Volume 8, Issue 1
Clerkship applications open: cue fit of denial and rebellion; wailing and gnashing of teeth; general existential crisis. Response: interview the most social justice-y lawyer likely to answer my email. Result: inspiring, refreshing, exciting chat with Katie Robertson.
Describe your current role.
I’m an Associate in the Social Justice Practice at Maurice Blackburn. We do public interest cases; that is, cases that benefit more than the individual involved in the case, and will hopefully have an impact on the progressive development of law. Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of strategic asylum seeker litigation, but we also have a history of doing cases on behalf of Aboriginal Australians, human rights cases…etc
Oof, interest levels peaking. Elaborate?
Well, for example, we’re running a case on behalf of the Fertility Control Clinic in East Melbourne. There are people who stand outside the clinic each day – self-described ‘sidewalk counsellors’ – and attempt to talk to women entering and exiting the Clinic. Essentially we’re seeking a writ of mandamus against the Council, arguing that there are certain regulations the Council should use to prevent these people harassing the Clinic’s clientele.
Cool! So how did you end up here?
Originally, I really just didn’t want to practise law at all. I did an Arts degree, and it was only after I started volunteering at a community legal centre that I thought oh, maybe there are socially progressive things you can do within the law. So then I did a double degree, but even then I didn’t do any clerkships or anything like that, and I still wasn’t interested in practising.
Good lord, this is like watching ‘This is Your Life’. Go on.
I graduated and applied for a traineeship at Maurice Blackburn, because it accorded most closely to my values. I was attracted to work there because, without wishing to sound cheesy, the social justice work we do really is the backbone of the firm.
So you did end up qualifying, obviously…
It’s weird, when I was going through my law degree heaps of people who were doing jobs that interested me used to say, “You really should qualify, go do your articles”, and I used to roll my eyes and go, “Whatever.” But now I actually am one of those people, because I do think if you go and get good training you can take it anywhere, particularly if you want to go and work in the legal aid sector. Legal Aid needs good skills, and needs good lawyers, and so you’re in a much better position to go and do the work you’re really passionate about if you have that basic training.
I’ve certainly had a lot of people tell me that you kind of have to go slog it out in the corporate sector for a bit, and then go off and pursue your dreams of doing good…
I do know a number of people who’ve gone and spent a fairly short amount of time at large corporate firm, like your Allens or your Freehills, and have used that as a platform to go and work in the international sector, the legal aid sector, or the government sector… If somebody goes to work in a corporate firm it’s only going to open doors for them, not close them. But I couldn’t have done that myself. So I would say to people who are concerned about training somewhere where they don’t feel the values of the place align with theirs that there are other options. It’s beneficial to get your training but you can be discretionary about where you get that training.
You mean I have a choice? I can have standards? I don’t just have to sell my soul/brain to anyone who will take it?
I was lucky, in one sense, because I was the last of the dinosaurs: I was in the last year where firms weren’t as strict in terms of only taking on trainees who’d clerked with them. During my degree I was far too interested in travelling and doing non-legal things during my holidays. It’s certainly more challenging now to get your foot in the door. But don’t compromise too much on doing something you really loathe because there are so many ways to get into what you want to do. Once you have your degree – and particularly once you’re qualified – you realise how many options there are for law graduates in numerous sectors. For me, I’ve always been clear with myself about the sort of work I wanted to do. I really wanted to work at the Aboriginal Legal Aid Service, so I went and did that; I really wanted to work at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal in Cambodia, so I went and did that. It can be scary, but I think sometimes you just have to take a bit of a risk. Going to do things you’re passionate about only ever opens up more doors for you.
I think I’m going to make that into an inspirational poster and paper level 3 with it. Brilliant. But back to you. You’ve done quite a bit of media and lobbying around social justice issues. Do you think that this is part of the role of a lawyer, or do you think lawyers’ duty is purely to get the best result for their client?
I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive; I think they’re completely interrelated. I don’t think you can get the best result for your client, necessarily, without keeping your finger on the pulse of what’s going on at a policy level. That’s certainly the case in migration law. The law’s very limited in the options available to asylum seekers, so a lot of my work tends to be on the political advocacy side. But across the field, lawyers are advocates and, in furtherance of advocating for their clients, they need to be advocating for progressive change in the law.
Hmm. If I learned one thing from Admin (debatable), it’s that a judge isn’t likely to take kindly to being told that the law needs to be changed. Something about the separation of the rule of law on the merits. And powers. Those too.
Well, court isn’t the only appropriate forum, and it’s obviously quite a restrictive one. But that’s no reason why you can’t be doing lobbying work on the side. In fact, policy and advocacy work should be done in conjunction with litigation. Lawyers have a really privileged role to play in that sector because we’re the ones at the coal face of the issues people are experiencing, so in some ways we’re best placed to be providing feedback up the chain. I really think there’s a conscious attack going on against the judiciary by the executive at the moment, and that’s a real threat to the rule of law in this country. Again, lawyers need to be playing a really active role in alerting the rest of the community to what’s actually going on. Even if they’re in immigration or anti-terror laws, encroachments on judicial power and the expansion of executive powers do affect all of our civil rights in Australia, one way or another.
And what about us law students? What can we do?
Volunteer – law students have a really privileged position in terms of your skills and knowledge, so you are able to and should funnel that into volunteering and hurry up and get qualified so you can help these people!
Sarah Moorhead is a second year JD Student