Fourth-year UNSW student Sanjay Alapakkam is far from the typical lawyer you might see on television. You won’t find him in an inner-city office, looking for legal loopholes to help the rich and wealthy. When he talks to you, he won’t dominate the conversation by speaking loudly or quickly. Instead, with his calm and thoughtful demeanour, he exudes wisdom that’s clearly beyond his years.
These are the qualities which have helped him win Australia’s most prestigious award available to law students – Lawyers Weekly’s Law Student of the Year.
AT A GLANCE:
- Sanjay Alapakkam of UNSW wins this year’s Lawyers Weekly’s Law Student of the Year Award
- He is passionate about social justice, having worked in migration law with asylum seekers and refugees, and as UNSW’s Queer Officer.
- He believes the industry could benefit with increased diversity
“When deciding the award, Lawyers Weekly look at a few different things,” Sanjay told Indian Link. “Academic achievement and work experience aside, they also look at what makes you stand out as a law student, including your community involvement and where your passion for law and justice comes from.”
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For Sanjay Alapakkam, it’s clear his passion lies in social justice. With both humility and deft articulation, he glosses over his impressive CV, which includes time working in migration law with asylum seekers and refugees, an article on the law surrounding temporary protection visas published by the UNSW Law Society’s Court of Conscience Journal, and his most recent employment with the Inspector of Custodial Services, ensuring youth detention centres and custodial systems are properly run.
In addition, he is also currently Vice President of the UNSW Law Society, having previously championed the rights and needs of UNSW’s LGBTQ+ law students when he served as the student club’s Queer Officer last year.
“I’m motivated by variety,” Sanjay said with enthusiasm. “Doing different things in a day acts as a stimulus for me – I get to start each day jumping into a new task.”
Though he recognises the huge amount of opportunities available to him in today’s legal industry, he knows it was once not as easy for an LGBTQ+ person of colour to make the same breakthroughs he has.
“There’s been a big improvement over the last couple of decades with regards to diversity in the workplace. I think people are starting to value the idea that those with different life experiences have different things to offer, which encourages those who might have been turned off previously. Diverse leadership brings with it fresh perspectives and new ways of looking at things. That value has played a big part in moving this cause forward,” he told Indian Link.
Diversity in the legal industry
“The first step is encouragement – mentoring programs are hugely important,” Sanjay replied. “When people see others like them in the roles they might like to take on in future, a visceral feeling of motivation develops that is really important.”
He added, “It’s also important not to underestimate yourself based on your personality. Instead, look at your competencies and what you do well. That mindset really needs to be encouraged.”
His advice to current and prospective law students mirrors his message of self-improvement.
“First, ask for help. People have been in your shoes before and are happy to tell you what their experiences were like.
“Second, look at every failure or setback as a learning experience. No matter who you are, you will face setbacks. See it as something to fix for next time, as a learning opportunity. You never know, your future success could be shaped by these setbacks.
“Third, grasp every opportunity you can and have an open mind. I think very few people know it all – even at the end of their careers. When presented with an opportunity think to yourself, what can I learn? What can it teach me? Go into a new activity with an open mind, grasp the opportunities it presents, and value the skills it helps build.”
This final piece of advice, he noted, is what ultimately gets him through the day.
“Working with people who have experienced the nadir of the human condition and seeing the resilience and courage they embody has helped me reflect on how lucky I am, and to ultimately understand it would be a waste to not take hold of every opportunity.”