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Law Schools as Agents of Change

Indrani Bandyopadhyay, Australian Catholic University


When lawyers speak of social justice, we rarely consider that these issues extend to ourselves, the practitioners, or the law students who will someday become practitioners. My paper argues that law faculties wield enormous power and can shape the profession by shaping the culture within law schools themselves, and rather than being passive suppliers of legal profession cannon fodder, can encourage, indeed, drive change within the profession through engagement and outreach with firms, professional associations and government bodies. By taking a stewardship approach to their students and faculties rather than just providing spaces for networking, law schools can ensure their former charges are being properly cared for by the sometimes savage system they're sent into—armed with legal knowledge, but vastly under-prepared when it comes to the isolating, emotionally gruelling and often disheartening cultures within the legal profession.

What is to be done?

There are many things law schools can do to create change—once they accept their own agency—within the law school, outside of the law school, and as a mediator between the law school and the legal profession.

To start with, law schools can prepare their students for reality—not just teach students to write letters and briefs, but also about the sexism, the racism, lack of representation—and create alumni programmes that provide safe harbour for students—counselling, access to legal advice (just because lawyers practice law doesn’t mean they are equipped to deal with their own problems) and where necessary, create outreach programmes with firms so that everyone in the profession is aware that your alumni are not alone in the wilderness. This would mean law schools have to accept the culture within the legal profession and be courageous enough to deal with it head on. There are plenty of caring legal practices and practitioners—but these firms don’t always get a look in.

As law degrees nudge upwards of AUD150,000 (at post-grad level), the profession still fails to hold onto talented practitioners—women especially are still leaving the law in droves—one might argue there is a strong business case as well as a moral duty for faculties to go the extra mile to ensure the wellbeing of their current and former students.

While the NSW Law Society and Office of the NSW Legal Services Commissioner (OLSC) are vocal about stamping out sexual harassment and provide opportunities to report sexual harassment, reporting is arguably for the more extreme cases. In my own experience as a criminal practitioner, sexual harassment in the legal profession is embedded into the daily conversational experience—not dissimilar to the experiences of women in the trades. Sexual comments, jokes—not just between men and women, but between male practitioners and male practitioners is commonplace. The legal profession is like a locker room—there is no escape. That's not to say things aren't changing—but organisational change is slow, multi-dimensional and requires the tone to be set and enforced from the top. The legal profession is large and multinodal—finding "the top", that is reaching the leaders, some of whom have themselves been responsible for misbehaviour—is not always easy for many reasons—including law school self-interest. Some law schools will lag behind but intelligent law faculties with leaders who understand the growing importance of governance and sustainability—including the increasing emphasis placed on reputation—will appreciate both the moral dimensions and financial edge of good governance at both the law school and industry level.

By creating supportive environments for all students, taking steps to actively reduce bullying and exclusion, encouraging and providing support for traditionally marginalised groups (such as single parents and people from under-represented backgrounds) in the study and practice of law are avenues law faculties can embrace with a sense of purpose—but this requires practical assistance and ongoing scrutiny rather than simply words and good intentions. Social justice for the legal profession has got to start at home—and that means at the faculty level.


Indrani Bandyopadhyay is a Sydney-based lawyer and sociologist, and former criminal defence practitioner. She currently teaches ethics, sustainability and corporate governance at Kaplan Business School and legal foundations and public law at Australian Catholic University. She has been lead researcher on various law-based projects, including for the Intellectual Disability Rights Service, which led to a change in the way NSW Police process sexual assault victims with an intellectual disability (2011) and more recently, on Belonging in Law for the UTS Law Faculty (2022). She is writing a book on the complexity of racism (and opposition to it) in Australia going back to Australia's first parliament post-Federation.