Interviewer: Julia Sperac, Marketing/Legal Research Assistant – Julia is a penultimate-year Juris Doctor student at The University of Melbourne. Before studying law, she completed a Bachelor of Commerce (Marketing) and currently works as a dual Marketing/Legal Research Assistant.
How did you get started in law and employment law specifically?
Starting from the beginning, I left school and did an accounting degree, which I didn’t enjoy so I changed my major to personnel and industrial relations. Just before graduating, I was offered a job with the Confederation of Western Australia Industry as a research assistant, which was a career path to becoming an industrial advocate. It was a role where you represented employers in various industries in all things relating to industrial relations and employment, including award entitlements. I then progressed to do the work of an industrial advocate where I represented employers in the Western Australian Industrial Relations Commission and the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. I stayed in this role for seven years.
When the Industrial Relations Court of Australia came into being, I then decided I needed a law degree to update my skills and keep relevant to changes in my industry. While completing my law degree I also had the opportunity to work full time as a paralegal for Phillips Fox, who were setting up a practice in industrial relations. I went back to the Chamber of Commerce on a casual basis for the remainder of my degree and then did my articles there too, before moving to Melbourne and working for a couple of law firms. By this time I was so entrenched in industrial relations that there was no contest about going in another area. I eventually decided to go out on my own as a sole practitioner.
Have you seen any major changes in employment law from when you started to now?
When I started in industrial relations there was no enterprise bargaining so terms and conditions of employment were set by industry awards. There was a state award system and federal award system operating parallel, so even where an employer only had employees in one state, they could potentially be subject to two industrial relations systems. Some employees would be covered by state awards and some would be covered by federal awards. This is because under the previous federal legislation, coverage of industrial awards depended on there being an interstate industrial dispute which required unions to serve logs of claims on employers, and employers would then typically refuse the log of claims. This created, on paper, an industrial dispute which could be settled by making an industrial award. If there was no industrial dispute there was no federal award, and so then there was a state industrial relations system that sat alongside it.
Now this is more harmonised as state governments have all referred their powers to the Federal Government who then enacted the WorkChoices Act. Now we have claims not previously available to employees, such as adverse action claims, and unfair dismissals are a lot more prevalent as previously they were not well known. Also, though discrimination laws have been with us for a long time they have been refined a lot over the years.
What do you like most about employment law?
The good thing about being an employment lawyer is that you are dealing with people-related issues. Matters can often be surprising because of the human element of the employment law practice. It is an area I think is document-based in some elements and it can be highly technical because the technical nature of the Fair Work Act. In general, there is a nice balance of documentary work and litigation work, so you do get a variety in that regard. You are dealing with interesting cases all the time; they are not dry as other areas of practice can be.
What qualities do organisations with good cultures have?
Take Justitia as an example. A good culture will have people who listen to their staff members and treat them with respect. They don’t always have to agree with what staff members have to say but they have to take views on board and be open to new ideas. It is important to give everyone a voice, make people feel they are coming to work and contributing to the workplace. It is also important to provide staff with adequate equipment that works so people don’t get frustrated, as there is nothing more frustrating than having blockages in the system – whatever that is. Making sure there are open lines of communication within the organisation so people can talk to each other and, most importantly, that bad behaviour is stamped out as soon as someone is starting to behave badly. It is important that bad behaviour is not tolerated.
Cathy Fitz Gibbon is a Special Counsel at Justitia. Click here to view her profile.