Edward Santow

BA 2001, LLB 2003

Edward Santow is Chief Executive Officer of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, an independent, non-profit law and policy organisation that works for a fair, just and democratic society, empowering citizens, consumers and communities by taking strategic action on public interest issues.

What made you decide to study law, and why did you choose Sydney Law School?

I was the kind of kid who, when asked to give directions, was liable to send people in completely the wrong direction out of a misplaced urge to be helpful. By the time I finished school, I still had a strong but vague desire to help people. I thought that Sydney Law School would give me useful tools to do some practical good.

Where has the study of law taken you in your career and/or life in general?

I practised briefly at Mallesons, where I enjoyed the novelty of wearing a suit (albeit an ill-fitting one) and the work itself, which was mostly in media law.

After working as associate to Justice Heydon, I did a Masters of Law at Cambridge. Sydney Law School prepared me very well for the rigours of postgraduate study. But it seemed a very English peculiarity to focus on human rights by day, and enjoy silver service dinner at college in the evening.

Returning home, I worked at the Australian Law Reform Commission and then as an academic at UNSW Law School. Teaching improved the way I understand the law, and communicate about it. I also appreciated the freedom to set my own research agenda, and the opportunity to collaborate with a wide array of colleagues, including some of my former lecturers at Sydney.

In late 2010, I took over as CEO of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC). PIAC runs test cases on behalf of disadvantaged people – in areas such as homelessness, discrimination and Indigenous justice. But our strategy is broader than just litigation: we develop policy and law reform proposals, and provide training to other people in the community sector.

We’ve recently entered a joint venture with Sydney Law School, in which we provide a clinical experience for a group of law students each year. We teach them about public interest litigation, and then they spend a few weeks working with us – learning about the messy reality of human rights casework, and the sorts of ethical and other problems that arise in legal practice.

What is your fondest memory of your time at Sydney Law School?

Earlier this year, PIAC entered a tenancy in the old Law School Building in Phillip Street. This brought back a lot of memories of my time as a law student – like the sound of rushing water that built to an un-nerving crescendo in morning lectures in the basement! Even then, the Law School had this magnetic ability to bring together some of the best lawyers, judges and people outside the law to work on common problems.

With PIAC and some other organisations dedicated to social justice also based here, it is wonderful to be part of the old Law School Building’s new phase. It also links us with the modern Sydney Law School – working with today’s academics on human rights test cases and law reform.

What one piece of advice would you give to law students today?

It’s hard to admit this as a former academic, but some of the most important (and enjoyable) learning happens outside the lecture theatre. There are so many opportunities to get involved at Sydney – in mooting, advocacy, the Law Revue. Get stuck in!