraduate, Juris Doctor and master’s programs. It has made me very happy to see many young people taking advantage of our overseas exchange opportunities and programs in places like China, the United States, United Kingdom, Japan, and Singapore.

Law and technology share an exciting future

When I was a student, we pulled hard copy law reports from the shelves during discovery. It was harder to get an unreported judgement. There was no internet. Now, many sources are readily available online. Still, even nowadays, nothing replaces being in classes, talking with excellent teachers and peers. People go to great universities to meet and work with other people.

I think new technology can broaden people’s access to legal help. We currently have a justice system that many cannot afford. Online legal advice platforms can help by solving family property disputes and other problems, without the need to consult a solicitor or brief a barrister. Technology won’t replace skilled legal work, though. Society will always need people with sound legal skills.

While I’ve been Dean, we’ve recruited researchers who use their sharp legal skills to solve major problems with scientists, doctors and other experts from beyond the law. As lawyers, we will continue to publish high-impact research that helps the profession, government, industry and society. Look at my colleague Dr Belinda Reeve. She is working with obesity experts to improve food governance, so children and adults can have much healthier diets.

Professor Riley - timeline of achivements

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