Advocacy has always been important to The Honourable Ben Carroll MP. Starting out in his career, he took action as a member of La Trobe’s Labor Club and volunteered for community legal aid organisations. Now, as State Labor Member for Niddrie and Victorian Minister for Industry and Employment, he strives to work where good public policy and social justice overlap.
A La Trobe alumnus three times over, Carroll is also an avid supporter of life-long education. In this interview, he shares his perspective on balancing work with mature age study, the self-confidence a law degree brings, and why seizing opportunities is the key to advancing your career.
I was working as a Ministerial advisor when I saw that most of the successful politicians had law degrees. They’d worked in the law and were very familiar with it. I also realised that there was a lot of job insecurity in politics. So I really wanted to become a lawyer, to get a specialist qualification that would assist me should I suddenly lose my job. Going back to La Trobe was never in question, as I’d had a wonderful time during my four years studying a Bachelor of Arts (Honours in Politics).
It took some courage to enrol. I’m a boy from Airport West; my dad was an electrician. I certainly didn’t know if I could do a law degree. It was a challenge to study law, a leap of faith. I very much took it one step at a time. At the beginning it was daunting, but once I got through the first year my confidence grew and grew.
I was working at the same time, so it was quite a commitment. I dropped my hours down to three days a week and spent weekends at the Borchardt Library. I had a wonderful study group, which included an actor from SeaChange, a bartender, a Foxtel worker, a nurse and a teacher. We rotated around our respective houses and apartments to do study sessions. I’ve got very vivid memories of studying together on Melbourne Cup day – the sacrifices you make for study! We’ve all gone on different paths, but we’re still lifelong friends today.
I loved every minute of it, but it really made me step up. I wasn’t naturally gifted with law and had to really work my butt off to get through, particularly in subjects like criminal law. I was very determined and very focused – I used to go to two tutorials for each subject. I’ve got to say, it was one of the best leaps of faith I’ve ever made. It’s prepared me very well for the job I have today.
La Trobe also offered me the chance to study in China and I grabbed it with both hands. I chose the elective ‘Introduction to Chinese Law’, which involved overseas study at Shanghai University. I’d never been to China or Asia before. I picked up a little bit of the language, and I got to understand the legal culture – how government operates, and how government businesses operate, in the People’s Republic of China.
It’s amazing how I’ve been able to use my experience in China with different constituents. When local company Swisse Vitamins – which has a large warehouse in my electorate – was taken over by Chinese owners, my exposure to life and law in China served me well. The company’s Chinese managers knew they were dealing with an MP who’d had well-rounded experience in China and this helped me get to know their company.
Becoming a qualified lawyer has been enormously beneficial. So much of the subject matter I deal with day-to-day not only interests me, but I also have some knowledge about. My law degree has been useful when studying Acts of Parliament, Explanatory Memorandums and understanding a new Legislative Bill, particularly at short notice. Studying law also prepared me to think forensically and clearly, and to think quickly on my feet, which are skills you need when speaking in Parliament.
When my predecessor, former Attorney-General Rob Hulls, announced his resignation, I wasn’t going to die wondering. I’d lived in my local community all my life. I’d been an advisor to a Premier, a Government lawyer, a volunteer solicitor and a Federal Government advisor. I’ve always been prepared to have a go, and it was either going to happen or it wasn’t. If it hadn’t, I would have gone off with my qualification and done something else, but I got elected. It’s my greatest honour – standing in Victorian Parliament as Member for Niddrie, representing the community I was raised in and the people of Melbourne’s north-west.
I’ve always lived by the ethos that every constituent should be given the opportunity to be seen and heard. I’m prepared to meet with anyone who wants to meet with me. And while I can’t solve everyone’s problem, I do believe they should have face-to-face time with their local MP to speak about their issue. Having had experience in legal aid – I worked as a volunteer lawyer for a few years at the Inner Melbourne Community Legal Centre – I run my local electorate office very much like a legal aid service. Constituents come in, and we write letters and advocate on their behalf.
What got me to this position is being able to adapt and seize opportunities. I enrolled in the Bachelor of Arts because I originally wanted to be a journalist, but careers go in many and varied directions, and I seized every opportunity that came my way. I joined the La Trobe Labor Club during my Arts degree, then I joined my local branch and became Secretary, then President. And I had the privilege of obtaining a law degree. Law permeates every aspect of society, so studying it sets you up for a whole variety of fields. It’s one of the most adaptable academic qualifications you can have.
Because I found La Trobe a very stimulating environment, I ended up doing three degrees there! After my Bachelor of Laws, I went on to do a Master of Laws (Global Business Law) in 2014. I was taught by not only some of best in Australia, but also by international lecturers who were experts in their fields. The passion with which they taught and communicated with students is key to La Trobe’s success.
The best advice I could give law students would be to form a study group of like-minded students. Pushing each other along is an enormous help and motivator. I’d also encourage young students to take a subject overseas. You’ll come across different legal systems, which will broaden your opportunities. And as someone starting out, having a second language makes you such an attractive option for a prospective employer.
The only other thing I’d recommend is don’t get freaked out by studying law. Put your head down, and reduce your number of subjects if you need to, but if you’ve got an interest in current affairs and how society works, you’re going to find your place in a La Trobe law degree.
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