Growing up in a small, remote town in East Africa, Firew Tiba didn’t entertain the notion of ever becoming a lawyer. Instead, he expected to follow the more family-familiar profession of accountancy.
However when he blitzed his national school leaving exam, it opened up a range of higher education options that included the opportunity to study law with around 60 other top-performing students in the Addis Ababa University’s Bachelor of Laws (LLB) program. In the mid 1990s this was the only law school in Ethiopia - a country with a population four times that of Australia’s.
Dr Firew Tiba is now a senior lecturer in the Deakin Law School (DLS) and co-director of its flagship Juris Doctor (JD) program.
He joined Deakin in 2012 after working as academic across three other universities (Ethiopia, Hong Kong and New Zealand) and says that completing his LLB with distinction in 1999 ‘undoubtedly’ helped him secure his first teaching position straight out of law school.
‘This was at a new college that had just started teaching law … I credit the rigour of my undergraduate studies for paving the way for subsequent successive achievements which include three additional postgraduate degrees from universities in South Africa, Japan and Hong Kong where I’ve specialised in international human rights law, international economic and business law and international dispute settlement.’
Firew obtained a PhD in international dispute resolution from the University of Hong Kong in 2008. His thesis on “Multiplicity of International Courts and Tribunals: Implications for Coherent Application of Public International Law” was also nominated by the law faculty for the university’s best thesis award.
With master of laws degrees in international economic, business and human rights law, Firew is an active researcher who has published in journals such as the International Journal of Criminal Justice, Chicago Journal of International Law, Cardozo Journal of Conflict Resolution, Loyola University Chicago International Law Review, European Journal of Law and Technology, Willamette Journal of Dispute Resolution and Gonzaga Journal of International Law.
With works cited in several other prestigious publications, Firew has also had chapters published by Oxford University Press, Intersentia, Sweet and Maxwell of Thomson Reuters and Pretoria University Law Press.
He says he’s drawn to ‘topical, cross-cutting themes of fragmentation/coherence of the law and emerging dispute resolution regimes’ and this research contributes to his teaching.
‘Being research active enables me to establish a research-driven teaching curriculum in both the JD and other DLS programs. It’s a great opportunity to be involved in a fledgling course such as the JD, which is at the cutting edge of modern legal education delivery in Australia.’
While the role of an academic role is often demanding, Firew says it’s also highly rewarding.
‘Honing the skill of multi-tasking is a crucial component of being an academic who is accustomed to just focusing on the core areas of teaching and research. I enjoy this challenge as it brings out qualities that I never knew I had,’ he reflects.
With global legal practice undergoing transition, Firew maintains it’s increasingly important for law students to graduate with versatile skills. He likens this to the preparation that’s needed for construction project.
‘Clearly one cannot build a skyscraper with a compromised foundation. Basic law degrees, as foundations, should be rigorous enough to prepare students for the challenges and opportunities of the future,’ he says. ‘Mastery of the law is not sufficient to do a range of transactional works … and law graduates are also increasingly working in other non-law professions.’
He argues that while there is ‘a lot of talk’ about the social and technological trends poised to disrupt legal practice law, graduates will always need timeless, fundamental legal skills.
‘The underlying critical thinking, and general good legal writing, speaking and negotiation skills remain at the core of what it means to be a good a lawyer … around the future changes there will always be a place for a versatile and adaptable lawyer who is not afraid to change.’
Graduating with a versatile skill-set is one of the distinguishing features of the JD and other DLS law programs and Firew says that a law degree offers graduates a wide range of career choices.
‘Once you are drawn to the study of law there is enough room to manoeuvre your career to the direction that gives you the best job satisfaction.’
And he adds that it’s not an oxymoron to say that transformation across the law profession landscape is here to stay.
‘We all want to ride the wave and grab the future with both hands. This is the kind of perspective I would like to share both as a person and in my capacity as a DLS program director.’