Just right: Helping law students find their path

29 November 2023
Scholarships assist law students in their futures
Overlooking injustices can be a form of injustice itself. Likeminded donors are helping law students on their path to help others, fighting for equal recognition and fairness for all.
Alan Zheng in graduation regalia with grandparents.

Alan Zheng with his grandparents at his 2019 Arts graduation.

Alan Zheng’s (BA ’19, LLB(Hons) ’22) parents met in the bustling metropolis of Shenzhen, China, but had dreamt of living in Australia since the late 90s, enamoured by the vast openness and freedom of the land. When naming their son, they chose the Chinese name, Aoran, which shares the first character of ‘Australia,’ as a way to bond them to their dream of moving there.

Alan’s family has strong roots in education: his maternal grandfather was an economics professor, his father lectured in electrical engineering, and his mother studied accounting at university.

When Alan was just two years old, the Zheng family relocated to New Zealand, with their Australian dream coming true eight years later. Alan remembers accompanying his mother on a visit to a converted granny flat, where she was working as a bookkeeper for a small family business.

“When your parents migrate overseas and uproot their whole lives, you see them having to go back to square one in their careers.”

Although his family had aspirations for him to go into science, Alan’s career path diverged when he participated in the Law Society of New South Wales Mock Trial Competition in Year 11. His team was set to compete against the elite host school, which boasted tennis courts overlooking Sydney Harbour, and students whose families boasted long lines of prestigious lawyers. He remembers thinking, “maybe I’m at a disadvantage, there’s no way I could ever do well.”

Against the odds, Alan and his team won the trial. His hypothesis that he could in fact succeed in this field would solidify into a ‘proof of principle’ the following year, when a judge at a mooting competition shook his hand and said the words that would become etched in his memory: “you’d make a very good lawyer one day”.

With a taste for fighting uphill battles, Alan was drawn to public service and ideas of fairness, immersing himself in all things law and politics during his undergraduate degree. He edited the student newspaper Honi Soit, clerked at national law firm Allens, and was an active member of the Sydney Law School Social Justice Program. Alan remembers both the exhilaration and exhaustion of this time, with weekends spent locked in a basement with his fellow Honi Soit editors ahead of the paper’s print run on Monday mornings, when he would rush off to his first seminar of the week.

These are people who are doing great work, and we are enabling them to do this. We were delighted to see it grow and were in a fortunate enough position to be able to financially support this growth.
Leslie Burnett

His dedication was recognised when he was awarded the David Burnett Memorial Scholarship in Social Justice. “I was able to free up time, unshackle myself from financial constraints, and spend my days in the library researching and contemplating the law. In many ways, it changed the entire course of my thinking,” he enthuses.

This newfound liberty empowered Alan to undertake an unpaid placement as a practical legal trainee at the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC), and complete his Honours thesis on remedies in federal discrimination law for Indigenous deaths in custody. He found the combination of first-hand experience and deep academic research to be invaluable.

“By the time you read a case, thousands and thousands of pages have been condensed. All the evidence has been presented, lawyers have shouted, witnesses have cried, laughed, and broken down,” he stresses. “We should remember that law takes a back seat to the human experience. The human experience is what drives the evolution of our common law principles.”

With the help of the scholarship, Alan was also able to publicly share his goal of addressing social justice issues through research and teaching. His thesis was published in the University of New South Wales Law Journal, and he embraced an opportunity to teach shortly after graduating, taking on the course in torts and contracts.

As he finishes his tenure as tipstaff to a judge of the Supreme Court of New South Wales, Alan is looking back on what brought him to this point. “This scholarship is critical in encouraging students to reflect on the wider purpose of study and makes it possible for students to seek out social justice opportunities – which are often less financially lucrative, but no less meaningful.”

David Burnett on the phone smiling wearing sunglasses

‘Dynamite Dave’ Burnett will forever be remembered for his energy, joy, and passion for people and politics. This photo represents the quintessential Dave, on the phone for his role as campaign manager for the ‘Kevin ’07’ federal election. The campaign bus and signage can be seen in the reflection of his sunglasses

David's enduring legacy

2023 marks the 15th anniversary of David Burnett’s tragic passing in an accident at the archaeological site of Petra in Jordan. David (BA ’07) was a dynamic, dedicated student of Sydney Law School, and an active member of the community. In 2010 David’s parents, Leslie Burnett and Ruth Pojer, established the David Burnett Memorial Scholarship in Social Justice to support students like their son.

Over the years, Leslie and Ruth have been struck by the recipients’ personal stories, and were thrilled to see their scholarship act as a launchpad to careers which serve
the community. This lasting impact was the key motivator for their additional scholarship funding this year.

“These are people who are doing great work, and we are enabling them to do this,” Leslie explains. “We were delighted to see it grow and were in a fortunate enough position to be able to financially support this growth.”

They also acknowledged Professor Simon Bronitt, Dean of Law, for his selection of recipients and steering as Head of School. “His ethics are exactly where we want them to be,” Ruth continues. “Law should be for the good of mankind.”

The future of Sydney Law School will continue to be driven by the compassion and thoughtful collaboration between donors and the University. “Our core mission is to nurture the next generation of lawyers who pursue ‘leadership for good,’” explains Professor Bronitt. “Through the establishment of this scholarship, the Burnett family has honoured the life of David and his passion for social justice, while funding a range of experiences for students that have inspired new passions and transformed professional destinies.”

Written by Elizabeth Jo for the donor publication. Photography supplied.

Help us explore endless possibilities and make countless lives better. Find out more about donating.

Related articles