From Social Justice to the PhD and Back Again

By Eliza Bateman

imageAt the Future Humanities Conference, held in May at McGill University, I spoke about my experiences returning to graduate studies after seven years in the workforce. One of the central themes of the conference was professional versus academic: Are humanities grads able to get meaningful work outside the academy? If so, how do they go about getting this work?

I was struck by how dispirited some people were about their professional prospects, by how they didn’t see themselves as “professional people,” and by how they saw no link between their academic work and the expectations of industry, government, and the not-for-profit sector. What follows is a redux version of my conference presentation on this theme.

In 2006, I graduated with bachelor of arts and bachelor of laws degrees from the Australian National University. I was a conflicted law student. I took the English lit honors rather than the law program. I found law school (on the whole) to be mean-spirited and process-driven. I was happier in the arts faculty. I loved creative writing and critical literary theory, whereas I really couldn’t find any intellectual interest in equity and trusts law. After five years of school, I was sure that I wanted to continue with humanities education, but PhD scholarships were incredibly rare, and my family and friends couldn’t believe that I had just slogged it all the way through law school only to give up at the end. “Go and be a lawyer,” they said. “Don’t end up serially unemployed at thirty” they said. “Why are you so dedicated to poverty?” (etc. etc.). So I switched my focus and became a lawyer.

I then had several different jobs in the private and public sectors over the next five years. I worked for a government department (and learned how to process an urgent memo through three levels of management) and for a respectably sized law firm (and learned how to rewrite a memo nine times before a grudging senior partner signs off). This latter experience led straight to an existential crisis. If you are a self-reflective humanities graduate who fancies herself a writer and you want to experience genuine pain, go and work for a large law firm.

Then I landed a legal job at the Victorian Human Rights Commission (an Australian government agency) and stayed for three years, becoming a senior lawyer before joining Victoria Legal Aid as a senior lawyer in their new equality and human rights branch. In making the move to social justice, I finally found my place in law—that place where I could be part lawyer and part other. Working in social justice made me realize that, while I am a good litigator, I am a better advocate (and these roles are not the same thing). I like talking to people to get an outcome. I like problem resolution: negotiation, strategy, and working toward systemic change.

What I came to realize is that many of the skills and interests that drive the human rights and social justice world come from the humanities, and I was enjoying FINALLY using these skills. This is not to denigrate the effective lawyers who work for social change. But there are also many roles for people who analyze, design policy, communicate with influence, and bring together diverse sources of research and statistics. At the commission, there wasn’t time for me to be precious about how to solve a problem, because we made use of all the human resources we had. So I wrote policy reports and submissions and ran strategic equality cases to court. I edited communication strategies and gave legal advice in mediations. I handed out rainbow socks at hockey events; explained human rights law (the basics anyway) to community groups at public libraries; and ordered cookies, wine, and sandwiches for multiple lobbying events.

Eventually, my managers sat me down and explained that in order to make senior management, I was going to need a master’s degree in a relevant field. And here I come full circle to the worth of graduate education.

PhDs and master’s grads are valued in the social justice world. In some agencies and NGOs, your applications for policy or legal officers won’t be seriously considered without a good graduate degree. Social justice organizations want smart people who can work independently on long projects. People with transferable skill sets. People who can bring together a team of specialists and lead them. People who are flexible and creative, and, most of all, people who already have these skills when they arrive.

I went to McGill’s law school to do my LLM in 2013. Why McGill? Because of the incredible depth of expertise in their Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism. I was asked to apply for the doctorate program in 2014, and I was lucky enough to be accepted. At no point did I see the LLM or the doctorate as being an indulgence, a hiatus, or an “expensive personal boondoggle” (descriptions I have heard of graduate programs!). Rather, I see my graduate experience as developing necessary skills that I hope to mobilize in my professional work.

You see, when you work as a lawyer, your work is oppositional. You might want to resolve your case using mediation, but you do that by looking for areas of weakness in the opposing argument. You are trained to argue for a position. You are trained to hunt out weaknesses in your arguments and to shore them up with precedent. You argue for the strongest position comparable to an associated risk, not for the “most just” position. These hardwired “thinking like a lawyer” skills can have negative implications for how lawyers think, write, and reason. I think it is also why law reform is slow and poorly understood. Doing my LLM and PhD at McGill, I am changing how I think about social justice problem solving and central questions about how law effects or prevents social change. I am investigating how religious communities develop sublegal structures to resolve tensions between groups and individuals. I am questioning the interplay between legal and moral obligations and internal ethics, what motivates conformity, and where the law fits.

These are big questions that troubled me working on the frontline as a lawyer in discrimination cases, because then my approach was piecemeal. Win that case. Find points of weakness. Use legal arguments to demonstrate that inequality. Over time, I came to realize that individual legal outcomes do not achieve equality. We need fundamental social change. This happens in the deep currents of community norms. We need to think more intelligently about how law affects social justice. We need to look for resolution and holism, not tension. My time at McGill has taught me how to “rethink like a lawyer.” I hope a better lawyer: a lawyer who will return to the social justice world with more critical and creative approaches to legal problems.


Eliza Bateman is an Australian lawyer with expertise in social justice advocacy, employment law, and discrimination. She is now also a PhD candidate in law at McGill University, where her current research centers on feminist legal theory and freedom of religion. Eliza is proud to say that she has survived two Montreal winters without much fuss. 

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