Superheroes: lawyers and social workers—but where are our Universities?

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By Bevan Warner

Batman and Robin were an irrepressible team, each with unique talents, who fought the good fight. Spiderman fought alone but had powers that made him superhuman. Was the dynamic duo or the singular superhero more powerful or better?

Just like our superheroes, lots of talented staff chose to study law with the express intention of standing up for what is fair and using their skills not to enrich themselves but to benefit and better the community.

They saw the potential for the law to oppress and enable: a force from which people will often need protection, but also a tool that can help individuals obtain protection and to realise their rights and lead fulfilling lives.

Many of today’s law students come to their studies with similar aspirations of fighting the good fight and using the law for social good, but do our Universities equip them properly for this task?

While law and commerce is a popular conjoint degree, few universities have a similar degree option for social justice lawyers. Those who are interested in the operation of the law for everyday people, will often undertake a conjoint law and arts degree. While this combination provides invaluable critical thinking skills it does not provide all the practical skills for effective social justice lawyering.

Why aren’t our Universities offering dual social work and law degrees to better prepare our social justice lawyers of the future?

Why make people study twice and work in two careers when a singular super professional hero would be better?

Victoria has been a leader in incorporating clinical legal education models in basic law degrees.

Former Victoria Legal Aid board member Mary-Ann Noone pioneered this work as she taught a new generation of social justice lawyers at La Trobe University and it is now routine for universities to entice students with some offer of practical experience of the law in their coursework. But still, no cross over single degree between law and social work. You can be Batman or Robin but not Spiderman – I sincerely wish I had a gender neutral superhero to choose from, but alas I do not.

I wonder which Australian University will be first?

Our lawyers at Victoria Legal Aid often reflect on how their role is as much about being a social worker as it is a lawyer. To only help a person with their legal issue, without assisting with the many other non-legal issues that underpin their legal problem, is to not do our job effectively.

Many changes are needed to achieve fairness before the law for everyday people but I venture that bringing social work into our law schools will be an important piece of the puzzle.

A fit-for-purpose degree with a mix of law and social work skills would be a great way to harness the passion I see in many of today’s law students who are clamouring to work at Victoria Legal Aid.

It would build on Victoria’s legacy as a leader in legal education and contribute greatly towards building the workforce we need for our future.

— Bevan Warner is the Managing Director at Victorian Legal Aid