Melanie Schwartz, Senior lecturer at UNSW Law Faculty is an award-winning lawyer who says being an academic allows her to contribute to the public conversation around the issues she cares about.
Here she offers a glimpse of what guided her into academia, the compatibility of this career option with motherhood, and her perspectives on what's ahead for the law students she teaches.
Crowd & Co: You've spent most of your career in research and academic roles. Can you tell us what draws you to this area?
Melanie Schwartz: What interests me is research that has social impact and that’s in line with my commitment to social justice and to Indigenous justice issues in particular. So, much of my work focuses on access to justice, the differential impact of criminal laws, and the way that legal issues interact with other indicators of disadvantage.
When you are interested in these big structural issues, academia is a good place to be. Much of my work is geared towards law and policy reform – my research teams and I do a lot of submissions to Law Reform Commissions, Royal Commissions and Parliamentary Inquiries. We also work with community and advocacy groups, providing an evidence base for positive changes in law, policy and practice.
C&Co: What are the things you enjoy most about a career in legal academia?
MS: I care a lot about the issues that I teach and research in. I lecture in criminal law, and the people who get caught up in the criminal justice system are overwhelmingly people who have issues with mental health, cognitive impairment, drug or alcohol addiction, and backgrounds of disadvantage, especially racialised disadvantage.
It is said that the measure of a society is the way that it treats its most vulnerable members, and the criminal law is one major site where that plays out. It’s a privilege to be in a position to engage the lawyers of the future in these discussions and to explore through research how we can deal better with issues like rising imprisonment rates or Indigenous access to justice.
C&Co: How does a career in academia suit you as a mother?
MS: Academics are an incredibly hard-working, clever, self-driven bunch. The job allows for a great deal of flexibility in how, where and when you work. This can be a double-edged sword because your laptop is your office and working hours can blur into weekends and after-hours, but as a woman with young children who occasionally needs to be at a school event or pick up sick kids or be at piano exams in the middle of the day, that flexibility is worth its weight in gold. The leadership in our faculty is hugely supportive of parental responsibilities which drives good culture – in fact both of my daughters have sat around the boardroom table in the law school when it was necessary for me to bring them along to a meeting, and no one bats an eyelid.
Linked to this is the fact that UNSW Law is a very collegial place to work. It’s also a workplace that takes equity and diversity issues very seriously, and although our academic staff are more than 50% female (which is an anomaly in the broader university context), we are always looking at ways to improve. That’s important to me – I’m Chair of our Equity and Diversity Committee which takes in gender, disability, cultural and linguistic diversity, socio-economic diversity, LGBTQI inclusion and wellbeing issues more generally among our staff and students. This is a time of great change in the university sector and this heightens the central importance of these equity issues.
C&Co: You've won awards for teaching and innovation. Are these the career achievements you are most proud of?
MS: Awards are nice, but the work that I am most proud of produces tangible outcomes that make a difference for the better. For example, research that a colleague and I did for Legal Aid NSW about the civil and family law needs of Indigenous clients informed a whole range of great initiatives including the creation of an Aboriginal field officer position in civil and family law to provide a bridge between communities and the legal service provider.
Closer to home, I have the great pleasure of working with our Indigenous law student cohort, who are an absolutely amazing bunch of people. They have all the attributes that I hope my daughters will grow up with – resilience, drive, commitment to social justice, a strong sense of identity, but are often juggling their studies with really big lives. So the work we do around support of our Indigenous student cohort really matters to me. Next year UNSW Law will reach the milestone of our 100th Indigenous law graduate. I’m really proud of that.
C&Co: What has been the biggest challenge in your career?
MS: Criminal justice and Indigenous justice aren’t always the easiest fields to work in. There are few quick wins. The rate of change can be glacial. Both of these areas are intensely political, so you can provide the most robust and convincing evidence base for change, but if it’s an election year, or public opinion shifts, or there is a juicy case that the media gets a hold of, evidence can go out of the window in favour of political expediency.
C&Co: What are the things that have been critical in growing your career?
MS: I’ve been extremely lucky to have collaborated with brilliant senior colleagues from my early career days who have been mentors and examples to me. Their generosity has allowed me to develop a depth of research experience unusual for an early career researcher, and to appreciate how wonderful good collaboration is. I continue to work with iterations of that wonderful core team on large research grants.
C&Co: What do you think will be the biggest challenge in the future for lawyers?
MS: Criminal lawyers have a unique challenge in that they are dealing with really hard, often quite distressing or depressing matters and a broken system – this can cause compassionate impulses to dry up as young lawyers harden up to survive the nature of the work. Good criminal lawyers need to balance the realities of their type of workload with an ability to see the bigger picture – the effects of colonization, the pipeline from the child protection system to the criminal justice system, the mental illness that is an endemic part of criminal justice. The challenge for those working in criminal justice is to stay the most human, respectful lawyer they can be.
C&Co: How do you, as an academic, help prepare lawyers for these challenges?
MS: Hopefully the way that we teach criminal law, focusing on the context in which those laws operate and inviting students to take a critical approach to the operation of the law, allows the development of the capacity to look underneath and see some of the drivers of crime.
Finally, if you're a lawyer wanting to be more involved in social justice issues, Melanie offers the following advice:
“When I had just started studying law and knew I was interested in human rights issues, I got some lovely advice from someone working in that field. She said, ‘Great, the more hands we have to do this work the better’. It was a very welcoming response to a young woman who was not at all sure she was ‘good enough’ for a career of that kind. So – if you are interested in social justice, don’t delay! You are needed. Volunteer at a community legal centre, or look up NGOs in the areas that appeal to you and see what help they might want. Go for it.”