From Ursula Hall to Johannesburg, ANU Law scholar pursues passion for law on global stage

Marcus Dahl
ANU College of Law alumnus Marcus Dahl (BSc, LLB (Hons), GDLP ’18) (second from left) recently concluded a six-month placement as a foreign law clerk at the Constitutional Court of South Africa.

My time at ANU has shaped my development in many positive ways. I could not be more grateful for the friends I’ve made, the experiences I’ve had and the things I’ve learned here.

In December 2018, Marcus Dahl (BSc, LLB (Hons), GDLP ’18) etched his name in The Australian National University's (ANU) history as the first law student to graduate with the University Medal, Blackburn Medal for Research in Law and the Tillyard Prize.

Despite achieving the rare trifecta, he insists his approach to academia was not driven by the prospect of prizes. Such awards, he assumed, were “reserved for those who lived in the library or on their laptops”.

“While playing pool in Ursula Hall at the end of first year, I explained to my best friend that I'd decided to stop chasing high distinctions because university was too much fun and there was too much to learn beyond studying for exams. So it was a strange feeling to make it to the end of my degrees and to get the surprise of winning awards,” he said.

“But that is the wonder of ANU; it is a place that welcomes you to explore, enjoy yourself, try out work placements, live a balanced life and stay healthy. And that culture made me a better person and made me work and study more effectively – and for the right reasons.”

Marcus Dahl at his graduation ceremony on 13 December 2018 with ANU College of Law Dean Professor Sally Wheeler OBE, MRIA, FAcSS, FAAL and ANU Chancellor Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC, QC.

Coming to Canberra

Marcus, who moved to Australia from the US at the age of two, said his decision to come to ANU after high school was multifaceted.

“There were a few factors that impacted my choice: ANU College of Law’s focus on social justice and law reform, the university’s great local and international reputation, and the fact that an ANU law degree would prepare me well for legal practice, non-legal work or academia,” he said.

Marcus and his brothers grew up in Sydney next to a national park, where they spent a lot of time exploring, so the vast ANU campus and the surrounding lush landscapes presented additional appeal.

“I also wanted to try living on campus, I’d heard that ANU had a very diverse and supportive campus-living culture, with many opportunities for social, sporting and leadership development. I found that to be true, and I ended up living on campus for four years.

“The ANU Tuckwell Scholarship, generously supported me for all of these endeavours and made coming to ANU a very easy choice,” he added.

When he first came to the ANU College of Law, Marcus said any initial feelings of apprehension quickly dissipated.

“I discovered that I was at home to learn, develop and to challenge myself in new ways. Whatever hesitation I had disappeared when I found myself in legal practice settings, supported by allies, building myself up to be a lawyer,” he said.

Marcus with Chief Justice of South Africa Mogoeng Mogoeng.

Authentic real-world learning

After completing the first three years of his degree, Marcus applied to the University’s placement program.

“My first legal experience was with Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS) NSW/ACT here in Canberra. I loved volunteering for ALS. It was the perfect way to start my legal career, well-supported in an organisation that does essential legal work for the community,” he said.

“The lawyers taught me many things. I was encouraged to meet clients, conduct legal research and read briefs. At ALS, I developed my love of evidence law and how it relates to race and justice, which eventually became the inspiration behind my thesis.”

Marcus, whose thesis explored wrongful convictions due to well-intentioned but unreliable identification evidence, won the Blackburn Medal for Research in Law for his work. He also decided to stay on as an ALS volunteer for an additional six months, noting the experience reaffirmed his motivation to make a difference to lives through law.

“It inspired me to stay true to my reasons for undertaking a law degree, and to keep challenging myself with social justice opportunities,” he added.

Following his ALS placement, Marcus attained more valuable clinical experience as a volunteer at the Kimberley Community Legal Services and the Australian Law Reform Commission.

“The placements in legal practice settings taught me to connect the legal issue to the person or place it affects, and to be able to explain it in simple terms. In the end, the legal system is about people and the society we live in,” he said.

“The encouragement I received from the ANU College of Law to explore these opportunities and to follow a path of training that relates to my own values and inspirations has been instrumental. I’m very grateful for these opportunities.”

Through his foreign law clerkship at the Constitutional Court of South Africa, Marcus made friendships and learnt about the role of law and rights in society.

Life after graduation

Marcus recently concluded a six-month placement as a foreign law clerk at the Constitutional Court of South Africa. He described the country’s Constitution and Bill of Rights, forged amid the challenging transformation from the injustices of the colonial and Apartheid eras, as “some of the most progressive and aspirational such documents in the world”.

“It was a privilege and honour to be welcomed into South Africa's highest court as a foreign clerk, and my diverse friends and colleagues in this country taught me much about the role of law and rights in society. South Africa is a beautiful and complex country, and I am very grateful for (ANU College of Law Dean) Professor Sally Wheeler having mentioned to me the opportunity to apply at a time when I was only writing applications to Australian courts.

“Australia and its legal system have a lot to learn by looking to legal systems overseas, which have tried things differently, and this particularly seems to be the case in the fields of human rights law, immigration law, administrative law and Indigenous affairs.

“South Africa and Australia have much more in common than one would assume, and I'm very glad that I ignored the advice of those who said I should never risk moving to Johannesburg, which I've found is one of the most amazing cities in the world,” he said.

Reflecting on his journey so far, Marcus noted some of the most valuable lessons he learnt at ANU weren’t from law textbooks but from realising his own potential and desire to improve lives through his profession.

“I have ANU and Ursula Hall to thank for encouraging me to be myself and maintain my passion for law outside the classroom, because that is what made me work harder and care more about achieving,” he said.

“Awards aren't so important, and I know that thinking back on my time at ANU, much like many of my fellow graduates, I'll reflect on the open, encouraging environment that kept me happy and helped develop me into a better person.”

Updated:  10 August 2015/Responsible Officer:  College General Manager, ANU College of Law/Page Contact:  Law Marketing Team