Volume 2, Issue 2 (Originally Published 30 July 2012)
Associate Professor John Tobin, who teaches Human Rights Lawyering, MJIL – Research and Writing and Legal Research – Children, Rights and the Law at the JD level, as well as coordinatingLegal Internshipsin all the law school’s programs, has had an unusually diverse career. He talked to De Minimisabout his multifarious professional life and his many non-legal enthusiasms.
Growing up in a Family Culture of the Law
John’s grandfather was a police officer and his dad a magistrate. It’s therefore not surprising that, from anearly age, spent he spent time sitting in the back of courtrooms, learning not just about legal procedures but also imbibing ‘a culture of the law’ – including a strong feeling for social justice and a desire to promote it.
In spite of this background, once he began his Law/Commerce degree at Melbourne, John found himself ‘not overly engaged in the law’. None of the compulsory subjects held much appeal for him, and Contracts was his very least favourite. Only when he took international law as an elective, and was exposed to such inspiring teachers as Hilary Charlesworth, was he less concerned that he had made a mistake by choosing law over medicine or architecture.
Forging a Career Centred on Passions
John claims that he has ‘never had a long-term career plan’; instead, his career has moved along as he pursued his interests. Having started in a large commercial firm, he then moved to Victorian Legal Aid. Next came a move to London to obtain an LLM with distinction. His next job was in Florence, with UNICEF. While the post at UNICEF reflected his interest in children’s rights – a subject on which he has authored several reports and articles – living in Florence also made him a confirmed Italophile. He admires the zest for life he found in Italy, the uncomplicated enjoyment of food, family and friends, which is less marked in English-speaking countries (though he also loves the energy and unique vibe of New York).
After UNICEF, he returned to Melbourne to work as a Legal Officer with the Department of Justice. An invitation to work to work with Professor Philip Alston from NYU lead to an offer of office space to undertake his research at Melbourne Law School from Professor Cheryl Saunders. This in turn led to his appointment as an academic at MLS. This career path has been rich and varied. He has been Visiting Professor at both the American Academy of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, Washington College of Law, American University and in the Law School at New York University. In 2011 he was the Senior Scholar in Residence at the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at NYU Law School.
John’s own career demonstrates how broad and diverse the opportunities opened up by a law degree are, and he considers this one of the greatest advantages of a legal education. For him the best thing about the practise of lawyering itself is ‘representing a disempowered or vulnerable person and being able to help. That is a true privilege’.
The adversarial nature of the law is its least attractive aspect for John. In another life, he would like to be a paediatrician working on global public health issues – a job that would satisfy his desire to help children but in the ‘collaborative– as opposed to adversarial – profession of medicine’.
Both John’s idealism and his concern for children are apparent when asked to name his favourite book. Without hesitation, he replies ‘Anne Frank’s Diary – a constant inspiration’.
Advice for the World – and JDs
If John ruled the world, we would all strive harder to cultivate empathy for one another, ‘to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes and respect other people’.
His advice for JDs: ‘Don’t stress! Things will fall into place, especially if you create opportunities for yourself. Try to enjoy things and don’t rush too much. Take the time to make friends, get to know faculty, and get engaged in activities outside class. Above all, don’t be afraid to follow your passion. Whether deciding on electives or a career, don’t opt for what you think you ‘should’ be doing. Follow your heart and choose what you love’