What is a lawyer?

Emeritus Professor Michael Coper was shocked to encounter widespread misconceptions and stereotypes about law and lawyers when he became Dean of the ANU College of Law in 1998.

It was one thing for these views to abound in the community – but it struck me that it was quite another for them to be shared by highly educated colleagues and, in some cases, key university decision makers.

The stereotypes came in many shapes and forms, from lawyers as nit-picking technocrats, retarders of progress and free riders who neither create wealth nor produce anything tangible or useful for society, to — as one senior administrator put it to me — legal education as the rote learning of a bunch of rules.

Yet one has only to stop and think for a micro-second about the role of law in society to realise that law sits comfortably alongside history, philosophy, political science and other like disciplines as a way of describing, analysing, understanding, critiquing and improving the world we live in.

Civil society is built on respect for the rule of law and pursuit of the ideals of equality, fairness, justice and human dignity. The law can impede or promote these ideals, but study of it is an intellectual endeavour at the very core of the humanities and social sciences.Of course, things are more complicated than this. Law has always had a practical side too. So much so that, for many years, training to be a lawyer took place outside a university context altogether, by way of an apprenticeship. Even when law schools were established to professionalise that training, the emphasis fell naturally on the practical rather than the intellectual.