Being in the international law team at DFAT allows me to straddle the two roles of diplomat and lawyer.
As far as morning commutes go, few compare to cycling past manicured gardens toward the tolling bells of the Peace Palace in The Hague, home to the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
Growing up in Toowoomba, Queensland, Kirsten pursued her law studies first at the University of Sydney. There, she completed her Bachelor of Arts/Laws (Hons) before relocating to Canberra to undertake her Master of Laws (LLM) at ANU.
Although the postgraduate pathway wasn’t always her intention, it’s proved fruitful by paving her way into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) international law team.
Kirsten embraced the local lifestyle by cycling to and from the ICJ throughout her judicial fellowship.
Since early on, global career ambitions have guided her academic and professional outlook.
“After a couple of years in the workforce, it became clear that if I ever wanted to work overseas, especially in Europe, a Masters degree would be absolutely necessary. It also meant I could pursue international law, which I found most interesting,” she said.
Kirsten decided to apply for the Yuill Scholarship for two reasons: first, she wanted a deeper understanding of the role the ICJ plays in the broader geopolitical landscape; second, there are few better places for a self-confessed “international law nerd” to hone her craft than at the principal judicial organ of the United Nations.
The Yuill Scholarship, which celebrates the life of former Family Court of Australia judge, Justice Gordon Yuill, provides $25,000 to the successful recipient to participate in the ICJ’s globally recognised ten-month Judicial Fellowship Programme.
Between September 2018 and July 2019, Kirsten gained valuable experience at the World Court as the Judicial Fellow to Ugandan Judge Julia Sebutinde, who since 2012 has been one of three women judges on the ICJ.
Kirsten (back row, second from left) with her ICJ colleagues, who hailed from all over the world.
Although Kirsten brought to her ICJ role undergraduate French studies (the bilingual status of the Court is “strictly enforced”) and previous experience as a judge’s associate, her scholarship provided more legal – and life – experience than she ever imagined.
"It was a complete change of pace compared to government, where you’re often juggling a number of issues and providing quick advice in response to events that are happening in real time," she said.
"The ICJ has a different rhythm; court dates are listed months in advance, giving you the opportunity to delve deeply into the submissions of the parties, and to examine in great detail abstract - and often unsettled - questions of law. I spent many hours brainstorming with some of the brightest minds in the field.
“In government, I’m often providing urgent advice and working to tight timelines, so to have an opportunity to focus on one case and to examine each issue from every angle over a period of weeks was really rewarding.”
In addition to high-profile cases and in-depth research, there was also the chance to rub shoulders with influential figures of international law previously only familiar as footnotes.
“You’re always quoting ICJ cases and saying, for example, Judge (James) Crawford (AC, SC, FBA) says this – and then it’s like, ‘Oh, there he is right there! I get to ask him a question!’ The international law nerd in me was having a great time,” said Kirsten.
Kirsten plans to continue exploring her passion for international law in future.
Having achieved lofty professional goals early into her career, Kirsten now finds herself at an enviable crossroads navigating a career pathway between life as an international lawyer and diplomat.
“International law is fascinating, but law doesn’t happen in a vacuum. I’m also interested in the broader context in which international law operates: foreign policy. Being in the international law team at DFAT allows me to straddle the two roles of diplomat and lawyer,” she said.
“Whether I focus on law or diplomacy in the future, there will always be an international outlook to my career. I hope to find myself back in The Hague at some stage; I’m just not sure in what capacity yet!”