Discovering new intellectual universes: David Ferrell’s ANU experience
David Ferrell

During the course of his double degree, David Ferrell discovered he had a keen interest in public, constitutional and administrative law. 

Born in Sydney and growing up all over the east coast of Australia, David Ferrell was drawn to The Australian National University (ANU) “by the promise of an independent and intellectually-charged student life” in Canberra.

“Coming to Canberra for university represented only the latest move in my circuitous migration around south-eastern Australia,” he said.

“ANU is unique among Australia’s top universities because of its expatriate culture: ANU has always been a gathering-ground for students from across Australia and abroad who leave their homes and form communities in orbit of their studies; developing adult lives immersed in exciting, new intellectual universes.” 

David enrolled in a double degree at ANU in 2018, pairing a Bachelor of Laws (Honours) with a Bachelor of Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE).

However, he soon swapped his PPE for a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in English literature and minoring in philosophy. 

“Arts and law provided more freedom to structure my semesters to generate cross-pollination between my legal and humanities studies,” David said.

During the course of his double degree, David discovered he had a keen interest in public, constitutional and administrative law. 

 “There are numerous interesting angles to public law: the relationship between the subject and the state, the interaction between powers and institutions of government, and questions of governance more broadly,” he said.  

“These questions animate the practice of public, constitutional, and administrative law for me, but similar questions can animate all areas of law.”

David is also interested in “court procedure, evidence, and litigation as the ‘bones’ of the legal game”. 

“At the highest level, I love legal theory and philosophy, and am invigorated by multidisciplinary studies like law and literature,” he said. 

“I hope to have the chance in my career to continue to engage with law as a social, cultural, and imaginative force, as well as a practice.”

Reflecting on his law school journey, David’s most memorable experience was undertaking a supervised internship at the Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department’s Office of Constitutional Law (OCL) and the Australian Government Solicitor’s Constitutional Litigation Unit (CLU) through the Leslie Zines Constitutional Law Scholarship

“At CLU, I assisted with tasks in the thick of ongoing constitutional litigation,” he said. “I was able to complete research tasks towards ongoing constitutional litigation, and then go watch those subjects argued in the High Court.” 

“It was a very illuminating experience. Nothing improves your legal writing, and humbles your knowledge of the Constitution, like proofing Commonwealth submissions to go before the High Court!”

During David’s time at OCL, they were “busy at work with leading edge constitutional and reform projects, including the National Anti-Corruption Commission and the Voice referendum”. 

“I was able to participate in the procedures by which the Commonwealth assesses and addresses constitutional risks, and formulates consistent constitutional policy,” he said. 

“One particular task had me closely examining the public debate surrounding the Voice, at the same time as considering its constitutional nuances and implications.”

“It was very exciting, and I felt incredibly privileged, to work on the first referendum in 20 years, especially one so important. Although the referendum sadly did not succeed, I learned a great deal and felt very privileged to be present for that historic process.”

This exposure would go on to inform the subject of David’s supervised research paper in the second semester of this year.

“The final thesis for my supervised research paper was that the failure of the Voice to Parliament represented an ongoing disagreement in Australia’s constitutional culture regarding the nature of ‘the people’: in particular, whether this was a unified and unitary, or plural and differentiated, entity,” he said.

David said his thesis allowed him to dive into the history of the concept of a constitutional ‘people’ and into notions of ‘popular sovereignty’. 

“Writing about the referendum as it unfolded was also a unique and exciting challenge, which required a flexible and wholistic approach to research,” he said.

While at ANU, David also worked as a tutor for the ANU Management Program for the National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA), run in collaboration with the NIAA and ANU College of Business and Economics.

“The role involved assisting mature aged Indigenous public servants in their completion of the course on the essentials of Australian law, but I found getting to know those students, their life experiences, and their perspectives on the law was personally transformative,” he said. 

During the course of his double degree, David also worked as a contributor, editor, and editor-in-chief of Peppercorn, the ANU Law Students’ Society’s magazine. 

“Having that experience on an editorial team, specifically oriented towards the law school and legal issues, and being given the prompt to think and communicate on these topics was a wonderful addition to my studies,” he said. 

“I also formed some great friendships and learned editorial techniques that were helpful for my reviewing.”

Another key highlight of David’s studies was participating in internal competitions. 

“Mooting and client interviews proved a great testing ground for legal skills and a source of hard-won lessons about effective approaches to the human side of law,” he said. 

“These competitions helped me form an impression that law is unique among academic disciplines because it is inextricable from its practice. Rather than an inert body of knowledge law is an activity that lives in its motion.”

David found many lecturers and tutors to be influential and inspiring during his time spent studying law at ANU.

He found Associate Professor Ron Levy to be a great mentor; Honorary Lecturer Kieran Pender, a steady source of advice; Professor Desmond Manderson’s FAAL FASSA FRSC courses to be “bolts of lightning”; and the arguments in Associate Professor Josh Neoh’s reading group to be stimulating.

However, David’s greatest source of inspiration comes from his mother.

When he was a child, David’s mother suffered a workplace disability, which prevented her from continuing full-time work.

“Nonetheless, she continued her writing and research, and in 2022 was made Honorary Professor of Gender and Cultural Studies at University of Sydney,” David said.

“Her resilience and grit is my biggest motivation.”

After five years of study, David is now due to graduate from ANU this week. 

He will then commence work in February as a graduate at Jones Day, an international commercial firm. 

“I’m excited to be exposed to the world of international and domestic private law, particularly litigation,” David said.  

He also hopes to do further study in the not-to-distant future. 

“I would love one day to find myself in a role writing, teaching and researching legal and cultural subjects,” David said.

“Mostly, I hope to be able to continue writing about, learning about, and engaging with the law and society.”