Can you describe the different types of roles that you have had?
I volunteered at community legal centres while I was studying, and was drawn to using the law to achieve social change. When I finished law school, I joined a large national commercial firm, where I had great opportunities to develop, working with great mentors and teachers. I was seconded to a large corporate client for over six months, which was a great insight into inhouse practice, which allows a lawyer to develop more commercial skills and really strong internal relationships with people with a range of experiences and strengths. I was the principal lawyer at a homeless persons’ legal clinic, where I worked with passionate and intelligent people – peers, clients and supporters. I also worked as an academic in a law school, and was really drawn to the way that research could influence public policy. So I’ve experienced a range of legal roles, but I keep coming back to community legal centres; they’re the places where the law is most real and raw, where laws and institutions have a powerful impact on powerless people, and where you can see real improvements in people’s lives, including your own.
When did you know that you wanted to be a lawyer?
I wanted to be a lawyer when I was at high school; like many high-achieving students who didn’t enjoy maths, it seemed like a good option. I also grew up in a family that was really involved in the community and talked about ideas like equality and justice, so it seemed like a good fit. I didn’t get the marks I wanted at high school, so took a circuitous route, working in hospitality for a few years before starting uni at age 22. I haven’t looked back!
A lawyer, a priest and a classicist walk into a bar. What does the lawyer say and why?
‘Get me a beer.’ Because sometimes, you just need a drink.
If you could only give one bit of advice to new lawyers, what would it be?
Get involved in pro bono or volunteer at a community legal centre, or in another cause. You’ve been blessed with skills and an education that can make a real difference to the community, so don’t waste it. As a new lawyer, you’ll have great opportunities and experiences when you work for free for people who really benefit from your help.
What makes a lawyer a great lawyer?
An ability to connect with people. I’ve seen a lot of people who understood the legal rules, remembered the cases, and could draft great legal documents. But the great lawyers can all connect with the people around them – colleagues, clients, court officers, baristas and barristers.
What would you say are the hazards of this profession?
The legal profession attracts people who are bright, committed and ambitious, and that’s part of what makes lawyers such interesting people to work with. Those same characteristics make it difficult for us to accept anything less than perfect, and to focus too much on our work, at the expense of some of the other important things in our lives. We shouldn’t ever lose sight of those important things – and people – in our lives.
How do you balance life and work?
It’s hard. I love my work, and probably work more than I should. My kids (Jack, aged 6, and Georgie, aged 5) keep me pretty grounded. When Georgie was about 3, she asked me if I was sleeping at my work during a particularly busy stage – that was a rude awakening!
James Farrell OAM is the director of QAILS (Queensland Association of Independent Legal Services), the peak organisation for community legal centres.