By Bess Keaney
Norma Riley (née Jenkins) (LLB 1947) and Elizabeth Gray (BA(Hons), LLB 1979) studied at Melbourne Law School a generation apart, but both found their passion in community law. Now their legacy will be remembered at MLS with new scholarships established in their names.
It was 1949 and Norma Jenkins was 23 years old when she opened her own practice in North Fitzroy. A trailblazer in the law, Norma was one of the first women in Victoria to practise independently, continuing to trade under her maiden name even after she married.
When Liz Gray graduated from MLS in 1979 she also headed to Fitzroy, taking up a legal aid position before rising to become Deputy Director of the Victorian Legal Aid Commission.
With a generation separating them, both alumnae made their mark serving the community. But while Norma’s career as a sole practitioner spanned a prosperous 35 years, Liz’s was tragically cut short. She passed away at the age of 40 after a brief battle with cancer.
Now, both women are being remembered with scholarships named in their honour. Beginning in 2018, the Elizabeth Gray Scholarship and the Norma Jenkins Scholarship will be awarded to support students in the MLS Juris Doctor program.
“These women were the hard-working, dedicated professionals who served the community, rather than people that are revered for being larger than life,” Liz’s sister Natalie Gray reflects.
The law was their huge contribution.
Liz was an “accidental lawyer”, according to Gray. Dux of her high school science class, a talented musician and “fantastic” cook, Liz had a breadth of talent that meant she could have gone on to any career.
“She found her way to the law because the people with whom she had a common sense of values and justice were in that area,” Gray says.
“She wanted to be involved with the community.”
Working in North Fitzroy for more than three decades meant that Norma Jenkins too was deeply involved in the community. Many of her clients were Italian and Greek migrants whom she worked with as they bought homes and opened new businesses.
“In some ways I saw my role as a solicitor in much the same way as a social worker,” Norma said in a 1985 interview with the Law Institute Journal.
Norma was a “career woman”, according to her lawyer and long-time friend Des Dodds (LLB 1970).
“She really enjoyed being a lawyer,” Dodds says. “She was incredibly hard-working and very committed to the profession.”
When Norma passed away in 2015, just shy of her 90th birthday, she left a bequest to the Law School in her will.
“Norma had received a bursary while she was a student,” Dodds says.
I know that she always appreciated the support and felt that she wanted to help more law students have a similar benefit.
For Natalie Gray, the motivation to establish a scholarship with a dedicated group of friends and family was to ensure that her sister’s important work could continue.
“It will be wonderful knowing that a student has been helped through Liz’s memory,” she says.
“It will mean that Liz never dies. Her spirit goes on.”
This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 18, November 2017