Is the reality of being a lawyer anything like how you imagined it?
I am generally aware of some of the shortcomings of the legal profession in terms of its lack of progress in changing the balance of women leaders in firms, at the bar and on the bench over the last thirty years; the slow response to the problem of burgeoning numbers of young law students not being able to be provided with experience and training within firms; and the poor cultural practices in some firms and legal institutions. However I have been fortunate to have worked with a range of eclectic and feisty lawyers in two firms (medium sized and the large), and followed this with 11 rewarding years establishing my own award-winning firm, Justitia, with my colleague, Mary-Jane Ierodiaconou (who has recently been appointed an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court). With the blue sky opportunities and flexibility that running your firm enables, we have been able to create opportunities for law students to be an intrinsic part of our law firm model, and created a positive workplace culture that aspires to be innovative and different. So when I fell into the study law, little did I know that I was commencing a journey that would allow me to learn many new skills beyond just an understanding of legal principles. Through my legal training I have been able to explore entrepreneurialism and deepen my understanding of how business works and lead an organisation. So no, it has not been anything like what I might have imagined.
What are your passions outside the law?
I am interested in girls’ education, the difference it can make to them and their place in the world and how that can change the world. In the past 15 years I have been involved in the educational governance structures of seven Australian schools for girls established by an international order of sisters whose inspirational founder, Mary Ward, lived 400 years ago.
In my down time, I like traveling to foreign countries with my family so we can learn about life, culture and religions beyond our world in Melbourne. We have been fortunate to have experienced a wide array of countries and cultures and met many diverse people. I would like my children to feel part of a wider world, that extends beyond our Australian borders.
When I have more time, I would like to write up some family history involving a Jewish relative during the second world war, and do something with a treasure trove of taped interviews with student politicians which I conducted in the 1980s.
If you could give one bit of advice to new lawyers, what would it be?
If you have a passion to practice a particular type of law, or work in a particular part of the profession, do not be deterred if you do not get there on the first attempt. There are many ways to create opportunities and make oneself attractive to a prospective employer. Sometimes it pays to think outside the box. Industry knowledge and skills can be obtained through other related, and even non-legal, roles, and then you can knock on the door again of the organisation which previously declined your application, and say, this is what I now have to offer. Importantly it can help to show passion and that you will go to great lengths to obtain the desired job. If you aren’t feeling any passion for your job, perhaps you should ask if it is right for you.
What makes a lawyer a great lawyer?
I think a great lawyer is someone who sets their own emotions to one side, providing dispassionate, logical, reasoned advice to their client. The great lawyer has excellent people skills, and high emotional intelligence, and can communicate effectively, clearly and compassionately with their client, reading the landscape and taking into account all the elements that bear on their advice. The great lawyer is ready to do battle on behalf of their client where necessary. The great lawyer can find a cost effective and lasting solution.
What at the hazards of this profession?
One hazard is staying in a job because you are paid well, but you feel no passion for or connection with either the subject matter or the people with whom you work. We can sometimes be sucked in to thinking that life is all about money and status. But it may not be the right place to be, and the cost of sustained unhappiness and non-fulfilment, or remaining in a dysfunctional workplace, can be high. Instead it is important to ask is this the right place for me, and if not, seek advice from friends and colleagues to ascertain where might be the right fit for one’s skills and priorities. And I would repeat the shortcomings I identified above.
How do you balance life and work?
I cycle to work, which is 10 km from home and helps me keep my stress levels down; I actively pursue my friendships so that I have emotional support in daily life; I remain involved in my children’s lives, though sometimes it is worth checking in with them to find out if they think you are actually as present as you think you are; I am involved in organisations outside of law which shows me my legal skills have some value outside of my workplace and this is a confidence boost; and I work in my own business which means I have flexibility and control over my workload to lead a balanced life and pursue diverse interests.
What is your best tip for maintaining sanity in the law?
Don’t sweat the small things. Nothing lasts forever. As Heraklitus, the Greek philosopher said: we step into the same river, and yet it is not the same river, as you never step twice into the same river. Nothing rests, everything passes, nothing lasts, cold becomes warm, warm becomes cold, wet dries, and dryness becomes wet…. Everything has its day. Things change, and we need to be adaptive and be able to move along with that change.
Sarah is the managing partner of Justitia, an established workplace relations law firm in Melbourne and serving clients nationally. Justitia has won multiple awards from bodies such as the LIV’s “Law Firm of the Year” and AHRI’s “Sir Ken Robinson Award for Workforce Flexibility”, recognising its unique work culture and excellent client service. www.justitia.com.au @SarahMRrey