Lucy Maxwell is a climate change and human rights lawyer. Currently based in London, she is the Co-Director of the Climate Litigation Network where she specialises in States’ human rights obligations in the context of climate change. Over a zoom call late in the evening, Lucy generously shared with us her reflections on her work in the field of human rights field and her advice for students interested in pursuing a career in this area.
When asked what initially sparked her interest in studying law, Lucy says that, to her, law was a way of understanding how power is exercised, and she recognised this knowledge would give her the skills to interact with and scrutinise the actions of government at the domestic and international level.
From the beginning of her LLB at Melbourne Law School in the 2000s, Lucy remembers searching for answers about how she could pursue a career in law that aligned with her values. It was when she could finally study elective subjects, like Public Interest Lawyering with John Tobin, and Law Reform with Simon Rice (at ANU), that her imagination was captured and she found a community of like-minded individuals. These electives also put Lucy’s other law subjects in perspective, helping her see these core subjects as teaching her valuable building blocks and legal tools.
After graduating in 2011, Lucy’s first steps were informed by a recognition of the importance of gaining good technical skills. Lucy worked at a commercial law firm straight out of law school, and then made the leap to the office of the Victorian Government Solicitor. This gave her the opportunity to see human rights law in practice when working with the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities.
Lucy was keen to experience working with plaintiffs and claimants in relation to human rights matters. She was also eager to understand what it was like to be a lawyer in a jurisdiction with strongly enshrined rights and a vigorous human rights litigation culture. So after two years at the VGSO, Lucy took the plunge to undertake a three month pro bono stint in South Africa. There, she worked at the Legal Resources Centre, a venerable public interest law firm which had pioneered social, economic and cultural rights litigation on education, housing, water and health care. It was an extraordinary experience.
When talking to Lucy, we noticed a recurring theme in that her career decisions were greatly informed by discussions with preeminent lawyers. She credits Julian Burnside KC (whom she met in John Tobin’s class) for giving her the invaluable advice that a good human rights lawyer is an excellent “black letter” lawyer, while it was barrister Mathew Albert who inspired her to travel to South Africa. Lucy explained to us that there is a genuine generosity among practitioners in the human rights field as they recognise the challenges in forging a career in this area.
Lucy also stressed that her career trajectory was certainly not linear; each step was a product of trying to gain the most in terms of skills and experiences, and then looking for the next step (which was often not clear!). Lucy acknowledged that these jumps were often moments of risk for her. However, Lucy was on the path to see whether it was possible to develop a full career working in human rights law.
It was this focus which led Lucy to move to London on a youth mobility visa in 2015. For Lucy this was a humbling experience; not only was the United Kingdom a new country which didn’t recognise her legal qualification, but she was no longer surrounded by a community of like-minded lawyers who knew her and her work. It took time to understand the legal landscape and players, as well as the key entry points to get into public interest organisations. Lucy had to start from scratch. She did document-review in a commercial law firm, worked in a government legal department, and did a period of pro bono work, before landing a job at an equality and non-discrimination NGO (the Equal Rights Trust) in 2017. Through her pro bono work often alongside paid work, Lucy was also able to find her first community of like-minded people in London, which to her, was central for helping her navigate the new public interest legal landscape.
In mid-2018, Lucy was awarded the prestigious Lionel Murphy Postgraduate Scholarship to study a Master of Laws at the London School of Economics (LSE). It was here that she was first exposed to the intersection between human rights and climate change, and the litigation taking place in this space. This was a lightbulb moment for her. She was fascinated and captured by how the law can be used to tackle States’ failure to take climate action.
Several years on, Lucy is the Co-Director of the Climate Litigation Network which provides legal, scientific and strategic support for plaintiffs in climate cases against States to challenge their inadequate climate action. One of the climate cases that the Climate Litigation Network is supporting is the class action brought by Uncle Paul and Uncle Pabai, two First Nations leaders from the Torres Strait Islands, against the Australian Government. The case challenges the Government’s failure to protect Torres Strait Islanders from the harms caused by climate change and is going to trial in 2023.
What advice does Lucy have for law students interested in a public interest career? Lucy advises students to conceive of public interest law broadly and think about the different ways the law can be used to advance the interests and rights of people who are marginalised and discriminated against. A career in public interest law is a winding path. She advises students to think broadly about the different experiences which contribute to being an effective lawyer and advocate, and to seek out opportunities to grow your core legal skills, with an eye to the future. For Lucy, this keeps the work meaningful along the way.
Finally, Lucy says “be confident in your path and don’t compare yourself to others – this is an unconventional career path”. She advises students to apply widely, not to be afraid of getting rejected and not to be shy in gathering advice from people. She finishes by saying that you must “be persistent”.
Leaving the zoom call, we are inspired by Lucy’s persistence and her commitment to make a difference with her legal skills. The experience has given us greater perspective and insights into the steps that young law students must take if they want to work in the field of human rights.
Prepared by: Sophie Stitch and Victoria Annett
JD Students MLS