A proud tradition

As Melbourne Law School celebrates its 160th anniversary, MLS News looks back at one of the institutions at the heart of the MLS experience – the Law Students’ Society.

By Bess Keaney

As Melbourne Law School celebrates its 160th anniversary, MLS News looks back at one of the institutions at the heart of the MLS experience – the Law Students’ Society.

It was in a bid to boost membership during the financial depression of the 1890s that degree students were first permitted to join the Articled Clerks’ Law Debating Society. Re-fashioned as the Law Students’ Society (LSS) in 1892, it took on a new function as the school-wide student representative and social body.

“We are super fortunate that there’s been a whole lot of work done before us,” says Henry Dow, 2017 LSS President.

We’ve seen the hard work that (previous committees) have put in to get the LSS to a certain stage and we want to solidify the good work that they’ve done.

It wasn’t always so. John Date (LLB 1957, LLM 2008) was elected president in 1956 at a time when the relationship between students and the faculty was at a low ebb.

“The LSS was out of control,” he recalls. “They wrecked a lecture theatre, broke windows… (and) somebody burst into a lecture with a fire hose and hosed the whole place out.”

Dean Zelman Cowen fined the LSS 25 pounds – its entire yearly budget – promising to return it if the members mended their ways.

The presidency at that time was entrusted to a recent graduate, and so the job fell to Date. He was clerking in the city and commuted to the school for meetings, a separation that allowed him to sidestep the more frivolous aspects of student life.

Even so, the function of the LSS in those days was “90 per cent social”. One mainstay on the calendar was the annual conference, a weekend of talks by leading academics and lawyers that tended to unravel in the evenings.

“The hardest job was to find a venue for the conference, because the law students were never invited back a second time,” Date says.

Another former president, Philip Cummins (LLB 1962, BA 1965, GDipArts(Crim) 1966, LLM 1976, MSCI Psychiatry 2010), recalls the police being called for a noise complaint at the 1961 conference.

“I addressed the law students and the police, and the police shook our hands and said they wished us well,” he recalls.

The nature of student life – “polite” but “wild”, according to Cummins – reflected the stability of the post-war years at the law school, and Australia more broadly.

“There was no real pressure,” Date says.

One classmate took 13 years to finish his degree.

“If you failed, it didn’t matter. You just did it again.”

Cummins, who studied during the second half of Cowen’s tenure as Dean, recalls a law school flourishing in a new intellectual environment. The debate that had dominated the pre-war years – whether law was an academic or practical pursuit – had given way to a more holistic style of teaching.

“We had an exceptional cohort of teachers – Zelman Cowen, David Derham, Norval Morris and Harold Ford preeminent amongst them.”

Law teaching “wasn’t just a set of sterile rules anymore”, Cummins says. “It was a social context.”

Above image: 1961 LSS President Philip Cummins (far right), and fellow law students including Michael Black (later Chief Justice of the Federal Court (far left)), with construction of the Redmond Berry Building in the background. Image credit: supplied

There had been trailblazers for diversity at the law school, but the student cohort remained predominantly Caucasian and male.

1907 LSS President William Ah Ket was a notable exception, an active critic of the ‘White Australia’ policy who was born in Wangaratta to Chinese parents. Another was Airlie Smith, who became the first female president of the LSS in 1941.

By the time Fiona McLeod (BA 1987, LLB 1987, MPub&IntLaw 2012) was elected president in 1987, the gender ratio was 50-50.

“There was never any sense for me that girls couldn’t do every job,” McLeod says.

“There were strong and powerful women everywhere at the law school.”

The LSS program on offer today began to take shape in the 1980s, with moots, competitions and industry events organised.

The links to the profession were particularly important to McLeod. She recalls attending a lecture as a student and asking a question of one of the panellists, only later realising it was the “legendary” Bernard Bongiorno QC.

“He befriended me from that time on, because I’d asked a stupid question and hadn’t been afraid,” McLeod says. “In the end he moved my admission.”

It is encounters like these that elevate the law degree beyond the “textbooks and the teaching”, Dow says.

“It was always emphasised to me that you learn more from your involvement in uni than from the course itself.”

And it’s a sentiment that rings true for the lessons learned in the role of LSS President.

I left with a boldness that encouraged me to act on ideas – to recognise a good idea and say: ‘let’s make that happen.

For Cummins, who later became a Supreme Court judge, serving as LSS President gave an early insight into life on the bench.

“You learnt a lot about your fellow students – about the good and the not-so-good in people,” he says.

Date’s experience trying to find unity within an at-times divided student cohort meant that he was well-rehearsed when it came time to chair board meetings in the corporate world.

“It stood you in good stead for later years,” he says.

With the school’s relocation to Pelham Street in 2002, uniting students and staff in one building for the first time, the focus of the LSS has shifted from student cohesion. Under Dow, there’s an emphasis on wellbeing.

The end game of the LSS is to hopefully allow people to have a fun and healthy university experience.

This sort of frivolity seemed to come naturally to students in Date and Cummins’ era.

As Dow sees it, the heart of the President’s job is now to underscore the student in the Law Students’ Society.

“We as law students do get ahead of ourselves,” he says. “Sometimes you need to take a step back.

“We’re not lawyers yet.”

Banner image: Current LSS President Henry Dow.

Credit: Jorge de Araujo at Artificial Studios

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 17, May 2017