By the time I finished my practical legal training I was sure what I wanted to do – work in family law at Legal Aid
Recently I received an award from the ACT Women Lawyers Association for “Lawyer of the year – Academic and Community.” I have been in practice since 1984, and teaching at ANU Legal Workshop since 2003, so I’ve had a lot of years to do the things that resulted in this award.
But it did make me pause and reflect on the path of my career that enabled me to make a contribution in the two spheres of community lawyering and academia, and how fate, chance and desperation conspired to give me wonderful opportunities.
By the time I finished my practical legal training I was sure what I wanted to do – work in family law at Legal Aid. I applied for a position in the Legal Aid Family Law section for a junior solicitor and didn’t get it. I was devastated. I took a position at a small private firm in Queanbeyan where I had done my PLT placement. This turned out to be a fabulous experience and I learnt so much in the two or so years I was there.
One evening I was giving a talk at a local Women’s Refuge on domestic violence laws in NSW. There was a solicitor from Legal Aid speaking on the ACT laws. We introduced ourselves and got chatting. She wanted to take six months off to travel but was not allowed as they couldn’t find a replacement for six months. I told her I would do it…finally I had my foot in the door at Legal Aid.
As is often the case, I was able to finagle the six month contract into a permanent position in the Family Law Section. My next ambition was to be the head of the section. After five years of urgent interim hearings, child abductions, red wine, and workmates who became lifelong friends, I made it. About nine months later I had my first child and the whole world changed.
I went back to work after six months maternity leave though my request to work four days per week was declined. In those days there was no email (can you believe it!) and flexible work practices did not exist. The urgent and unpredictable nature of much of the work meant long hours in the office. I missed my baby a lot.
I knew I had to find a position where I could work part time and with much sadness moved to a policy role in the ACT Government, working in law reform. I was able to work for two years on reform of the legal and system approach to domestic violence – this became the Family Violence Intervention Project which still exists today. During this time I had another baby and dropped to working three days a week. I was among many other mothers who had sought refuge in the public service to better balance family and work.
After about two years one of my friends persuaded me to join him and another uni friend in a small practice in O’Connor, as the family law partner. I jumped at the idea actually as I very much missed being in practice, and wanted more control and autonomy over my working hours. I said that I wanted to work from home on Fridays and that was fine. This happened about once!
A couple of years later and baby number three came along. I took some mat leave and then went back to our practice with children aged 1, 5 and 6 – and 12 weeks of school holidays to cover, not to mention half day pre-school, concerts, dress up days, canteen roster, sick children and cobbled together child care that was always on the verge of falling over completely. I had a wonderful partner who treated this as a joint enterprise – but he worked full time too.
I wanted to spend time with my little people before they grew up and that just wasn’t happening. I had to find a job that enabled me to do that, and cover the school holidays.
Hello Legal Workshop! The GDLP had just moved online so I took a casual position working online from home –which meant I could do school pick up, sport and activities, holidays, supervise homework, cook dinner while quickly marking another couple of assignments – lots of burnt sausages is my memory of these years. As well as working from home, I worked from the park, the pool, the car...and even occasionally from the ANU!
This was meant to be a stop gap until the children were a bit older and I’d finally convinced them that school holiday programs were fun – then I could go back to practice. Surprisingly, I began to love the work I was doing, preparing new lawyers for practice. This has been my permanent full time job now for over ten years. Because of the flexibility of the work, and the ANU’s emphasis on service, I have been able to combine this with continued ad hoc practice at the Women’s Legal Centre, through the Legal Aid Clinic we run for our GDLP students and by teaching the Youth Law Clinical course based at Legal Aid. I’ve ended up with the best of both worlds (and grown up children who still complain when reminded of the ‘terrible’ school holiday programs they were forced to attend.)
So I encourage new lawyers to engage in as many things as possible –don’t rule anything out –you never know when fate and chance will cross your path and change its trajectory, for the better!