Robyn Lewis (BPolPhilEc '19, LLB (Hons) '21) decided to study law because she wanted to make a difference in the world and “liked an argument”.
Robyn came to The Australian National University (ANU) with a background in environmental and political campaigning, and is leaving with a Bachelor of Laws (Honours) and Bachelor of Politics, Philosophy and Economics under her belt.
She will also be graduating from ANU with a University Medal in recognition of her exceptional academic performance, although she will be staying close by having recently commenced an associateship at the Australian Capital Territory Supreme Court.
In this Q&A, Robyn discusses her study experiences and what it means to her to be a 2021 recipient of the University Medal.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself including where you’re from and what led you to choose ANU?
I grew up rurally outside Hobart in Tasmania. Before university, I worked as a travel agent for a couple of years. I chose ANU because I wanted to try living somewhere else, but I was trepidatious about moving to a big city.
I originally enrolled in a Bachelor of Politics, Philosophy and Economics, and graduated in 2019. I picked up law in 2018.
Why motivated you to study law?
I came to university with a background in environmental and political campaigning, and I wanted to study something that would give me the tools to make a difference in the world.
Everyone around me used to say I should study law because I liked an argument, but from the start, I gave myself permission to drop-out if I was not enjoying it. My passion for being contrary has mellowed, but unexpectedly, I ended up enjoying law the most.
What have been some of your most memorable experiences at ANU?
Some particularly memorable on-campus moments have included setting up a lot of BBQs for the ANU Students' Association (ANUSA) lunches, former Justice William Montague Charles Gummow’s AC multiple guest lecturing appearances, watching rakali (native water rats) play in Sullivans Creek during study breaks outside Hancock Library, and fierce games of Kahoot! in Associate Professor Philippa Ryan’s litigation lectures.
How did you find out you had won the University Medal and what does it mean to you?
I was sitting in a cafe in Bowral (New South Wales) on the way home from a couple of weeks away. I nearly fell off my chair once I read the email! It was very unexpected. I’m thrilled!
It’s wonderful recognition for innumerable late nights in the library and silly questions in tutorials. There are so many bright people all around at ANU, sometimes it’s hard to believe you can keep up!
But at the same time, those that work 25+ hours a week to pay the rent, those who have caring responsibilities, health conditions to manage, or who are learning some academic skills for the first time, have to work extra hard just to stay afloat.
I’ve struggled intensely with mental health issues throughout my life and I’ve been lucky to have had a supportive partner and community around me for the last six years that have helped me focus on study. I couldn’t have done it without them.
In my experience, the ANU College of Law provides good support where it can. But the University structure (and the structure of Australia’s income support system) as a whole means recognition tends towards people in privileged circumstances.
I hope the University might listen to growing student concern and play a more active voice in advocating for a generous and comprehensive student support system because in the midst of a rental affordability crisis and pandemic, many students are limited by an unequal playing field.
What has your experience studying throughout the pandemic been like, and what helped you maintain focus and balance during this time?
I really missed being able to separate study and home by doing most of my work at the library, as well as incidental conversations and face-to-face interactions in classes and around campus.
I found first semester 2020 difficult. The two things that helped were to make sure I retained some sense of place by getting outside for some time every day no matter the weather, as well as peer Zoom study sessions. The 2021 lockdown was smoother because I had two very small classes that involved collaborative work, which tempered the sense of isolation.
What has been one of the biggest life lessons you’ve gained from ANU?
To stay true to yourself - it’ll stick better! If you look around, you will find there are lots of wonderful people around who will help you see beyond pre-conceived expectations of who belongs at university or who belongs at law school.
What law course did you discover an unlikely passion in and why?
I found many subjects defied my expectations whether positive or negative! Notably, I enjoyed property, equity and corporations law more than anticipated. Each subject turned out to be an interesting blend of logical puzzles and history lessons that explained parts of everyday occurrences - from fence disputes to will disputes and what it means to hold shares. I also loved sentencing, which became a course not just about how criminal sentences are made, but about the purposes (and debates on the purposes) of criminal sanctions more broadly.
Was there an ANU Law academic who you found influential and inspiring and, if so, why?
Four people really stand out.
Firstly, Associate Professor Anthony Hopkins, who convened my Sentencing and Legal Education for True Justice: Indigenous Perspectives and Deep Listening on Country courses, and Sarouche Razi, who convened the Prison Legal Literacy Clinic. Both scholars gave me time and space to explore the role black letter law actually plays in society, and provided honest insights into navigating life as a lawyer and using that position in a way that aligns with your values and contributes to a fairer world.
Another person who had a big impact on me for the same reason was Stephanie Booker, who was the CEO and Principal Lawyer of the Environmental Defenders Office in Canberra when I took the Environmental Law Clinic. She opened my eyes to the many different ways lawyers can use their skills for real-world advocacy.
Finally, James Willoughby, my tutor both for PPE Integrative Seminar Year 2 in 2017 and Legal Theory in 2020. He was always so generous with his time and feedback, gave me so much practical advice and I credit him with much of my ability to write proficient academic work!
What advice would you give to first-year students on making the most of their time at ANU, both personally and academically?
Take the subjects you are most interested in, not what you think you ‘should’ take. Practical opportunities like clinical courses and internships seem daunting at first, but are by far the most rewarding experiences I had during my degree. These experiences brought theoretical courses to life and helped me imagine what life as a lawyer could be like.
Secondly, many people come to study law because they want to make a difference. But law is just one way to attempt that, and we are often only taught one kind of law. The ANU College of Law offers some opportunities to come to understand First Nations justice issues, and First Nations law and legal theory. Courses like the Legal Education for True Justice: Indigenous Perspectives and Deep Listening course (although online when I took it) are a great way to think about what it means for justice to live in a continent with multiple and conflicting legal systems.
Thirdly, try and figure out if and when you think law is a good vehicle for change. There are many groups that use (settler-colonial) law as it is (e.g. enforcing environmental protections), while others work to change unjust laws, engage the law strategically as part of a wider campaign strategy, or those that decentre it completely in their efforts. Make up your own mind. And if you’re concerned about leaky libraries, course cuts, the fact that your tutors are overworked and underpaid, that the university is still investing in fossil fuels - get involved in doing something about it. Your voice is powerful on your own campus!
Finally, can you tell us a bit about your next steps?
I’ve recently commenced a year as an associate to Justice Mossop at the ACT Supreme Court.