Paula Gerber, Professor of Human Rights Law
Professor Paula Gerber has been an academic in the Monash University Law Faculty since 2004. As a Professor, Paula researches, teaches and performs leadership roles across the university, the Law Faculty and the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law. Professor Gerber is an internationally renowned legal scholar with expertise in two distinct areas of research; international human rights law and construction law. She did once manage to find a point of intersection where she could fuse these two disparate areas of interest, namely, disabled access to buildings. However, generally her two speciality fields have little in common, except that she is passionate about both of them. You can read more about Paula via her website.
What has gotten you to where you are today?
Passion! I love what I do, which makes it easy to do the hard work that got me to where I am today. Sometimes my work feels more like my hobby, because I get so much pleasure out of what I do.
How much do you give credence to the phrase that haunts law students - “it’s all about who you know”?
None! After I graduated from Law School in Queensland, I went to London for 5 years where I worked as a solicitor and then Los Angeles for 5 years where I worked as an attorney. I knew no one in either place before I went there. I believe the key to getting ahead in any area is loving what you do and doing what you love.
Did you ever feel tension between choosing the corporate path or a path more oriented towards social justice? Is it possible to do both?
All of my time in private practice was spent in the commercial area (construction litigation), and I only came to human rights law after I became a partner in a law firm, and became disillusioned with corporate life and values. So I embarked on a part-time masters in human rights law at Monash followed by a full-time PhD in children's rights at Melbourne Uni. I have occasionally found ways of merging my two areas of expertise - for example, I have written about providing access to building for disabled persons - but mostly they are very separate. But I still enjoy research, writing and teaching in both construction law and human rights law, although, these days I do more of the latter. I think the large corporate law firms provide excellent training for graduates, and I would encourage students to try and get some experience in that environment as the skills you develop in the mega law firms will serve you well whatever you end up doing.
How strong a role does empathy play in your profession, given that the law can place so much emphasis on being objective?
I think empathy is vital. You need to be able to understand and relate to the people you are helping. This should help rather than hinder you being able to advocate on their behalf. No one suggests that doctors shouldn't care for their patients because it might cloud their medical judgment! In the same way, I think that it is important that lawyers have empathy whilst researching and applying the law. If anything, being empathetic with your client might drive you to work hard to find a solution to their problem.
How do you approach stress management and your own well-being?
I have two young dogs - a border collie and a kelpie - who need lots of walking. Taking them out at least twice a day is my stress management recipe!
What are your hobbies?
See answer to 1. above - my work is my hobby! On top of that my 3 kids, 2 dogs and 2 guinea pigs leave little time for anything else!
What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?
Seeing my work make a difference. There have been a few times when the work I have done has contributed to laws being changed. Nothing beats the feeling of knowing that you have played some small part in righting a wrong.
What are the biggest challenges you face?
Finding enough time to fit in everything I want to do! I am currently working on multiple books and articles, and that combined with supervising students' theses and teaching and marking mean that I struggle to find the time to give them each the attention they deserve.
Did you always know this is the path you wanted to go down?
I always knew I wanted to be in the law, but I assumed that I would be in private practice. Ending up in academia was unexpected, but welcome. This career fits me like a glove.
What does a day in your shoes look like?
It generally begins with making a list of what I want to get through (often the first items on the list are those things I didn't get to the day before - I always seem to overestimate what I can get done in a day!). The list may include preparing a lecture, marking assignments, finalising a journal article, writing a submission to a Senate Inquiry (eg on marriage equality), drafting a report to a UN human rights committee (in my capacity as President of Kaleidoscope Human Rights Foundation), writing an opinion piece for The Conversation, reviewing draft chapters written by my PhD students and/or updating my webpage. Sometimes I do have to attend meetings, but I try and avoid those at all costs, I think I suffer from the little known condition 'Meetingphobia'! Basically, my days are always varied and there are never enough hours in the day (or night) to get through everything on my list.
How important a role does confidence play in your work?
I am fortunate to be a naturally confident person. I agree with Margaret Mead who said "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." Collaborating with my friends and colleagues at the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law and Kaleidoscope to advance human rights gives me the confidence to keep pursuing law reform and social justice. Ultimately, I want my children to grow up in a world where there is equality and respect for all regardless of their age, race, religion, gender identity or status, sexual orientation , socioeconomic status etc... That gives me the motivation and confidence to keep fighting for human rights.
What has been your most valuable lesson learnt through your experiences with the law?
To be creative. I have learned that the law is very flexible; it is rarely black and white. Coming up with new and creative ways to interpret, argue and apply the laws can lead to positive change.
How does academic work contrast to working in a firm? Did you know you would transition into academia?
One of the things that ultimately prompted me to leave private practise was having to record my time in 6 minute units. I am so relieved that I don't have to do that anymore. I love the autonomy and flexibility that comes with working in a university. I decide what issues I want to work on, and when, rather than my workload being dictated by the needs of clients.
Can you please inform students of one of the most rewarding experiences you've had in working in your field?
I can't single out just one. What I find very rewarding is seeing my students go on to have successful, fulfilling careers. One of my former PhD students is now working for the UN, whilst another is pursuing a career in politics, and many others have become partners in law firms. Seeing them inspired and inspiring others, makes my work worthwhile.