Unpacking a Lawyer

by Stephanie – A winemaker who found her way

aboriginal turtle

My mum was a single parent with an only child and a newly completed teaching degree (focusing on Early Childhood and Aboriginal Studies) from when I was five. Her first position was in Onslow, a coastal Pilbara town with one school and a large indigenous population where we lived for 4 years. In my memory, my childhood was a never-ending summer (to be fair, it pretty much was in terms of the weather) spent exploring a beautiful part of the world. This fondness for remote Australian locations may have influenced my future career choices.

I completed my primary school and high school years in Perth. When I finished high school, my mum returned to work in remote indigenous communities in central Western Australia. She has spent the last five or so years in the Kimberley.

I now practise native title law.

It took me a while to get this point though. I took a gap year after high school, and studied a course I wasn’t particularly interested in before switching to a Bachelor of Science (Viticulture and Oenology). I realised about a two thirds of the way through this degree that I didn’t want to be a winemaker, took some time off, finished the degree anyway and then continued to spend the next couple of years working in hospitality and becoming increasingly depressed with my contribution (or lack thereof) to anything good or interesting.

I discussed my feelings with a friend, who asked me to name the people I admired most in life and why. The first person I named was my mum. Her dedication to the education of indigenous children made me want to contribute in some way. She inspired me because she didn’t shy away from something that needed doing. Moving to remote indigenous communities as a single mother, and then later as a single woman, couldn’t have been easy. Choosing to focus her teaching degree in the first place on Aboriginal Studies was not necessary. And yet she clearly recognised that the education of indigenous students was a necessary component of furthering the position of this minority group, and also recognised that few teachers seemed willing to make this move. And so she did. She was (and still is) the sort of teacher who, when a Kosovonian parent discovered she had spent time in Saudi Arabia and thus was familiar with the concept of Ramadan, accepted their dinner invitation because she realised its significance. My mum is satisfied and content in her career and what it means. She knows that it is important because other people aren’t always willing to engage with the difficult jobs in life, and if no one engages, then the difficult jobs don’t get done. In the field of social justice, this generally means that people, sometimes whole groups of them, miss out. I wanted this same satisfaction for myself.

The second people I named were the adoptive parents of my ex-stepdad. They were such vibrant and interesting people. Into their seventies they were still travelling on a yearly basis to China to participate in dragon boat racing. They cared deeply for their (rather sprawling) family and had a beautiful lust for life that age had obviously not dimmed. They inspired me with their energy.

The third person I named was the manager of a restaurant I once worked in. I didn’t always get on with this woman, but admired her nonetheless. She had been engaged six times, and had travelled extensively. When I knew her, she was in her fifties, single, childless and content. I admired her curiosity about the world, and I admired that she hadn’t conformed to societal expectations that she marry and procreate. I admired that she clearly felt that this was entirely her choice.

My friend told me I should become a human rights lawyer. He said it was clear I was interested in social justice and that this challenge and the rewards that go along with it would likely bring the energy to my life that I was missing. He said that my curiosity about other cultures, which was also something I admired in others, would be a beneficial trait in such an industry. He also said that my admiration for the third person I named, in regards to their decision not to adhere to societal norms regarding marriage and children, was perhaps a trait of a lawyer. What he said resonated with me, and within six months of this conversation I was starting a post-graduate law degree.

It was challenging, but I really enjoyed the way my studies started to change how I thought and processed information. This was not something I had felt in my previous studies. My undergraduate degree had been about learning the established processes for growing vines and making wine, whereas to me my law degree was about learning the shape of society and then seeing what was happening in the spaces.

One of the main reasons I ended up working as a lawyer is because I remained interested in the subject matter. The numerous internships I completed confirmed I was making the right choice. My dedication to social justice grew (the majority of the internships I completed were in this field) and I came to realise it really was the perfect career choice for me – I could do something that challenged me academically (a selfish reason) while also feeling like I was making a valid contribution to my community (also a selfish reason, but with more altruistic overtones). I hope my degree will take me further than the practice of law – possibly into the realms of international policy and academia, which will allow me to travel and delve into other cultures – but my interest in social justice will remain the focus of whatever I do. And it is law that has allowed me to get to this point, and will carry me on to wherever I choose to go from here.

This short story won second place in our Unpacking a Lawyer writing competition.