Thank you so much for joining me today, Annabel. Can you share some key goals from your tenure as the President of ALSA (Australian Law Student Association)?
Thank you for having me! One of my primary goals during my term as President of ALSA was to re-engage students with the association. Post-COVID, there was a noticeable drop in participation, making it challenging to garner interest. I focused on continuing the work of the previous committee, striving to make students aware of ALSA’s existence. Advocacy and change are challenging without an engaged audience. I had grand ideas initially, but I quickly realized the importance of support from other student societies.
COVID restrictions prevented in-person events, limiting our ability to share knowledge. Consequently, people were unfamiliar with ALSA. We began with four law student societies in the first council, just under 20 in the second, and a remarkable 34 in the next! My primary goal was to make people aware of who we are. The successful conference and councils set the stage for the next committee to continue advocating for change in the legal profession.
Additionally, I engaged with the Council of Australian Law Deans (CALD) and other stakeholders in the legal education sphere. CALD approached us in late 2022, expressing a keen interest in assessing the state of legal education in Australia. This collaboration is an exciting opportunity to reshape legal education, which has remained largely unchanged since the 1980s.
That’s a significant undertaking. Can you elaborate on your involvement with the CALD and this initiative? (Reimagining the Professional Regulation of Australian Education)
Certainly! The initiative with CALD involved a holistic review, encompassing Law degrees, continuing professional development (CPD), practical legal training (PLT), and CPD points. It’s an ongoing process, but the early stages are promising. The legal education sphere involves various bodies like Law Admissions Consultative Committee, the Legal Services Council, and others, making change challenging.
We had productive discussions in the early meetings, bringing together representatives from various organisations. Now, the conversations are progressing, and I’m grateful for having been involved in the initial stages. The massive 300-page report by Professor Sally Kipton and Miss Kana Nakano is a comprehensive exploration of the subject. I hope it becomes available soon for a broader audience.
Could you elaborate on the goals and outcomes of the review?
The review highlighted the need for a holistic re-evaluation of legal education, encompassing degrees, practical training, and ongoing professional development. While maintaining the integrity of a law degree, there’s room for enhancing accessibility and accommodating individuals with diverse needs. This involves not only having standardized access plans but also educating tutors and lecturers about various mental health conditions, ADHD, autism, and ensuring consistency in accommodations across all universities. It’s about creating an inclusive environment that prepares students not only academically but also for the practical demands of the legal profession.
Circling back to your experiences, can we discuss your efforts as President in addressing mental health, neurodiversity, and reform within higher education?
Before my role as President, I served as the Equity and Wellbeing Officer for ALSA. I revived an initiative focusing on mental health and wellbeing that had started a few years earlier. There was an unpublished mental health and wellbeing publication, and I took the initiative to revitalise it. I approached law students willing to share their experiences, and their heartfelt articles were posted online. This platform aimed to break the stigma around mental health and create a sense of community.
This initiative continued under my successor, Giovanna, and gained more traction. It’s heartening to see other law societies also adopting similar mental health and wellbeing publications, providing localised support. Initiatives like these offer a space for students to share their stories and seek support, crucial in the competitive field of law.
I’m passionate about having these conversations. Real change begins when people share their stories and experiences. In the competitive environment of law school, it’s easy to become isolated. Initiatives like the mental health and wellbeing publications create spaces for vulnerability and support, ultimately contributing to a more compassionate and understanding legal community.
Moving forward, how do you see the conversation around mental health evolving, especially within the legal community and higher education?
It’s crucial to recognize that everyone’s journey is unique. In my experience, I faced challenges in my early twenties, and it wasn’t until later that I realised the importance of prioritizing my mental health. There’s a prevailing notion that you can have it all, but not necessarily all at the same time. This realisation is essential, especially for those who are not neurotypical. Managing various aspects requires careful planning and understanding one’s limits.
Absolutely, it’s a vital perspective. Now, considering your role in ALSA and your advocacy for mental health, are there specific changes or progress you’d like to see in the support systems for law students or students in general?
Definitely. While conversations around mental health have gained traction, there’s still work to be done in terms of policy and advocacy. It’s about making practical changes in how assessments and accommodations are approached, ensuring they are accessible to individuals facing mental health challenges, ADHD, autism, or other conditions.
Some universities have access plans, but there’s a need for consistency across all institutions. Additionally, educating tutors and lecturers about different mental health issues is crucial. Misunderstandings, such as viewing ADHD as laziness, need to be addressed. Having a universal understanding of these conditions can lead to more effective support systems.
How do you think employers better understand and support individuals facing mental health challenges?
When it comes to the workforce, employers need to be receptive to the unique needs of individuals with mental health conditions. This involves understanding the various conditions and providing reasonable adjustments without requiring employees to constantly fight for them. It’s about creating an inclusive environment where individuals feel validated in their experiences. This shift in perspective is essential for building a workplace that supports everyone, regardless of their mental health journey.
Given your recent diagnosis in 2022, how has this awareness influenced your approach to life and work?
The ADHD diagnosis has been a transformative experience for me. It’s like suddenly understanding the reasons behind challenges I faced throughout my life. Rather than viewing these challenges as personal failings, I now recognise them as part of who I am. It has been an eye-opening journey, realising that I’ve achieved what I have despite these challenges. Also, connecting with others who share similar experiences has been invaluable. For example, working alongside my housemate, who also has ADHD, has created a unique and productive dynamic.
Now, shifting back to your role in ALSA, besides mental health, were there other key issues or projects you tackled during your tenure?
Aside from mental health, a significant focus was on organising councils. We held three councils, one in December, one in March, and the third being the conference in July. The organisation and coordination of these events required substantial effort, bringing together universities and ensuring smooth operations. Another important aspect was overseeing our national competitions. Our Competitions Vice President did an outstanding job managing these competitions, offering students a chance to develop practical skills and gain valuable experience.
How did your journey with the New Colombo Plan Scholarship unfold, and what made you decide to apply?
The New Colombo Plan Scholarship was a poster on the wall when I started university. Initially, I thought it sounded interesting, but I doubted my capabilities. It was only in my third year, seeing a friend receive the scholarship, that I thought, “Why not give it a shot?” At that point, I didn’t know many tutors well, my grades weren’t stellar, and I was undiagnosed with ADHD, navigating without medication. Despite these uncertainties, I decided to apply, drawn to the opportunity to study in the Asia Pacific.
And you did succeed in securing the scholarship! Could you share more about the scholarship’s criteria and how you crafted your plan for Singapore?
I crafted a plan that aligns with four criteria: academic excellence at the tertiary level, resilience and adaptability, the ability to contribute to strategic goals, and community engagement. Surprisingly, only 25% is academically focused, allowing room to cover other bases. I crafted a plan focused on studying criminal law in Singapore, including an internship and language learning, with a keen interest in fostering people-to-people links in the Asia Pacific.
Now, as you prepare for this exciting journey, how has your experience with ALSA influenced your goals and perspectives?
ALSA has played a crucial role in shaping my goals. Initially, my involvement was a little too ambitious, and after ALSA finished, I needed time to recalibrate, so I’ve decided to defer my program to start next year, allowing me to make some more valuable connections and contribute more meaningfully. My aim now is to enhance people-to-people links within the Asia Pacific, leveraging the connections I’ve made. For example, encouraging more international students to come to Australia for competitions and building a sense of community.
Wrapping up, what advice would you offer to others navigating law studies or aspiring to follow a similar path?
Staying curious has been key for me. In law, it’s easy to get caught up in predefined paths and expectations. Don’t pigeonhole yourself. Stay open to different opportunities and connections. Engage with diverse experiences beyond your degree. Learn from others, even those outside your immediate circle. Your law degree is just one part of your learning journey. Be inspired, and don’t constrain yourself to a single career path!
Annabel Biscotto is the 2023/24 Immediate Past President of the Australian Law Students’ Association (ALSA). She is passionate about shaping the future of the legal profession, with a particular emphasis on mental health, neurodiversity, and higher education reform. As a proud advocate for neurodiversity awareness, Annabel shares her lived experience of navigating the complexities of working and studying from a unique perspective. After being diagnosed with ADHD in June 2022, she is passionate about sharing her story to reduce the stigma and educate others to highlight the many ways ADHD can present in women. In her role as President, Annabel has engaged in strategic dialogues with prominent industry stakeholders within the legal education sphere and fostered global collaboration with various international law student organisations. She is also an active member of the Law Council of Australia’s Young Lawyers Committee. Annabel is a 2023 New Colombo Plan Scholar for Singapore, a prestigious Australian Government initiative designed to uplift knowledge of the Indo-Pacific region. She is a creative spirit who enjoys storytelling, performing and digital media. Connect with Annabel via LinkedIn.