What it’s like to study law with the 2020 Australian Barrister of Year

The Australian Barrister of the Year Award is an accolade granted to a barrister whose outstanding achievements are influencing the evolution of the law in Australia. In 2020, Felicity Gerry QC was chosen for her extensive contribution to the court room and the legal profession.

In addition to the far-reaching impacts of her international criminal and human rights work, Professor Gerry is dedicated to inspiring the next generation of lawyers. Teaching Deakin law students about contemporary legal challenges allows Prof. Gerry to share her passion for topics such as climate change law, modern slavery, terrorism, war crimes and more.

Some students at Deakin Law School are also given the opportunity to intern with Prof. Gerry on research and casework. It’s no surprise that these students count themselves incredibly lucky.

Learning from the best

Law student Benny Roff says his internship with Prof. Gerry was a unique experience. ‘She's so dynamic,’ he says. ‘She's constantly writing and every second brief she accepts as a pro bono brief. These are frequently extremely complicated matters, which she's not afraid to take on, and her process is quite extraordinary.’

Prof. Gerry is passionate about using the law to the benefit of people in modern day society with complex legal problems. She takes on international legal challenges, often representing the most disadvantaged clients who’ve been rejected by other representation. This unique approach involves arguing novel points of law and being prepared to lose if necessary. ‘You win a few and you lose a lot, but the point is that you are trying to reform the law or just make the law work in new challenges or new situations,’ Prof. Gerry says.

The fact that she is doing this work – and appearing as the leading counsel in terrorism trials – as one of the few women silks is groundbreaking and provides inspiration for future lawyers. Deakin Law student Helena Sigetti has an extensive background as a legal secretary in the field of litigation, but she found that interning with Prof. Gerry gave her a new sense of direction. ‘Felicity’s amazing,’ she says. ‘Working with her was very inspiring. I'm a lot more motivated to finish my degree because I got to see another side to the legal world.

Human rights in Papua New Guinea

Nyrobi Flory interned with Prof. Gerry in 2020. ‘We were assigned by the Deakin clinical program to work with Felicity on a research project specifically considering a range of issues arising in human rights and deforestation in Papua New Guinea,’ Nyrobi says. ‘It was very a creative process and one thing that I really liked about working with Felicity was she really took on the students input.’ After a series of roundtable discussions, Prof. Gerry sent the interns off to develop their own agenda and conduct research resulting in several outputs to be presented to Felicity’s client.

Benny Roff was also involved with the Papua New Guinea illegal logging project and feels it taught him about thinking laterally.

‘Felicity draws a very wide bow at the beginning and being a part of that process is sort of dizzying and confusing at first,’ he says. ‘I was very fortunate to be able to go from a class with her where we looked at some of these issues into being an intern and see, from that very wide bow, an action emerge. It was a fantastic process.’

Contributing to change

Prof. Gerry says these types of opportunities demonstrate to students they have the capacity to impact individuals and, in some cases, a whole country at any stage in their legal career. ‘PNG has been stripped of its land and resources with terrific human rights abuses so even if you’re just a cog in the wheel it’s about making that wheel turn in the right direction.’

Nyrobi found the internship stood out from the smaller and more traditional tasks law students and graduates are often assigned. ‘I found it personally very exciting to have worked on this project with Felicity and be able to contribute to the real work,’ she says.

Having completed her law degree and now working as a corporate litigator, Nyrobi also found that industry contacts were impressed she’d worked with Prof. Gerry. ‘She's very well respected and well known so I think it’s definitely helped me.’

Prof. Gerry endeavours to imprint on students that every single role in the law, whether you are a silk or a paralegal, contributes to the wheels of justice. ‘The law has a long history that is going to carry on into the future and students are going to make their contribution,’ she says. ‘They may or may never have a very famous case, but they are going to make a contribution on behalf of an individual or a corporation or an NGO or, in terms of logging, to a whole country.’

Prof. Gerry says she doesn’t encourage her interns to emulate her career but, instead, to think about where they would be the happiest. She watches avidly as they go on to find work that is meaningful to them. ‘For me, it is a pleasure to be part of their careers,’ she says.

Felicity is currently supervising two groups of interns from Deakin Law School who are researching and drafting submissions on ‘Judge Alone Trials after COVID-19’ and ‘Whether Victoria should have a Human Trafficking Defence similar to s45 of the UK Modern Slavery Act’.

Thinking about studying law at Deakin? Learn more about the Law School courses on offer here.