In a world with increasing social injustices, having dedicated people working in the legal sector who are ready to stand up for victims of these injustices is of paramount importance. We live in a time of rising islamophobia and arguably irrational fear of refugees amongst vast swathes of the population. Simultaneously, the negative realities of climate change and the usage of fossil fuels are truly setting in, while denial of these and other environmental issues by some people continues. So it is a rather excellent thing that a group of of students at Monash University operate the Progressive Law Network, a society who encourage law students to pursue social justice pathways, as opposed to corporate ones. We spoke with the society’s 2017 president to shed some more light on the Progressive Law Network. “One of our founding aims was to encourage law students to utilise their law degrees to effect positive social change. The main way we encourage social justice pathways is through our human rights careers guide, which we update yearly alongside the Castan Centre for Human Rights. The guide lists career opportunities in several areas of the law that coincide with social justice topics such as environmental law, refugee law and health law. It has information for school and tertiary students as well as recent graduates. To launch the guide last year, we had four panel speakers come to the Monash Law Chambers and tell us about how they got involved in social justice careers including working at community legal centres and the solicitor general’s office.”

The work being partaken by the society isn’t just limited to the legal profession however, “we encourage members to pursue social justice pathways alternative to entering the legal profession, for example we encourage policy reform and academic research as well.” The Progressive Law Network aim to help grow students engagement, and understanding in various areas of social justice. “By simply informing students on issues, we also help foster their understanding of an area and hopefully encourage them to pursue pathways in this field. In 2016, we had an investigator and legal counsel from Animals Australia come to Clayton and talk about the work they do. Students who attended had one-on-one time with the speaker and gained insight into how animal law is practised.”

Members of the society’s committee have already been active in the social justice legal sector. “Many of our committee members have volunteered or undertaken some social justice experience at community legal centres and not-for-profits.” The society has also taken on the role of helping students deal with the prevalence of mental health issues in the legal profession.“Unfortunately, the law profession has one of the highest rates of depression and anxiety of all professions. A NSW study found that 50 per cent of solicitors, law students and barristers experience depression at some stage in their careers. Someone on our committee last year decided the Progressive Law Network should play a role in overcoming the stigma of mental health in the legal profession, so we have recently introduced a mental health officer. This position has been taken up by Millie Clayton who previously completed a Diploma of Clinical Hypnotherapy before studying arts/law. During this degree, she saw clients for a range of issues including anxiety, depression and weight loss. The mental health officer will organise events to help generate attention to the threats of depression and anxiety and be a contact point for all students on our committee who need someone to talk to. We are also hoping for our committee members to undertake a mental health first aid course to better understand the signs of a mental illness and respond to a crisis.”

Rather than being restricted to just current law students, the Progressive Law Network is open to all Monash University students. “We welcome everyone. It doesn’t matter in the slightest way if you are not a law student because our core philosophy is to engage students with their communities and help them advocate for social justice related issues. Whether a member has a passion for environmental law, native title or civil liberties, we are always open to discussing issues at the heart of our society in an intelligent and informed manner.”

For the Progressive Law Network, the mission which they are taking on is astronomical but enormously important. “Instigating change can seem daunting from the perspective of a small club comprised of students. However, at the Progressive Law Network we believe that offering support to students and an opportunity to interact with key leaders in the community will achieve some small, but important, changes in the world. One way we try to instigate change is through increasing the understanding of social justice issues and encouraging students to challenge laws that disproportionately affect people who are vulnerable or disadvantaged through public lectures. We also try to facilitate social justice opportunities for law students interested in this kind of work. The law faculty at Monash tends to drive focus on corporate law firms so we want to temper this with a social justice perspective for law students who want to work in community law. Something we are following up is introducing an internship with the McCabe Cancer Centre. Another way we do this is through connecting students to key leaders in the community through our lectures and events. This year we are also pairing up with the Public Interest Law Network (our sister organisation at Melbourne University) to bring students together who are like-minded and want to help other people or are passionate about social justice.” 

The incredible group pushing for change are doing great work, and you can get involved by contacting them at pln@monashclubs.org or checking out their website and Facebook page.