Interview by Madeleine Jensen & Melanie Karibasic
This week we say farewell to Acting Director of the UQ Pro Bono Centre, Bridget Burton. For the past 18 months, the Centre, University and students have had the pleasure of Bridget’s expertise and hard work. In that time, Bridget has worked tirelessly with students, industry partners and the community, supporting the new Queensland Human Rights Legislation, and building connections in the Asia-Pacific with a focus on Papua New Guinea. Before she leaves, we wanted to drop in and ask her a few questions about her journey in the law, and her thoughts on the future of students and social justice.
1. Please describe your journey into the legal profession, and when you decided you wanted to practice human rights and anti-discrimination law.
I come from what you might call an “ordinary working family”; my father was a miner, my mother a teacher, and I grew up living between the Northern Territory and New Zealand.
Living in the NT, particularly in my teenage years, I became aware of a lot of injustice. There were mandatory sentencing laws sending people, including kids, from my community into prison for really minor matters. The school system where I lived was divided according to what language you spoke (English speakers went to one school, Anindilyakwa speakers another). Lots of things seemed to me to be peculiarly unjust.
The thing that made me understand where lawyers fit in all of this, was seeing the way that people enlisted assistance from lawyers to make the changes they wanted to see in their lives and in their community – especially with the mandatory sentencing laws. The lawyers were there to service the community, arguably more so than other professions. This is what attracted me initially - plus I really like arguing!
I also had a very keen sense of my own privilege, and the drive to try and share the benefits of that.
I think being from NZ I also have this belief in the inevitability of social change (but not always ‘progressive’ change) and if I have the opportunity to do so, I feel a responsibility to get involved.
When I graduated, I was 23 years old, by which time I also had a one-year old son. I started looking for work and I applied for jobs everywhere in the country, with a particular focus on social justice legal work. I found out about a part time position being advertised by Caxton Legal Centre, which was the perfect opportunity for me. I applied for it. I got the job, moved to Brisbane and have been here since 2005.
In the last 14 years I have been at Caxton Legal Centre, worked for two years at Legal Aid, returned to Caxton, and have just finished up a secondment to UQ as the Director of the UQ Pro Bono Centre.
2. When you commenced your role as Director of the UQ Pro Bono Centre, did you have any pre-conceived ideas about the UQ Pro Bono Centre and of the roles of the students and the Director, and how did this differ from the reality?
Well, prior to working here, I had already worked with the UQ Pro Bono Centre, and with students from the Centre on several different projects. There were some students that I had met through pro bono activities, one of whom I went on to employ at Caxton Legal Centre some time later. So, I had a lot to do with the UQ Pro Bono Centre before commencing as Acting Director.
But coming over, I still did think that at the university, within the institutional structure, it would be more removed from the ‘front-end’. I also underestimated how engaged the students would be, as well as their capabilities in performing the sort of work which needed to be performed. They were ready and really clever when it came to answer the big questions that are relevant to access to justice and social justice.
3. What has been your favourite part or aspect of your position as Director of the UQ Pro Bono Centre?
There are two things. One of my favourites parts is working with the students – it has been a much more rewarding experience than I anticipated. Of course, I had worked with students before but on an ad hoc basis and in a different format. My second favourite part has been working with the academic staff in the law school, particularly on the fourth floor.
4. In your time as being Director, and under your guidance, what do you personally feel has been the Centre’s biggest success?
I have been pleased with how we have approached the Human Rights Act (Qld), because our approach has been very much focused on really listening and learning about what people really want, and carefully constructing a response to that. Coming from a busy practice, you don’t really have the time to do that. I am proud of the students and pleased that I personally have had time to give these issues careful consideration.
5. What has been the most challenging aspect of your role?
There are a lot of relationships that go into making a centre like this work. Part of the job involves understanding the motivation for all the people engaged in the UQ Pro Bono Centre and ascertaining what everyone wants. I come from a practice where you have a boss and a client, and they are all who you are required to report to and keep happy. Client-focused practice has one aim, but as the Director of the UQ Pro Bono Centre, it’s all about learning about and balancing several other interests and understanding all the different parts that go towards making a centre like this sing.
6. In your time here, has there been something new or unexpected that you have learned or discovered that you will take back with you to Caxton Legal Centre?
Every academic works independently, their output is independent and it’s not a team effort, and yet the academics here at the UQ Law School function as a team. They support each other even when they don’t have to, and when they differ in perspective or opinion. This is something I hope I will be able to take away.
7. In your opinion, as a Practicing Lawyer in Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination and as a Pro Bono Centre Director, do you believe Pro Bono work should be mandatory for students in their law studies and/or practicing lawyers/firms? Why?
In relation to mandatory pro bono for students, I don’t think so. I think, in my capacity as a ‘university teacher', making students participate in pro bono would be a lot like making high school students participate in Physical Education. It’s wonderful when the students are motivated, engaged, capable and enthusiastic - but when they’re not, and when there’s no genuine interest in the work, it’s an uphill and difficult battle. There is value in it for those students, but not the community generally. I don’t think pro bono work should be compulsory in law school. The model at UQ is ideal in its structure.
For legal practitioners, it’s a different story. It should be a professional responsibility that all practitioners should carry through their career. There exists some responsibility to engage in pro bono work also because practitioners are in such a privileged position in society. Apart from the fact that undertaking pro bono work makes you a better practitioner, the system relies on practitioners doing pro bono work. There should be a cause that appeals to everyone. There shouldn’t be anyone who doesn’t find something that interests them.
8. What will you miss the most about working here?
I will miss the great intellectual capacity of the people I work with here, and their depth of knowledge in their various areas - but I also intend to phone them regularly. I will also miss the library, the databases, the events team and other support, the thick doors and the beautiful office. I will of course miss the students too, but I am sure I will see you all again!