Recently, Dr Anita Mackay joined La Trobe Law School as a lecturer and the school’s JD coordinator. Having spent seven years in Canberra working for the Attorney-General’s Department, Dr Mackay brings a wealth of experience to La Trobe Law School, practically as well as academically. After working in Canberra, Anita moved to Melbourne to complete a PhD at Monash University, focusing on the compliance of Australian prisons with international human rights law.
“When I worked for the Attorney-General’s Department, it allowed me to be involved with lawmaking in a very direct way” she comments. “I would be stationed in the advisor’s box in the chamber of Parliament, for example. While there was a debate happening about a Bill I had been involved in developing, the Attorney-General would rely on my advice. The role enabled me to gain insight into the legislation process from start to finish – working with legislative drafters, writing second reading speeches and explanatory memoranda, and preparing briefing for Parliamentary debates.”
When asked about the sort of activities Dr Mackay’s role included, and how it differs from practising law in a commercial firm, Dr Mackay mentions her position had a much broader legal scope: “As a public servant, you sit very close to the action in an apolitical way” she says. “It is important that you look at the law from a big picture level. For my job, I often prepared Bills to go through parliament, and liaised with different stakeholders to gain an accurate idea of how a law would affect different groups. Managing these expectations on a larger scale is very different compared to practising law and dealing with clients’ matters on an individual basis.”
So how did this differ from academia? “The transition was definitely big,” Dr Mackay says. “Doing a PhD included a lot of research, and a different mindset. In academia, you have more scope to be critical and think about how things should be. Not to mention that working in a government Department will often place you in a very high-pressure environment where you have to deliver things quickly.”
One of the things that Dr Mackay particularly enjoys is the autonomy academic research gave her: “when working at the Attorney-General’s Department, I couldn’t choose the policy direction. When doing my PhD I found that I really enjoyed researching a topic I was very interested in and passionate about, as well as being able to define the parameters myself. The great thing about being an academic is that it gives you a huge amount of freedom to have your own opinion.”
The inspiration for her PhD topic was fostered early on her legal career: “When I was in law school, I was drawn to social justice. I was curious to see how the law could protect vulnerable people who need it the most.” Through her work at the Attorney-General’s Department, Dr Mackay saw that certain demographics need legal protection, often in more ways than one: “A lot of disadvantaged people in society are vulnerable because of multiple factors. For example, they might originate from a low-SES area, receive a poor education, and suffer from a mental illness” she says. “That’s why it is important to ask how the law can provide protections to vulnerable people on multiple levels, as well as providing access to affordable legal advice (for example, via legal aid and community legal centres).”
“This is also one of the reasons why I am excited to be at La Trobe Law School,” Dr Mackay comments. “A lot of colleagues here do overlapping work, with a strong sense of how important access to justice and human rights are for our community. It’s a great place to be to explore these questions as an academic, and an as a student.” When asked how students can benefit from an environment like La Trobe Law School, Dr Mackay is positive: “Aside from its academics, the practical opportunities that we offer students are also a great asset for our law students. When I studied law, I never had the chance to complete a placement like what we offer through our Clinical Legal Education. A real-life internship is invaluable for a student to put theory into practice while helping people in the community at the same time. And these days, with so much information available online, it is an exciting time to be a law student. It is easier than ever to connect to influential people in the legal world online (e.g by following them on Twitter) and the latest case law and commentary are available so much faster than they were when I did my undergraduate degree.”
Does this mean the skillset of today’s law students has fundamentally changed since she studied law? Dr Mackay doesn’t think so: “Studying law, whether it is through an LLB or a JD, is mostly about acquiring a way of thinking and sharpening analytical, research and reasoning skills. Acquiring these skills can open a lot of doors, whether it is in a law firm, a government position, or an NGO.”