By Lauren Smith
When she graduated with her LLB from the University of Melbourne in 1988, Professor Pip Nicholson did not imagine she would one day be Dean of Melbourne Law School. Thirty years later, she is delighted to take on the role at a time of fundamental disruption.
Professor Pip Nicholson (BA, LLB 1988, MPP 1995, PhD 2001) is someone who has consistently embraced change.
After completing her articles at Blake Dawson Waldron (now Ashurst) and a brief period in the litigation department, Professor Nicholson decided to leave commercial practice and take up a role at Victoria Legal Aid’s Broadmeadows office.
In 1992, she took a leave of absence from that job to pursue an internship in Vietnam, becoming one of only a handful of common law-trained lawyers working in Hanoi.
“I had a friend who was an economist who said he could secure me an internship at the first licensed Vietnamese law firm, and I thought ‘fantastic’,” Professor Nicholson says.
“I was very curious about socialist systems and socialist legal systems particularly.”
As an intern at the firm, LEADCO, Professor Nicholson had extraordinary access to the nascent legal profession and government. She met with leading reformers across the National Assembly, Ministry of Justice and universities.
It was an experience that sparked what would become a lifelong interest in the Vietnamese legal system and the internationalisation of law and legal practice, leading to a career in academia and eventually to the deanship of Melbourne Law School.
Being in Vietnam at that time was just an extraordinary opportunity, but it left me with a profound curiosity about socialist legality and how it differs from western conceptions of law, legal institutions and justice.
She returned to Australia where she completed a Master of Public Policy, while also taking classes with the world’s leading authorities on Vietnamese history, economics and political science, based at the Australian National University. Subsequently, she commenced her PhD at the University of Melbourne, looking at the export of the Soviet court system to Vietnam.
From there, Professor Nicholson joined the Law School’s faculty, finding her home in the Asian Law Centre, where she eventually served as Director for four years until the end of 2017. In 2014, Professor Nicholson won the Vietnamese Ministry of Justice’s ‘Medal for the Cause of Justice’ as a result of her contribution to legal reform and training in Vietnam.
Although academia had not been a determined path, being able to continue to study and teach comparative (particularly socialist) legal systems, as well as develop the international offerings available to MLS students, made it an attractive career.
Innately collegial, Professor Nicholson also enjoyed the opportunities to work collaboratively across the Law School’s teaching, research and engagement programs.
“It was not my ambition to be dean,” Professor Nicholson says.
“That said, I wanted to ensure that the legacy of my predecessor, Professor Carolyn Evans, was leveraged.
I knew that I wanted to be able to contribute to legal education at a time when I see some fundamental disruption and the need for both adaptation and continuity.
Reflecting on her experience since stepping into the role at the end of January, Professor Nicholson says she has really enjoyed it so far.
“I’m extremely well supported. I have fabulous colleagues and superb students, and I really enjoy crafting decisions and directions in collaboration with the extraordinary people here.”
Her commencement at the helm of the Law School coincides with the emergence of new challenges for the higher education sector. Proposed Federal Government changes, if implemented, will have a significant impact on the way students fund their tertiary studies, according to Professor Nicholson.
“I think the single biggest challenge is the lack of stability in tertiary education policy settings,” she says.
Being able to contribute to discussions on key issues like these was another attractive feature of the dean’s role for Professor Nicholson, who previously held a University-wide position as Deputy President of the University of Melbourne Academic Board.
“I found that role extremely stimulating and I wanted to be sure I could continue to contribute to those broader conversations from the perspective of the Law School and its role in tertiary education in Australia.”
Professor Nicholson’s ambitions for MLS are outward-looking and focus on the contribution that its researchers and graduates can make regionally and globally.
To take just one example, Professor Nicholson says societies across the globe are grappling with big questions around data, its ownership, privacy concerns, impacts on justice and rights, and how states should regulate evolving and dynamic technologies in all sectors of the economy.
“MLS’s students and academics are working on these issues today and will contribute to designing the regulatory framework of tomorrow,” she says.
“We see this through the work of my colleagues across lawyering, financial and consumer law, intellectual property, health law and ethics, and data analytics generally.
“I would like to see the richness of the research we’re doing in this area translated through very strong connections with industry and government, so that we are maximising the insights of the new research in these spaces.”
Professor Nicholson is also passionate about making a positive contribution abroad and is committed to the Law School continuing to foster its regional and international focus.
We want graduates who are fluent and competent in any jurisdiction. Now that could mean Benalla, it could mean Sydney, it could mean Yangon or New York.
Recalling the vision of former Dean Professor Michael Crommelin for the new law building in 2002 – that it be outward-looking and engaged with the world around it – Professor Nicholson says that sentiment is just as relevant today, if not more so.
“I think with the resurgence of China and the complex geopolitics in the Asia-Pacific, in combination with fundamental changes in the USA and uncertainty in Europe, Australian lawyers and MLS graduates are uniquely placed to contribute to developing the role and place of private and public international law, along with comparative public and private law,” she says.
Another of Professor Nicholson’s ambitions for the Law School is that it continues to learn from its alumni working in many sectors globally.
“I think that this Law School has excellent relationships with the profession and has received sound and insightful counsel over its history,” she says.
“The goodwill and excellent advice received over a long period has produced a very healthy dialogue with the profession.”
This is a conversation Professor Nicholson would like to broaden. She aspires to create an equally productive and robust exchange with the many alumni working outside the legal sector.
“I know there is an appetite from some of our students to better understand how they can deploy their law degrees in other sectors. I also know there is a substantial group of alumni who are contributing to the social and economic fabric of diverse communities in very different ways.
I am warmly encouraging those who’ve moved on to work in other areas, whether it’s diplomacy or media or start-ups or anything else, to be in touch and share your wisdom in the way we’ve brokered that discussion with the profession.
As a student from 1983–1988 and a member of faculty since 2002, Professor Nicholson has seen MLS undergo enormous change. However, she says some aspects have remained constant.
“I think the Law School today, as throughout its history, offers a real place of scholarship, intellectual curiosity and learning.
“Since the establishment of the JD, it has also increasingly been a place of great friendship. This is the result of a common timetable once again, and not having students scattered across campus in various dual degrees, as was the case in the 1980s and 1990s.
“Circumstances can change and the generations move on but there is an instant and enduring empathy with today’s students and academics when you find yourself leading the institution in which you have been a student and staff member.”
Image credit: Jorge de Araujo, Artificial Studios.
This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 19, May 2018