Today, I have the privilege of chatting with a former judge’s associate at the Supreme Court of Victoria, Emily Morison, who is about to embark on the exciting Master of Law programme at Cambridge University.
Emily has a passion for environmental law and having personally observed her in action, is truly an all-star while being a genuine and down-to-earth soul. Let’s take a peek into her journey through law school and her time as a Judge’s Associate.
LB. Hi Emily! Thank you so much for joining us at Legal Brew. I’m glad that we have the opportunity to chat at this lovely cafe before you head off to Cambridge. So can you tell us a little bit about your journey before law school and why you chose law
EM. I did a Science degree when I first finished school because the environment had always been something I was interested in. At the same time, I wanted to keep the option open to study Medicine. I knew that whatever I did, I really wanted to feel like I was making a difference in some way! So I took Science subjects that were environmentally focused, as well as subjects that fulfilled the prerequisites for Medicine. By the end of my Science degree, I was confident that Medicine wasn’t for me and that I needed to work in the environmental space. I’d learned that the scientific evidence on the causes and effects of climate change was obvious, but what we’re really missing is constructive communication between the science community and the broader community about the problems that climate change causes, and any strong policy on the issue.
LB. What was the trigger point for you?
EM. It wasn’t until that I took a gap year and did a bit of travelling after my Science degree that I realised that Law was the way I wanted to do it. It’s funny – I just got some space away from uni and thought about where I could make the most impact in the environmental space. I thought that if I wanted to play a role in communicating climate change problems and in encouraging policy reform, then Law was probably going to give me a great skill set for doing that. But I have to admit, I really didn’t know anything about studying law until I started my Law degree, except that everyone told me it was hard work!
LB. What were your favourite subjects at law school? This might be a slightly boring question, but tell me, let’s spill the beans!
EM. My interest is definitely in the public law side of things. I loved Constitutional Law, Public Law and Statutory Interpretation… Administrative Law was actually high on my list – I loved Administrative Law, which I know is a bit uncommon. A lot of people think it’s super dry, but I loved it because it’s all about the avenues that people can use to hold government to account for its decisions. And then my actual favourite was International Environmental Law (for obvious reasons)!
LB. What are the essential ingredients for enjoying law school?
EM. I think I was very lucky because I studied with a small cohort of people doing the Monash JD and I happened to have a group that was really collegiate and supportive. An essential ingredient is definitely having good people around you – people who you can study with for days, who you can cry to when you’re feeling really stressed. I have made lots of good friends out of law school and feel really lucky about that. So, enjoying law school is definitely about having supportive friends, because it’s the kind of degree where you need to study with other people. I was very solitary as a Science student – I could do my own thing and was fine (and very self-sufficient), but I think Law is in quite a different category. You really do require other people to bounce ideas off and to argue with.
Another essential ingredient for enjoying law school is definitely hard work. It’s inescapable unfortunately! You do need to be committed and you do need to keep on top of things. That’s the bottom line. It’s not about doing every reading, you don’t need to necessarily do that, but you do need to stay on top of your work.
LB. Yes, law is really about people at the end of the day – it’s at the centre isn’t it?
EM. Oh absolutely, and especially because at law school, most of the exams are problem scenario-based. When you’re problem-solving, it always helps to have all of these other perspectives to say, “oh, what about this?” or “what about that?”. Having other people encouraging you to have all those different ideas is really important. And once you’re working in a law firm, understanding what the client needs and wants is pretty much the most important part of the job. Being able to get along well with people is so important not just for getting through law school but also for working in the law.
LB. What was the stand-out thing that you did while at law school?
EM. Well, I think it’s funny – one of them was as simple as attending a Women in the Law breakfast that my uni organised, because that was where I saw an amazing woman (Felicity Millner from Environmental Justice Australia). She spoke about her experience as a woman in the law, but also about the work of Environmental Justice Australia, which is a fantastic community legal centre that I currently paralegal at. Environmental Justice Australia helps communities to protect the environment and also does a lot of work in environmental law reform. I would never have found out about that place, or that person, or her role in the organisation, if it wasn’t for going along to that event. Also, the speakers that I met at various other information sessions held by my uni had a big influence on the law firms that I applied to do clerkships at, so I feel as though the stand-out thing that I’ve done during my law degree has been to make the effort to attend events and to speak with the people who work in the area of law that I’m interested in.
LB. I’ve always found it incredible that you were working full-time, while simultaneously completing your law degree. How did you balance it all?
EM. It was a challenge and you need to be in the mindset that when you finished work for the day, you would come back home to study, not to chill out! It certainly did require a bit of discipline, but by the same token, I always had Friday nights off and Saturday off. Always up for a wine on a Friday night! Also, I should say that when I started working full time, I took my study load down to two subjects at a time instead of three (the Monash JD operates on a trimester system with three subjects per trimester) – I don’t think I could have handled a full-time study load as well as a full-time work load.
I definitely also needed to put things in place to make sure that I didn’t go crazy, like riding my bike every day and trying to eat as healthily as I could. And booking a couple of spontaneous cheap overseas trips to reward myself in between exam periods. I was pretty lucky to have great housemates and family who would cook for me and just generally cut me some slack when I was stressed during exams.
LB. You’ve recently finished working at the Supreme Court of Victoria as Associate to the Honourable Justice Priest. What’s it like being a judge’s associate?
EM. I cannot recommend the role of a judge’s associate more highly. Being at such an early stage in my legal career, I found it so valuable to get court exposure almost every day. I got to watch barristers making legal arguments, and found it such a privilege to see how judges work. I think it is a role where you are kind of a personal assistant, legal researcher, proofreader and then a clerk taking notes on cases in court. It is a role which is very much dependent on the particular judge that you work for. Every associate’s experience will be unique.
For me, it was absolutely fantastic. I was working for a judge who heard mainly criminal appeal cases, and most of those were appeals against sentences imposed in the County Court. I found it so interesting to learn about sentencing law, which is such a fluid area of the law – particularly in Victoria, where criminal law reform is always in the news and sentencing is such a hot political topic. Also, watching judges discuss their cases and draft their judgments is pretty much the best way to learn what good legal reasoning looks like.
LB. Do you have any favourite memories of your time at the Court? (Other than what I recall being trapped in a 39 degree Celsius courtroom over one summer in robes!)
EM. My favourite memory was of the first time that I clerked in court (clerking in court mainly involves announcing the matter that’s called and taking notes on each party’s arguments in the courtroom). The former Chief Justice Marilyn Warren was on the bench. She has been such an inspiration to me from the moment that I started at law school – it’s pretty empowering to see a woman in the highest legal position in the State – and so to speak with her and to work in the courtroom with her in my first week at the Court was a bit of a dream come true.
LB. We both know that the law is a pretty rigorous profession. What are your secret (or not so secret) hobbies outside of the law?
EM. Yes, you definitely need to have other things in your life to keep yourself sane, and to be completely honest, this has been an area where I haven’t had such a great balance – too much work and study and not enough hobby time. I’m not very good at gardening, but I like to be out in nature. So I go to the park a lot, I go for walks along the river a lot, I go to cafes a lot, even to get some study done. I take time to explore local markets. I play the piano (very badly, but playing is definitely a good emotional outlet)! There is a lot of pleasure to be had in the simple things in life! You just have to immerse yourself in that and escape from the ‘law brain’ to just disengage.
LB. Words of wisdom! I think a lot of people haven’t found that for themselves, but it’s amazing that you’re so in tune with enjoying the simple things in life.
EM. Yes, I think you have to try to be – and this may sound a bit cliché – but I have found doing Yoga and Pilates so valuable, particularly during busy times. Having those kinds of activities built into your routine can be a lot more beneficial than I thought it would be. I was a bit sceptical, but making the effort to do those kinds of things is definitely worthwhile and is something I wish I did more of!
LB. Adopting the string theorist’s perspective, what might your alternate universe persona be up to, other than being a lawyer?
EM. I love research and science communication, so I’d probably be doing research in an area related to climate change and its impacts on human rights and health. Every now and then when I hear friends from my Science degree talking about their PhD research projects and heading off to present their research at international conferences, I think ‘oh wow, I want to be doing that!’. Then there is the little part of me that always wanted to be a writer, and to live in some rundown cottage by the beach drinking tea and writing novels… (although I’m sure the reality of being an author is very different to that)!
LB. If you had a time machine, what is one thing you wish you could go back in time to tell Past Emily about?
EM. I would tell Past Emily not to rush things – to take time to explore different avenues and not to feel like I had to rush through my degree to get to a particular endpoint. It’s because at the end of the day, what are we all rushing toward? I think a lot of us are taught to get out into the workforces, quickly as we can, carve that single career and climb the corporate ladder and that’s what success looks like. Studying law is a privilege, so I think there is a lot to be said about taking the time to explore what you can do with your Law degree. Take advantage of all the opportunities that come your way to learn about different areas of law, and make sure that what you’re doing is as meaningful as possible.
Kere Kere is one of my favourite cafes in Melbourne with a social conscience.
We chose this location because it encapsulates Emily’s spirit and generosity so well.