Family ties to law school

When Dr Marie Bismark began studying at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington Law School in 2000, she had a six-week-old baby with her. When she finished her degree, she was eight months pregnant with her second child, Stella.

Marie and Stella pose together wearing dark evening dresses.

Stella now attends the same law school her mother graduated from, 19 years on.  Professor David McLauchlan is one of the lecturers the mother and daughter have in common, along with Professor Petra Butler and Professor Geoff McLay.

“One of my strongest memories from law school was a personal one. One of our classmates had brought a shared lunch, and I couldn’t keep it down. I soon realised it was morning sickness, and was overjoyed,” says Dr Bismark, who had previously studied medicine at the University of Otago, as well as doing part of her law degree there and at the University of Auckland.

When Dr Bismark was close to graduation, Professor McLauchlan took her aside and asked her what she wanted to do with her career. “I said, ‘in ten years I’d like to be working in the medical human rights space’ and he said, ‘why wait ten years’, and introduced me to Ron Paterson, the then Health and Disability Commissioner.”

“One conversation changed the shape of my career and life, and I still work with Professor Paterson at the University of Melbourne. I really appreciated that side of the culture of the School, I felt like I was valued for my future as well as for my current status as student.”

“Another thing I loved about the Law School was how supportive they were of students from diverse backgrounds. Both myself and my classmate Tania Te Whenua had small babies, and there was a creche onsite we could put them in, and Petra made sure we had somewhere to breastfeed throughout the day.”

Dr Bismark holds a variety of roles and directorships, lecturing in Health Law at Melbourne Law School, and heading the Law and Public Health Group at the University of Melbourne. She is a director of Melbourne’s Royal Women’s Hospital and Summerset Aged Care.

She is currently involved in a study focused on the wellbeing of health practitioners, to understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on front line staff, and she and her team have just completed the world’s largest study of sexual misconduct in the health professions.

“I am very interested in the interface of law and medicine,” she says.

“One of my other roles is working as a psychiatrist with the Royal Melbourne Hospital, and North Western Mental Health, and part of that role is applying for tribunal orders, which I enjoy thanks to my legal background.”

Meanwhile, Stella is in her second year of study of law and biotechnology at the University, working towards a BSc/LLB. She and her partner also run their own Taekwondo studio Mozhdeh Martial Arts, in Paraparaumu. Stella is on the New Zealand Taekwondo team and is hoping to be able to represent her country at the Olympics in 2024.

“I went to high school in Melbourne, but was born here, so studying here felt like coming home,” says Stella, who checked out other universities, but liked the atmosphere here, and enjoyed her time at Katharine Jermyn Hall.

The COVID-19 impact
Stella had a lot of sympathy for lecturers as COVID-19 hit, because she was also forced to adjust to the Zoom format for giving lessons for her Taekwondo group. “I appreciated the huge amount of energy and commitment required by the lecturers in moving to deliver lessons online, while struggling initially to get back into the swing of things. In-person lectures are much better.”

While she hasn’t had time to join any Clubs, Stella is involved in the Wellington Community Justice Programme, a student-led charity at the Law School. “I am helping to set up the website for Asylum Seekers Equality Project, which aims to help asylum seekers in their human rights appeals.”

Dr Bismark is grateful that Stella is safe in New Zealand, as she undergoes a second lockdown in Melbourne, and that she can continue with her sport, study, and business.

“I think that the most important thing law school taught me is simply how to think. I won the Harkness fellowship to Harvard University in 2004, and I found it daunting coming from New Zealand to such an incredible institution. I soon realised how well I had been prepared by law school to think critically, and engage with the issues that matter.”

Asked whether her mum gave her any great advice when beginning her University years, Stella said, “she just put me on the plane.” Dr Bismark added, “I don’t think I’m a great advice-giver, Stella is so capable and independent, if anything she would be giving me advice.”