By Melanie Megale
In Law is a Peppercorn series that features an interview with a member of the Australian legal community.
For this edition of In Law, I have the honour of interviewing Robin Creyke, a public law expert and legal academic.
Robin has a breadth of experience in academia and advisory work, specialising in areas of administrative law and tribunals, guardianship and enduring powers of attorney, and military law. She is well known for her work as co-author of ‘Laying Down the Law’ and ‘Control of Government Action’, both widely used in Australian universities. She was an academic for about 40 years – not all full-time.
Q1: What has your career journey looked like from when you graduated law school to now?
After finishing my degree I went overseas to work and travel. I was never going to do anything with the law again. The jobs available were menial jobs. So I started as a typist. But it was in a law office. They took me on because I could properly spell the legal terms. But I could not type and wasted an awful lot of paper. The next job was as assistant and researcher for the editor of The English and Empire Digest, a legal encyclopaedia which no longer exists. Clerical work but a bit closer to the law as I did some research. Lesson No 1: The law can typecast you. Beware!
On return to Australia in the absence of other possibilities, I joined the Commonwealth Department of Housing as a clerk. Nothing legal for a change. But after eighteen months, I obtained a graduate position at the then Department of Trade and Industry in Canberra, a year long course. I think I was the only person with a law degree employed by the department. So I found myself being asked to attend an interdepartmental committee on the Law of the Sea; and was the representative of the Department at meetings with industry representatives setting up an Iron and Steel Institute in Singapore. Here I was at 24 with no practical experience representing the interests of the Department against well-qualified and established lawyers! These options kept on coming up. Lesson No 2: You never know what options will come your way.
After a couple of years in the Department, I was offered a placement in Washington as a trade commissioner. I would have been the first Australian woman appointed to such a position, but for a number of reasons I turned it down. Lesson No 3: You will face many of these forks in the road choices in your career. Think through your decision and you can always comfort yourself that you made a considered choice at the time.
Several years later I resigned from the Department. By then I was married and had my first child. But being at home with a small child was not stimulating. So I began studying at the ANU – a couple of law courses I had not taken in my degree. Before the end of that academic year, I was employed as a casual tutor in law, a position which lasted for the next eleven years. During this time when I was teaching first year law students, I co-authored ‘Laying Down the Law’ at the invitation of the teacher who had the concept for the book.
At the end of that eleven years came another fork in the road. I decided to capitalise on my teaching and publication and to stay at the ANU. Some thirty-five or so years later I was still there. By then I was teaching in a range of public law subjects and had been involved in other publications such as Control of Government Action (soon to be in its 7th edition). I became a national expert on guardianship and EPA laws, advising WA, QLD and ACT on new legislation for their guardianship tribunals and their EPA legislation. I had been asked to contribute as the veterans’ affairs editor to the Australian Legal Decisions series. This in turn led to further publications in military law. I am currently doing the 4th edition of Veterans’ Entitlements and Military Compensation Law in Australia and the 2nd edition of Military Law in Australia. Lesson No 4: Sometimes you need to play to your strengths.
Q2: What do you deem as being the key benefits and detriments to life as a legal academic?
One of the reasons I chose academia was that I had small children and the pathway offered flexibility. I could go and pick the children up after school and work at night. There was also the ‘one day a week rule’ for all academics, which I believe till applies. The salaries of legal academic staff were meant to be in parity with the profession, but this very soon disappeared. So, by way of compensation, universities permit staff to have one day a week to be employed in other positions. This way you can use your skills in a range of areas outside academia. Using this option I was able to become a part-time members of several tribunals, a member of the Administrative Review Council, Integrity Adviser to the Australian Taxation Office, and a regulator with the ACT’s Independent Competition and Regulatory Commission as well as apart-time employee in a law office. A further advantage is that it is still reasonably easy to get leave without pay. At one point I took five years off to become a full time member of Administrative Appeals Tribunal. Opportunities like this enable you to learn about other fields and develop contacts. As you develop a reputation as a lawyer, particularly like me with experience with tribunals, you get asked to speak at conferences, and this further enhances your contacts. A disadvantage is that using the option means you miss out on a lot of the coffee-type interactions on workplace issues (in my case academic matters) between staff. These informal contacts can often act as a stimulus for new ideas. This possibility has diminished during and since COVID when academic staff appeared to be attending the institution less and less. Nonetheless, this is changing, and there is still scope in a shared workplace for collaborative work with and to be enriched by others that you respect. Lesson No 5: Academic life encourages a flexible work life.
Q3: How has the academic profession changed over the years in your experience?
When I started as an academic at the ANU, there were six public lawyers in the College of Law. I do not know how many would count themselves as public lawyers now but probably three to four at most. This change means as an academic I needed to specialise. I chose tribunals on which to focus. I have now been a member of at least seven tribunals or adjudicative bodies. In addition, you need to spread yourself more widely across legal areas. I ended up teaching a wide range of public law courses, did some teaching in Torts, Contracts, constitutional law, medical law as well as military law. That makes you a more rounded legal academic. As the law changes, you have to keep up to date. Today there is a lot more emphasis on intellectual property and AI. Communication and technology areas are moving fast, and having a feel for international relations is certainly increasingly important too. It is important to keep an eye out for emerging developments in the law. Lesson No 6: Keep a weather eye out for what is current or emerging.
Q4: What are some key tips you have for current ANU law students thinking about their future pathways?
The public vision of the law is certainly that those who study end up in the private sector, the public sector or the bar. Judge Judy and other media have not helped with that perception. The reality is that the possibilities are so much broader. Every pathway you take there is a different area for learning, and that is what is so exciting. Even having a law degree at all will give you an edge over someone else at a job at David Jones during the holidays. They will view you as responsible, that you understand people, have judgement, and are capable of balancing interests. All of those qualities that your legal training imparts are valued in multiple ways in the community.
I think it is useful to test your own vocation in the law. Sit in on courts, get a clerkship or be an associate to a tribunal member or judge. That way you will get an insider’s view of law in action. But you will also be able to estimate whether it is where you want to go next in your career. Positions such as these will test your competency and interests in those areas. You may discover, for instance, that the law in practice and the law in academia do not have too much to do with each other. The law in practice is about managing clients and businesses, balancing interests of clients and strategic thinking. These may become your strengths and they are transferable skills. One of the advantages of law is the training in the importance and the subtlety of words. Most areas of knowledge in the world are about words – knowing what they mean and understanding them in their context. Exploiting these skills which your law training gives you is an advantage in a host of areas. Writing, editing, managing your own business. You never know what opportunities will be around the corner. Maintaining a breadth of interests will make you more open to those possibilities. Lesson No 7: Widen your interests and your options will expand too.
Q5: What would your advice be to law students looking for a role in such a competitive job market?
Gain a practising certificate after graduating even if you do not intend to practice. This is one bit of advice I would always give graduates. In my own career, I could have been legal advisor to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare or on the Guardianship Tribunal here in Canberra, but I did not have a practising certificate when I was invited and both positions required admission for a number of years. It is an insurance I would strongly advocate. I suffered from the belief that I was never going to get close to the law and ended up discovering that the law has tentacles. I could have taken different pathways had I realised this earlier. I would also suggest you need to make your CV as interesting as possible. Have part-time work and voluntary activities in different or related fields. This sets you apart. You will need something to capture interest in the face of the competition. You might be lucky to have an interviewer who is also interested in these areas. If you exchange views on a common topic such as your voluntary work, this may mean you and the interviewer click in the interview – and the rest is history! It does not have to be a law related activity. In fact, it is sometimes better that it is not. The fact that you can balance study, volunteering and part-time work gives an indication that the pressures are not going to get to you in the workplace. That too is a factor important to employers. Being curious and continuing to be curious is also a really important personal characteristic, which will take you into all sorts of areas. Backing yourself can also be important. Lesson No 8: Believe in yourself and your future.