Elizabeth Shearer


What makes a lawyer a great lawyer?

My definition of a great lawyer is probably a bit different to many. For me, it’s not about doing the high profile cases in complex areas of law. I think a great lawyer is someone:

  • who “gets” that the relationship with the client is a fiduciary one as well as a commercial one
  • who ultimately uses their skills for good in some way (even if they learnt some of those skills working in another context – speaking as someone who, as an articled clerk was very efficient at getting orders to have people evicted for non-payment of their mortgage and who now practises in consumer credit for borrowers)
  • who always treats everyone they deal with with courtesy and respect (despite the many provocations to do otherwise that arise in any day in legal practice)
    What would you say are the hazards of the profession?

    I think we can define success too narrowly, and this leaves a lot of our number feeling vaguely unsatisfied with what they have achieved in their professional career.

    What attracts you most to the profession of law?

    I still cling to the romantic notion that it can be a noble profession where every day you get to strive to bring a little bit more access to a little bit more justice for someone.

    Although people might think it is an odd thing to say about the practice of law, I also think it requires a lot of creativity because if we are doing our job well we are combining intellectual problem solving with crafting practical solutions that address serious problems.

    I also think that we often don’t value enough the skill we have of sifting through a whole lot of material and distilling it to a few relevant points that perfectly states a client’s issue. I really enjoy being able to do this for people – it makes such a difference for people to feel their perspective is understood and to know that there is a way to work through an issue that was overwhelming them.

    If you could only give one bit of advice to new lawyers, what would it be?

    When I was a new lawyer, I changed jobs every 2 years and did lots of different things (city & suburban, large & small law firms, policy in government, university teaching, legal aid, community legal centre) until I found the niche I liked. So my advice is to resist the pressure to get too specialised too quickly.

    Is the reality of being a lawyer anything like how you imagined it?

    It is a lot better than I imagined it. If, when I was a law student, someone had described to me the things that I have been able to do in the law, I would have been very excited. A lot of what I have done just didn’t exist back then. I think it will be the same for people starting their legal careers now.

    How do you balance life and work?

    If you persist until you find a job you enjoy, it is a lot easier to balance life and work because work doesn’t weigh so heavily on the scale. I also think realistic expectations are an important part of feeling satisfied with your work life balance. Having said that, probably the most important part of my work life balance is always having a holiday to look forward to.

    What are your hopes for our profession?

    I hope that we are able to seize the opportunities offered by technology while retaining our core professional values.

    Elizabeth Shearer is a Brisbane lawyer who established Affording Justice in 2011 to bridge the access to justice gap for people who can’t get free legal help but who can’t afford the traditional model of legal representation. She has been a lawyer since 1986 working in private legal practices of many shapes and sizes as well as spending a number of years at Legal Aid Queensland where she was director of Client Information and Advice Services and Civil Justice services. She also consults to government and other agencies in the access to justice sector with a focus on innovative service delivery models and using data to demonstrate effectiveness.