When did you first know you wanted to be a lawyer?
Throughout my law degree I was at best lukewarm about the idea of practising as a lawyer. I took some time off mid- degree and worked in outdoor education, and spent time doing all the things I hadn’t done at university. I learnt how to use a chainsaw and service a car, how to cook bread and grow vegetables, and how to co- exist for weeks at a time with groups of secondary students in very basic living conditions. After two years I returned to university realising that my body wouldn’t hold up to a lifetime of physical work, and that eventually I wanted to be financially independent.
I completed my law degree during which I took a subject which taught ‘critical legal theory’. This subject provided tools to look at legal constructs critically and to seek to challenge them in a coherent way. This made more sense to me than simply learning the law and accepting it at face value and I figured that maybe there was a future for me in law after all. I traveled to Alice Springs to instruct in a rape trial once I finished my studies. This only occurred because I went to a function with my old bush-walking and camping mates, one of whom was traveling to Alice the next day to run a difficult trial and as it was funded by Aboriginal Legal Aid. At the time there was no funding for a solicitor or instructor. He asked if I’d like to come and help out and I said yes. The next morning I caught the first flight to Alice Springs, purchased for the sum of $880, which was the entire sum of my bank balance at the time.
I was quite scared to be going to court for someone I assumed was a rapist, but as it turns out he was a very shy aboriginal man who had had an appalling life experience, and he was not at all scary.
Also as it turns out, his accuser was his step-daughter who resented her mother partnering and wanted him out of the house. I discovered then, as I have found with every single case subsequently, that things are never as simple as they seem at first, whether for better or for worse. The trial ran, was aborted and ran again twice over a three week period. During this time I also had the opportunity to travel to a bush court in the Tanami desert. Many of the Defendants were rounded up the night before and put in gaol to make sure they turned up at court. In the morning we door-knocked every house in the community to see if anyone had court that day and wanted to see legal aid.
Before then I never knew that there were whole communities in Australia where kids grew up not speaking English. I spent a few hours that day talking to a thirteen year old girl who was charged with arson for burning down the old school canteen. She was in big trouble and was looking at being locked up and taken away from the community. I talked to her for hours and eventually (not before a long time of talking about other things altogether) found out that there was an absolutely innocent explanation for what had occurred. The duty lawyer explained what actually happened to the Magistrate and she got off. And that was it for me. This was the moment I decided I wanted to be a lawyer representing individuals against prosecution by the State.
How do you balance life and work?
I have 2 young children (and four grown up step children) and attending to their needs forces me to keep my feet on the ground. Whilst I don’t believe work is the be- all and end- all I do have trouble when I am stressed or anxious about my client’s cases, or a particular aspect of them. I find it very hard not to bring that home with me. That makes me irritable with all of the family. I haven’t figured out a real solution to that problem yet but it is an ever- present problem of trying to manage family and work.
I am often exhausted and sometimes feel like it’s just all too much. Also because it is my own business, the buck always stops with me no matter what the issue is – whether it’s staff problems, legal problems or the internet is down.
Mobile communications such as iPad and iPhone and cloud based document systems are sometimes a curse in that work is ever- present. However in my experience they are the most important tools in enabling me to work and manage my family life.
Is the reality of law anything like what you imagined it?
I have been surprised over and again to discover that much of the time in practising law there are always contrasting views between practitioners, barristers, judges and commentators about what the law actually is on any particular point. I think I had expected more consensus about the ‘right answer’. Other things have surprised me over time about practising law. For instance, human beings tell lies – big and small – all the time and about all sorts of things. Who knew? I had thought that most people tell the truth most of the time. I have also learned that as a solicitor – being familiar with the procedures and expectations of the Courts you’re dealing with is paramount. Judges and Magistrates are just human beings and they differ in style, approach and attitudes very significantly. Some lawyers are unnecessarily aggressive and hostile no matter how courteous you are towards them, and some lawyers will continue to be aggressive and hostile even when they are in the wrong.
What are your passions outside of the law?
Classical music. More particularly, Bach. I have sung and toured with various choirs over the years, including most recently the Australian Chamber Choir and from time to time Scots Church Choir Melbourne. I love the sacred works by Byrd, Palestrina, Tallis, Lassus. But most of all I’m obsessed with Bach – his music only becomes richer and more interesting and engaging the more I listen to and sing it.
What are the hazards of this profession?
Stress, anxiety, depression, overwork, relationship breakdown. Did I say stress? Law can be a hard field to work in. It depends on your field of law, but certainly, in my area, it can be hard dealing with people in crisis; people who don’t always appreciate the complexities of their legal situations or who sometimes have unrealistic or unachievable expectations for their lawyer. And, it’s not possible to obtain a ‘successful outcome’ in every matter no matter how well you deal with the issues – this in itself can be difficult.
If you could give one piece of advice to a new lawyer what would it be?
NEVER ASSUME ANYTHING? Continue to remind yourself this continually throughout your legal career. Check and double check your information. Check your facts, check the legislation, check that what you say is understood, check that your cases are listed when they are meant to be listed, check that your correspondences are received and read, check that your client is who they say they are, check who it is that you’re getting instructions from…
What attracts you to the profession of law?
It’s interesting, it’s challenging. It offers great scope to ‘stand up’ for individuals in difficult situations. It offers the opportunity to engage with a range of social and policy issues. Finally, I believe in justice and that there is no justice without adequate legal representation of individuals at all stages throughout the legal process. At least in my fields of practice, the legal profession offers the opportunity to provide this important function.
Nicole is Principal of Spicer Lawyers established in 2009. Nicole is a former lawyer & Partner at Robert Stary Lawyers and is an accredited criminal law specialist since 2002.