Remembering Sir Zelman Cowen

By Lianne Hall

A conference at Melbourne Law School has paid tribute to the life and work of the late Rt Hon. Sir Zelman Cowen AK GCMG GCVO QC, an outstanding leader whose vision helped usher in a new era of legal education in Australia.

Attended by leading academics and distinguished speakers from Australia and around the world, the conference was described by the Dean of Melbourne Law School, Professor Carolyn Evans, as an "important and fitting tribute to Sir Zelman's contribution to legal scholarship and education".

"The energy and enthusiasm of Sir Zelman for legal education were legendary. He spearheaded significant changes at Melbourne that built the foundations of its international reputation as a leading law school," said Professor Evans.

Innovations included a new teaching methodology encouraging student participation rather than only traditional lectures, and engagement in international legal scholarship and education.

Sir Zelman developed a particularly strong and productive relationship with Harvard Law School and had a lifelong friendship with its famous dean, Erwin Griswold, with whom he shared a 40-year correspondence. Current Dean of Harvard Law School, Professor Martha Minow, provided a paper which was read at the conference. She described the current challenges being faced by law schools, a crisis she linked to wider changes across the legal profession.

"Innovations smart enough to preserve vital continuity with the past and leadership idealistic and practical enough to hardwire public service are needed now more than ever. This is why this chance to honour Sir Zelman is so special as it is the chance to renew ties between our schools and nations," said Professor Minow.

While Sir Zelman's vision of legal education was shaped profoundly by his experience of American law schools, he also had a strong connection with the United Kingdom. He studied and taught at the University of Oxford where, in 1947, he was awarded first class honours in the Bachelor of Civil Laws.

Oxford Faculty of Law co-hosted the conference. The Dean, Professor Timothy Endicott, spoke about the changes in legal education since Sir Zelman attended in the 1940s. Essential elements of that education are still very much the same. Oxford's well-known tutorial system which places the student in conversation with the professor remains in operation. Nevertheless, there have been important changes such as a radical growth in the number of women involved in legal education, new subjects introduced such as European Union Law and an increasingly important role for the doctorate.

Fresh from his experience at Oxford, Sir Zelman joined Melbourne Law School and became Dean in 1951. Over the next 15 years he laid the foundation stones for the international reputation that the Law School enjoys today. Connections between law schools, exchange of staff and overseas study for students were just part of his vision. He himself travelled extensively with visits to the UK, Malaya, Singapore, Hong Kong, Ghana, Dominica, India and the US. He was "a one-man law school embassy to the world," said Professor Evans, quoting legal historian Dr John Waugh to describe the breadth of Sir Zelman's international vision.

"All those principles remain relevant today as does the important insight that an outward looking, internationally engaged, intellectually curious faculty create opportunities for themselves and their students that can never fully be anticipated or planned for in advance," said Professor Evans.

Banner Image: Sir Zelman Cowen, former Dean of Melbourne Law School, in 1957.
Credit: National Archives of Australia

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 11, June 2014.