Profile with Laura Hilly

Laura Hilly (Australia-at-Large & Magdalen 2009) is currently undertaking a DPhil in Law at the University of Oxford.  For her undergraduate degree, she received the University Medal in Law and the Supreme Court Judges' Prize. She has worked at the Federal Court of Australia as an Associate to the Honourable Chief Justice Black AC and as a litigation solicitor at Blake Dawson. Laura was admitted to practice in Australia in 2007. Her DPhil research is supported by a Clarendon Scholarship. Laura holds an MPhil in Law and BCL from the University of Oxford and an LLB and BA from the Australian National University.

Rhodes Project: Where do you call home?

Laura Hilly: At the moment it’s England, but really it’d have to be Canberra – that’s where all of my family are.  Home will always be where my Mum is!

Rhodes Project: What book are you reading at the moment?

Laura Hilly: I’m currently reading A World Made New by Mary Ann Glendon.  It’s a biography of Eleanor Roosevelt as she was involved with the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Rhodes Project: What has surprised you most about Oxford?

Laura Hilly: I was prepared for how challenging the study would be, and how the courses would providing so much information and broadening my horizons, but I think the thing that surprised me most was how fantastic my peer group was, and how much I learned from them.  The informal learning – discussions that you have in the pub, or over dinner with friends, were every bit as challenging, sometimes even more so than the conversations you have during your formal study.

Rhodes Project: When did you first become passionate about Law?

Laura Hilly: It was when I was in high school.  I was always interested in issues relating to social justice.  I had some very very good English teachers at my high school and they were very creative in the things that they taught us and the way they presented them to us.  I remember reading Death and the Maiden, a play by Arial Dorfman when I was in year 12.  It is set in an undefined country in South America that is recovering from  the brutal control of a dictatorship and the torture and horror that occurred under the regime.  It’s loosely based on fact.  Those issues made me aware of how law could be a tool for social justice, or misused as a tool of oppression.  I then went to law school and the passion just kept growing.  At ANU (my undergraduate university) I was fortunate to take an elective that involved volunteering at a community legal clinic that specialised in welfare rights.  For me that cemented my understanding of the direct link between social justice and the practice of law.

Rhodes Project: If you weren’t studying law, what would you be doing instead?

Laura Hilly: I’d be a journalist – it’s my secret fantasy, and some days I think maybe I should just do that instead of all of this law stuff! Maybe I’ll find a way to do both at some point!  I’ve been doing a bit at the moment – I’m the managing editor of the Oxford Human Rights Hub Blog, and so that’s reignited the spark and yearning to write about current events, and current legal developments rather than just the academic work, which at times can seem a little bit slow.  The rigour of academic writing is, of course, good but in a different way.

Rhodes Project: Can you tell me about a favourite past project?

Laura Hilly: My favourite project at Oxford was Oxford Pro Bono Publico . I was the chairperson a few years ago and have remained closely involved with its work ever since.  It is a group of graduate students and faculty members who provide pro bono research assistance to practitioners who are acting themselves pro bono, and we also often write submissions on public interest issues.  That kind of work is just fantastic.  Oxford Pro Bono Publico has really taken off in the last few years and does great work on issues of social justice in a number of different countries.  One of the projects we worked on was doing a research brief for a leading South African barrister who was appearing as amicus in a case concerning hate speech.  We provided a lot of research support for him, and my role on that project was to look at hate speech in Australia while other people looked at hate speech in India, the US and Canada, and in the end we were able to put together a brief for him that turned out to be quite useful.  To be able to mobilise all of the wonderful legal resources that we have here in Oxford in order to support important public interest litigation is very rewarding.  This is just one example of a number of different pro bono projects that I have had the opportunity to work on during my time here in Oxford.  I love doing this work – I get to team up with some amazing people, both my student colleagues on the project and also some very inspirational practitioners who are working on the ground and dedicated to using law to advance the public interest.

Rhodes Project: Can you tell me a bit about your current research?

Laura Hilly: My current research looks at judicial diversity, and in particular, women judges.  My thesis question asks why it matters whether we have a diverse judiciary, and why does it matter that it’s diverse in terms of gender.  I have conducted interviews with judges from superior appellate courts in South Africa, Australia and the UK.  I investigate how they considered their experiences and backgrounds, particularly those which are gendered, impact upon their judicial decision making.   I have met a lot of interesting people though this work, and also been able to spend quite a bit of time in South Africa which has been wonderful.

Rhodes Project: What do you plan to do over the next few years?

Laura Hilly: Finishing my thesis is the most pressing task that I have at the moment!  After that I’m hoping, one day, to have a career as a barrister.  I’d like to continue working in litigation, and I’d particularly like to have a practice that focuses on public interest law - issues relating to human rights and equality law. 

Rhodes Project: What is your favourite part of being an academic?  Writing?  Research?

Laura Hilly: Collaborating.  Once again it’s talking to really interesting people about ideas and doing it in a really rigorous way.  Writing can sometimes be a bit of a lonely process but I’ve been very fortunate to have a very good peer group, and some wonderfully supportive colleagues who I can meet with regularly to discuss our work and ideas.  I think that dynamic and interactive environments really help my work – it makes academic life and academic writing such an enjoyable process, and helps me to challenge myself and push my work to the next level.

Rhodes Project: If you could go anywhere in the world right now, where would you go and why?

Laura Hilly: Actually I’d like to go back to Australia – just for a weekend or an evening - if I only had some teleportation device that meant I could be in Australia without the jetlag and the travel time that would be ideal!  I have two small nephews and a baby niece.  We Skype almost every other day, but some nights I wish I could just pop around the corner and see them!  I love living in England and wouldn’t have it any other way at the moment, but it is a long way from home and sometimes I really feel the distance.

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