When did you know that you wanted to be a lawyer?
I wasn’t one of those who dreamed of the law from an early age. In fact my childhood dreams included being a nun (I had loved Audrey Hepburn in the movie A Nun’s Story (the fact I wasn’t Catholic was a slight problem), having lots of children to run through fields of grass with (pretty much Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music) or being a doctor. I was heading towards medicine when I realised at the end of year 11 that I did not much like the sight of blood and might need to rethink this choice. Then in year 12 I saw that there was a public speaking competition at my school. The first prize was books. I was an avid reader and no one else had entered from my school so I put down my name hoping to get the books. I won the books (as the only entrant at my school)! I then went on to win the regional competition, and finally represented Victoria in the national finals of the Australia Britain Society public speaking competition, held at the Sydney Opera House. It was heady stuff for a sixteen year old who at that stage had very little idea what she wanted to do. At that point I started to think that a career where I was paid to communicate well might be wonderful. I also wanted what I did to mean something, and to be able to help people, and law seemed to fit the bill.
What attracts you most to the profession of law?
It is always interesting. It involves people and the fascinating conundrums that develop every day in their lives – both business and personal. People come to see you when they are facing problems and you have the opportunity to make a very real difference to them by the way you handle their cases. The fact gathering and legal analysis and research you bring to the task can make all the difference to winning or losing, and it is very stimulating. The law itself keeps evolving, and there is always more to read, analyse and learn. I love the logic of the law, the problem solving involved in trying to find a way to best present a client’s case, the satisfaction of seeing the client relax a little as they realise you know what you are doing and are across the detail of their case, and the pleasure of trying to get the best result possible for them, whether by negotiating a settlement they are happy with or by fighting a case to the end. From the first time a case lands on your desk, to the conferences where you find out as much as possible about it, to the legal research and drafting, the negotiations, and the advocacy in court: it is all challenging and interesting. And you don’t need to watch daytime TV to see the range of human behaviour and interaction!
What are your passions outside of the law?
My family (including three children aged 12 to 19) and friends, writing, reading (all sorts of genres), history, drama, yoga, and finding out more about how people tick. I didn’t study psychology at school or university but have read and learnt a lot about it since. Understanding people and their motivations can make a big difference to outcomes in litigation -as well as life generally.
If you had your time again, would you choose to practice in law? If not, what else would you choose to do?
I would come to the Victorian Bar at the age of twenty-four all over again. I recently realised that I have been a barrister more than half my life. I have loved it.
If you could only give one bit of advice to new lawyers, what would it be?
Work as hard as you can on each case you take on because there is no substitute for good preparation – your client depends on you and you never know where that ‘killer’ winning point is lurking in all the detail – but along the way, keep making time for the other people and things that matter in your life. Is that two pieces of advice or one? The two are so intermingled I am going to treat them as one. You can’t work hard if you are continually exhausted; you can’t bring the intensity and interest you need to bring to your cases if you are not happy; and what is the point of having a great career if the rest of your life is awful? In the end you only have one life and you are in the driving seat – why not decide to do what it takes to enjoy that life, and to make your life (and career) work for you? It takes stopping to think about the balance every now and then, and sometimes ramping up work, and at other times adjusting what work you take on so you also have time for family, exercise, a coffee with friends, a break, and for doing things you love to do.
What would you say are the hazards of this profession?
First, the fact that you are dealing constantly with people who are in strife of one sort or another, and at times that can give you a skewed view of the world. Secondly, the pressures and need for long hours at times. When a trial needs preparing, and deadlines are looming, the work has to be done – and done well – whether you are tired or busy on other matters or not. Sleep can suffer for a while at least.
Is the reality of being a lawyer anything like how you imagined it?
I grew up watching LA Law, Rumpole and Ally McBeal (all of which dates me enormously now). Some of what I thought the law would be like from watching shows about lawyers still holds true though – the tactics, the drama of court, the great cross-examination questions, the chance to make all the difference to someone’s case. What the TV and movie dramas never showed – and still can’t or no-one would watch them – is the hours, days and even months of work that goes into those few exciting moments in court. There is much more time spent preparing for cases, drafting submissions and pleadings, and planning how to run them, than I appreciated. As a commercial lawyer a large percentage of cases never make it to court and the best result you can get for a client is often a great settlement negotiated outside of court. The satisfaction of being a lawyer, though, is much higher than I ever dreamed.
How do you balance life and work?
I stop every now and then and take stock, to make sure my life includes all the different parts that matter to me and that it doesn’t get out of whack for long periods of time. Whatever work I take on I do to the best of my ability, but I make sure that I don’t continually take on so much that I don’t have time for the people and other things that matter to me. (An easy test is that I usually feel a thrill of pleasure as each new matter comes in, I unwrap the pink ribbon around it, open the brief and start thinking about how to approach it. When I feel exhausted, that thrill isn’t there: it is yet another thing to add to an already too long ‘to do’ list. At that stage I know I need to schedule some time out – even if it is for after a busy patch, it gives me something to look forward to. I like the saying “When you say Yes to something, what are you saying No to?” Sometimes saying yes to too much work at once means saying no to all the other things and people that matter (including sleep, exercise and good health). That price is too high to maintain long term. In a practical sense, when necessary I schedule time away from work, time for exercise and coffees and time with friends and family in my electronic calendar as carefully as I schedule work commitments. Things get rescheduled, but having them recorded makes them more likely to be kept. For me, ‘balance’ doesn’t mean each day is balanced neatly between work, family, friends and time to myself – but that looked at over the course of days, weeks or even months the different aspects I want to have in my life are happening. And if they aren’t, I do something about it.
Samantha Marks QC has been a barrister at the Victorian Bar for twenty-five years. She took silk in 2010. She principally practices in commercial law, probate and TFM matters, in the Supreme and Federal Courts. She is also an accredited mediator, a member of the Victorian Bar Council and a past Convenor of the Women Barristers’ Association. Her legal blog ‘SamanthaMarksQC’ is at http://www.samanthamarkssc.com.