Interview with Professor Natalie Klein: Life and Law of the Sea

To celebrate International Women’s Day and the swearing in of Chief Justice Kiefel as the first female Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia, the ILA Reporter will profile prominent Women in International Law throughout March 2017. Our first interview is with Professor Natalie Klein, current Dean at Macquarie University Law School and a leading expert in international law of the sea.

Dr. Natalie Klein is Professor and Dean at Macquarie Law School. At Macquarie, she teaches and researches in different areas of international law, with a focus on law of the sea and international dispute settlement. Professor Klein is the author of Dispute Settlement and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Cambridge University Press, 2005) and Maritime Security and the Law of the Sea (Oxford University Press, 2011). She provides advice, undertakes consultancies, and interacts with the media on law of the sea issues. Professor Klein previously worked in the international litigation and arbitration practice of Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, served as counsel to the Government of Eritrea (1998-2002), and was a consultant in the Office of Legal Affairs at the United Nations. Her masters and doctorate in law were earned at Yale Law School. In 2013, she was invited to become a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Law.

Natalie, you have enjoyed a very accomplished career in international dispute resolution. What first sparked your interest in international law, particularly in law of the sea?

I was interested in all things international when I was in high school and I started a law degree with the idea of working for DFAT one day. When I came to study international law and do the Jessup Moot, I just loved it. The combination of law with history, politics, and cultural issues fascinated me. I only came to the law of the sea when I was studying my Masters, trying to fill out my program with every international law unit on offer. The teacher, Michael Reisman, was inspiring and underlined all the dynamics of international law that interested me and operated in this domain;. The importance of it all is so fundamental when you remember that about 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered by water.

Who has been the most inspiring woman in your career?

I’ve been so fortunate to have quite a few inspirational women throughout my career in international law. I studied with Judith Gardam at Adelaide University, who had very high standards. It was a bit scary as an undergrad but compelled me to work hard. Hilary Charlesworth was my Honours supervisor – a lucky break for me as the student higher on the list who was to work with Hilary pulled out at the last moment. I still have strong memories of the sage advice from Hilary about crafting a longer research piece, and what the difference is between “that” and “which”. At Yale, I studied and worked with Ruth Wedgwood, who had incredible insights into the operation of international law. Lea Brilmayer moved to Yale when I was a student there, and her intellect and passion of the law have no bounds. I credit many of my amazing experiences and opportunities to her.

You have worked around the world, from a law firm in New York to the United Nations to various governments and now academia. Is this what you expected your international law journey would look like? What has been a highlight?

Mostly yes – I have to admit that being a Dean of a Law School was a deviation! A highlight was working with Lea Brilmayer for the government of Eritrea from 1998-2002. In a five day window, I worked at a London law firm to complete memorials, delivered them to the Peace Palace in the Hague, and then found myself running across a battlefield at the Eritrean border (hunched over, single file, at 30 second intervals) to see what damage had been wrought by an Ethiopian offensive that had just been repelled.

How would you describe the gender dynamic of working in an international law practice, as compared to public service? Has this changed over the years?

I remember well my first work experience at an Adelaide law firm where the partner I was shadowing laughingly called me a “lazy tart” when I said I had to leave earlier one day to get to my paid job at the time. And being taken to the firm’s weekly morning tea only to have him deposit me with the women at one end of the room while he joined the other (male) partners at the other end of the room. Fortunately, I didn’t have a comparable experience at all while working in New York at the firm Debevoise & Plimpton. In academia, I find it a very supportive environment for women as we have flexibility in organising our work times, and assessments of our performance can take into account time we have spent on parental leave.

Is there much intersection between law of the sea, with issues affecting women in international law?

There should be a greater intersection between the law of the sea and issues relating to women, but it is quite a neglected subject. A scholar in Europe has started a study on gendered approaches to the law of the sea. It is an area of law that is very statist in its approach so to the extent you are concerned with state behaviour, this feeds back into the male dominated political elites governing the vast majority of countries of the world. Once you drill down to the people who are at sea, we are dealing with male-dominated industries in terms of shipping, offshore resource exploitation, fishing, and, to a large extent, navies. The area where women have the strongest presence would be in relation to migrant movements by sea, but the tendency is to consider this a law enforcement activity rather than as a refugee or human rights issue. The law enforcement paradigm again pulls us back into a male-centric environment.

If you could give one piece of advice to women seeking a career in international law, what would it be?

There are a lot of different paths to get where you want to go so don’t be disheartened if one opportunity doesn’t work out. You just need to keep building your skills, knowledge and networks, and this can be done in lots of different ways. And you never know how they will pay off longer term. My most boring job was putting stickers on documents for discovery as a paralegal in one of the largest litigations ever pursued in South Australia at the time. When I was trying to get a job in New York, the partner I ended up working with convinced others I could be hired because he pointed to that boring job on my CV and said, look, she’s done commercial litigation work before. Ultimately, I think you can never underestimate the importance of hard work.