At 33 years of age Jennifer Robinson has achieved more in her career than many of us will in a lifetime. The Australian-born human rights lawyer is based in London where she is the director of legal advocacy for the Bertha Foundation, a philanthropic organisation that pursues positive activism in media, law and enterprise. She is also a legal adviser to Julian Assange, an adjunct law lecturer at Sydney University, an author, a sought-after keynote speaker and an internationally renowned advocate for free speech particularly in the realm of technology. She is fluent in Indonesian, was a legal advisor to the New York Times in its investigation that eventually promoted the News Limited phone-hacking investigation and counts human rights barrister Geoffrey Roberston and the former high court judge Michael Kirby as mentors.
She is disarmingly articulate and informed. Even after a few minutes of conversation that spans Assange, the proposed — and now redundant – amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act, the complexity of the human rights work she’s involved in and the case for a bill of right, it is quickly apparent Robinson was destined for a career less ordinary.
She received a Rhodes Scholarship to study in Oxford in 2006 where she completed a Bachelor of Civil Law and a Master of Philosophy in Public International Law. Whilst there she had the opportunity to meet and work with Geoffrey Robertson, a relationship that bolstered her determination and ability to forge a career in human rights law. She had begun working towards a doctorate, the equivalent of a PHD, but in 2008, against the advice of some she abandoned that academic pursuit in favour of delving into legal practice. “I felt I was ready to get out in the real world and practice law,” she tells Women’s Agenda. “I felt I had spent enough time doing academic research . I wasn’t really made for being inside a library.”
She took a job with a small law firm in London principally for the opportunity to work with Mark Stephens, a partner renowned for his robust free speech practice.
“It was a big thing to choose the firm that I did,” she says. “Some people thought it was interesting coming out of Oxford and going to a smaller firm but it meant I could continue my work with Geoffrey and I’d get to work on the work I wanted to.”
It wasn’t the first – nor the last – time Robinson has eschewed the career advice of others.
“Lots of people advised me against leaving Oxford but it was one of the best things I did,” she says. “I have always made decisions based on what will allow me to do the most interesting work. What will make my life more interesting?”
It’s advice she somewhat paradoxically gives others. “I’m often asked to give advice and my advice is be wary of advice! It’s important to forge your own path,” Robinson says. “What’s right for one person isn’t right for everyone. Even if mentors can show you the way you won’t necessarily do it in exactly the same way. It’s important to remember that.”
It was why when Robinson was offered a position with the Bertha Foundation in 2011 she took it.
“Lots of people advised me against taking the role because of where I was at but I feel incredibly strongly that it was the right thing for me,” she says. The narrative about a global network supporting advocacy and storytelling appealed immediately. Robinson has helped to develop a program for human rights lawyers around the world that she herself would have loved when she finished university.
“It’s been a fantastic learning process and the program I have created with the support of the foundation is a legacy program which will facilitate more young lawyers into this line of work,” she says.
Human rights legal work is notoriously popular among law students and it’s considered a tough place to carve out a career. Robinson says there’s plenty of work for those willing to seek it out.
“There are more opportunities than people realise if they’re open to being adventurous and thinking outside the box,” Robinson says.
If adventure appeals, living a week in Robinson’s shoes would be something else.
“I am constantly on a plane. We work with 14 organisations in 15 countries supporting 80 young lawyers around the world,” she says. “I could be in India in the Supreme Court one week and the next I could be in South African township, or taking fellows to New York. Meeting some of the best human rights lawyers around the globe is the really exciting part.”
What she inevitably encounters in each of these places, however, is far from exciting.
“The sense of injustice drives my desire to do this work,” she says. “On a human level it’s really upsetting and incredibly frustrating to know there are solutions and quite simple solutions to prevent this. That’s what drives me.”
Being a female involved in human rights work add another compelling and more complex layer to Robinon’s drive.
“Women doing this work have a legitimate fear and threat of sexual violence because of the work they’re doing,” she says. “How do we support women in the field? It’s something I feel strongly about.”
She recognises that it’s a problem compounded by the fact that women remain as underrepresented in senior ranks in public interest law as they do in commercial practice.
“It’s a big question about women in the law generally. Why are so many law graduates female but that’s not translating into leadership? What can we do?” Robinson asks. “It’s something I am very aware of with the female fellows in the program.”
It’s an issue that appears to occupy much more than a fleeting thought in Robinson’s mind, which doesn’t seem a bad place for any complex issue to reside. What does she envisage will come next?
“It’s difficult to guess. I love the law and I love being a lawyer but I also love thinking about the bigger systemic solutions to justice,” she says. “Hopefully I can combine those passions.”
However it transpires this career is one worth watching.