While job titles, perks and profits were often the focus in the early years of a legal career, law graduates should instead stop to consider what would give their life true meaning and purpose – and always maintain a sense of perspective – according to ANU College of Law alumnus and CEO of Sony Foundation Australia, Sophie Ryan.
Speaking at the ANU College of Law’s mid–year graduation ceremony, Sophie - who has also worked for the United Nations in criminal justice in Vienna and Sudan and as an assistant to the UN Special Rapporteur for Torture - shared the challenges and lessons of her legal career.
“I will never forget that first trip down the dirt track to the UN compound in Juba - the site of a lifeless woman, skin hanging from her bones huddled on the side of the road struck down by hunger, heat and fatigue and cradling a tiny child in her arms,” Sophie said.
The harsh lesson and perspective Sophie gained from this tragic vision and the ever-present spectre of death has never left her.
She encountered many setbacks and roadblocks in her work in South Sudan, particularly when she was forced to abandon the project she had gone there to deliver.
“Charged with the responsibility to work in criminal trials, I was to assist with the backlog of prisoners awaiting trial; however, from my first meeting with the Judge, I realised the courts weren’t going to cooperate.
“Long overdue criminal laws were still waiting to be passed by the Parliament – but there was no likelihood of the Parliament sitting for long enough to review and pass them.”
Sophie said the Judge who was to be her boss had not received his salary from the Government for many months and had little appetite for opening the courts, forcing her to look elsewhere for ways to complete her work.
Realising her best hope was to start at the very beginning of the criminal justice system, Sophie set about equipping illiterate prison guards with the skills to record admission dates for prisoners so the accurate calculation of a custodial sentence – a fundamental part of the judicial process - could occur.
“There were many times in South Sudan that I just despaired. I felt overwhelmed and, most frustratingly, useless. I felt my skills were totally inadequate. What good was a law degree when people were starving and dying from treatable diseases?
“However this was a short term view of the problem and after my time in the prisons I gained perspective and realised the vitalness of our legal education.”
She said law graduates were privileged because they had been taught the very foundations upon which change could be made, minorities protected, our most basic human rights could be upheld and our institutions preserved.
“I left South Sudan grateful for my legal education. It taught me how to think justly and pragmatically, and understand the importance of the legal framework. It is not until I was faced with an absence of these structures and freedoms that I realised how fortunate I was to be part of this profession.”
Sophie graduated from ANU Law with a Bachelor of Laws (Honours) and a Bachelor of Arts in 2007. She has worked with the Sony Foundation, the charity arm of the Sony Group of Companies, since 2010.