While studying her Juris Doctor (JD), Karri successfully advocated to create the Indigenous Student Representative position in the Law Students Society. After several years working as a lawyer in Melbourne, she’s now headed to Harvard to complete a Master of Laws (LLM), which will equip her with invaluable skills she can use to continue empowering Australia’s First Peoples through the legal system.
Karri Walker is a proud Nyiyaparli woman. She grew up living on Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung Country in the area widely known as Melbourne although, as she elaborated, “my mob is from the Pilbara region of Western Australia”.
She’s also an alum of Melbourne Law School (MLS), having graduated in 2018. Reflecting on what led her to her chosen career path, she explained, “I’m an Aboriginal woman, and the law has been used to perpetrate a lot of harm in our communities. But I also see the law as a way of undoing the harm that is caused. The law can be used as a tool to decolonise this country…I was drawn to the law to achieve justice for First Peoples.”
It was a high school field trip that first piqued Karri’s interest in MLS. “I had a ‘day at study’ doing a course at the Law School,” she recalled. “And I remember just thinking, ‘Wow, this place is where I want to be, where I want to study.’”
First, though, she would need a bachelors degree. She chose to complete a Bachelor of Arts – also at the University of Melbourne – majoring in Indigenous studies and criminology. As an undergraduate student, she was able to take breadth subjects at MLS, which reinforced her desire to study there. “It gave me a real insight into what it would be like as a law student,” Karri said. “Free Speech and Media Law was a fantastic course,” she added by way of example. “It was incredibly engaging and very different to my arts subjects.”
Ultimately, Karri’s undergraduate studies provided insight “into how the law could be used to uphold self-determination, create voice, and hand back power to First Nations communities,” laying the groundwork for her JD.
However, after starting the long-awaited first semester of her JD, she noticed something that bothered her. “There were no discussions around what Aboriginal law means or what sovereignty means from an Aboriginal perspective,” she explained. “I’d come from a really culturally safe and inclusive space studying Indigenous studies, and then came to the Law School and noticed the silencing of Aboriginal law and knowledges within the classroom. I felt that there wasn’t a real engagement with the fact that there are two systems of law that operate in this country. I was motivated to do something and to contribute to the culture of MLS.”
Karri began advocating for the creation of an Indigenous Student Representative position within the Law Student Society. “The aim of this position was to create a supportive environment for Indigenous students, but also to introduce other students to the beauty of our culture, Aboriginal law, and the issues that are being faced in our community.”
Despite some pushback, Karri didn’t give up on her idea and she was heartened by the support she did receive: “a lot of people were incredibly supportive, including many professors at the Law School and the Dean at the time.” Nevertheless, the process was challenging. “I remember having to go into classrooms and explain why this role is important, which was quite hard, because it felt like I had to explain why we deserved a voice as the First Peoples of this country.”
Her perseverance paid off, and Karri succeeded in her initiative. After the role of Indigenous Student Representative was officially created within the Law Students Society, she became the first person to fill it – and she hit the ground running.
“I organised a lecture where Uncle Wayne Atkinson came and talked about his role as one of the principal claimants in the Yorta Yorta case,” she recalled. “We had just come out of the property class learning about the Yorta Yorta case from a Western legal perspective. Uncle Wayne came in and really challenged that narrative and talked about what it meant for him as a Traditional Owner fighting for land rights.”
Dr Atkinson’s lecture proved extremely popular. “So many people wanted to come and hear him speak. There were even people sitting on the floor in the lecture theatre. There was a real hunger from the students to engage in this area.”
For Karri, it’s rewarding to see how Melbourne Law School has grown and evolved since she studied there and advocated for the creation of the Indigenous Student Representative position. “Now the introductory subject for first-year law students is really focused on Aboriginal law, the fact that there are two systems of law that operate on this country, and what it means to be learning primarily about the Western legal system.”
“This change is thanks to the Indigenous Law and Justice Hub, headed up by Dr Eddie Cubillo”, she continued. “The Hub has been doing amazing advocacy work to strengthen the culture of the Law School by engaging with First Nations rights and issues. I understand that students are really excited about the Hub’s initiatives and are eager to learn more about how they can use their legal skills to support and amplify the voices of First Nations communities.”
In addition to her role as Indigenous Student Representative, Karri found time for other extracurriculars and social events. “While I was here, I took up a lot of different opportunities with various clubs,” she said. “Melbourne Law School has a lot of competitions; for example, mooting, mediation and client negotiation.” One thing she tried in her second year was witness examination. “That was really fun: you dress up as if you’re in court and act like a barrister. They get judges to come in. It's a fantastic experience in advocacy.”
She also carries fond memories of law balls, law camp and intensives, and treasures the friendships forged through those experiences. “I remember coming here on my first day and being incredibly nervous, but everyone was excited to meet new people and open to new friendships. I've made some of my best friends – friends for life – at MLS,” she said. “I made deep connections with a lot of my professors as well. Many professors have continued to mentor me since I graduated from MLS and have really championed my studies.”
Academically, Karri found her experience at Melbourne Law School equally rewarding. “One highlight was studying Institutions in International Law with Professors Bruce Oswald and Tania Voon. That subject was taught in Geneva, and we got to visit various international institutions that were advocating for human rights, like the United Nations and the World Intellectual Property Organisation. It was just an amazing experience, learning from leaders in their field.”
“I also really loved studying Indigenous Peoples in the Law with Professor Kirsty Grover,” she continued. “In that subject, we engaged with what sovereignty means from a First Nations perspective and how the law has limited the recognition of our land rights, but then also how the law could be used to achieve true self-determination.”
After finishing her JD, Karri gained experience through clerkships and a stint in commercial law, before joining the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria as a senior lawyer. “The Assembly is the representative body for First Peoples in the Victorian Treaty process,” Karri explained. “Over the last two and a half years, we have been working to establish the foundations for Treaty making: the things that need to be in place for Treaty negotiations to occur on equal footing.”
Having received the prestigious John Monash Scholarship, AAA Scholarship and a Roberta Sykes Scholarship, Karri’s exciting next step is a Master of Laws (LLM) at Harvard Law School. “I'll be focusing in areas of constitutional law, First Nations’ rights, and racial justice,” she said. She looked forward to exploring “the intersection between law and policy; in particular, how the law can be used to empower communities and address issues of political and economic inequality.”
She went on, “I'm really motivated to build my legal skills so I can come back to Australia and meaningfully contribute to the Uluru Statement from the Heart. We're currently grappling with proposals that have never been considered before in Australia. It is so important that there are Aboriginal lawyers leading these processes.” After studying at Harvard, she’ll be able to “draw upon the most innovative forms of human rights protections and implement those frameworks in Australia.”
“Melbourne Law School has given me the foundational skills to be able to go and study in the US,” Karri said. “I've really appreciated the support I’ve received from Melbourne Law School, including the Dean,” she said. She also valued being invited back to give lectures to MLS students, which she had done several times. “It was special to come back and lecture on the Victorian Treaty process to the first-year students. I love continuing my connection to Melbourne Law School and giving back to the culture.”