It's a two-way street: Melbourne's mentor program

By Megan McDermott

Barrister Peter Billings enters his chambers, a small cluttered room with ceiling-high bookshelves and aged leather sofas. He's an officer in the Royal Australian Navy, a family man and a seasoned traveller. He moves aside some papers and extends the invitation to take a seat.

Peter Billings, Clare Semambo Kaweesa and Professor Cheryl Saunders AO 

Billings tells us about his experiences as a mentor in Melbourne Law School's Mentor Program, recently expanded for masters students. Run by Career Development Services, it pairs international masters students with qualified mentors. Last year, Billings mentored Faridah Nakayiza from Uganda and provided advice to her compatriot Clare Semambo Kaweesa.

For Billings, it was initially just a case of giving something back to the legal profession, but he soon learnt that the relationships forged and knowledge obtained would motivate his continued involvement in the program. "It's a two-way street. You bring a lot, they bring a lot – it's a partnership," said Billings.

Each year the Melbourne Law Masters attracts students from all over the world, adding further diversity and strength to the program. This year's fulltime international masters students are drawn from 34 countries. Many have legal qualifications and a background of experience in their home country. This lends itself to a mutually beneficial relationship, in which both the mentor and mentee can draw from each other's experiences.

In Uganda, Clare works in a private practice, and Faridah, an ex-prosecutor, works for government in the department of mineral resources. Together, they would discuss the Ugandan legal system, which would often ignite heated debate. Billings listened to Faridah and Clare as they told stories about issues facing practitioners in their own countries.

For Faridah, as with many international students, the Australian legal system is at first difficult to understand. "Academic materials may not always portray the Australian legal system with ease…" says Faridah who is undertaking the Master of Energy and Resources Law.

The mentor relationship helps international students "understand the Australian legal system in a freer environment". The mentor program gives students the opportunity to gain insights into the profession and develop their own professional network of contacts in Australia. Faridah and Clare accompanied Billings to trials and appeals in both the Supreme Court and the County Court. They observed an animal injury case and a Military Commission of Inquiry conducted over several months at Victoria Barracks.

Billings introduced Faridah and Clare to various colleagues, including solicitor George Zindilis of Zindilis Lawyers. Through this connection they gained insight into Australian tax law. This linked directly to their studies, as tax subjects were core requirements of their degree and extended their classroom learning. "Practice is the best teacher, so getting to know a practitioner offers all the unanswered questions in class," said Faridah.

The mentor program endeavors to pair students with professionals working in an area of their interest. For Billings and Faridah, the match couldn't have been more suitable. Their mutual interest in culture, criminal law and mineral resources sparked not only a professional relationship but a friendship as well. Faridah and Clare introduced Billings to the Ugandan community in Australia, and both Billings and Zindilis intend to visit Uganda in the near future, "with my legal notebook of course," jested Zindilis.

At the closure of our interview, Billings welcomed two new mentees from China into his office. Looking forward to another year of mutual learning, Billings said "I would recommend this program to anybody who is qualified to be a mentor... it has been incredibly rewarding to have engaged in mentoring students from other cultures and other legal systems".

Image: (L-R) Peter Billings, Clare Semambo Kaweesa and Professor Cheryl Saunders AO

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 9, June 2013.