Interviewer: Ellie Kinahan, Legal Research Assistant — Ellie is a final year Bachelor of Laws (Honours)/Bachelor of Science (Biology) student at Deakin University and currently works as a Legal Research Assistant.
What roles have you worked in prior to coming to Justitia and how do you think it prepared you for a career in employment law?
I started practicing law as an Articled Clerk in 1984. I had originally wanted to do medicine, so when I ended up studying law instead I was particularly drawn towards personal injury law as that combined the two. I practiced in that area for many years, acting for public liability insurers, the Transport Accident Commission and the WorkCover Authority. I negotiated the settlement of many cases and ran many hearings, mostly in the County Court or VCAT and occasionally in the Supreme Court. Hearings are always both tedious and hugely exciting. The exciting parts are usually at the end, waiting for a jury to come back in or a Judge to hand down a decision, but also when you get an unexpectedly good result from the evidence of a witness.
I also became interested in workplace health and safety, as personal injury cases usually arise out of a failure in health & safety systems and processes. It seemed very natural to move into that area of specialty as well. In the mid to late 1990s, I also started doing litigation for senior executives in employment contract disputes. This was again a fairly natural extension of my personal injury litigation arising out of workplace relationships. I completed a Masters course focussing mainly on labour law subjects and moved increasingly into employment law, finally ceasing all personal injury work and moving completely into employment law and health and safety in or around 2001.
So, to answer the question, I think my previous area of speciality prepared me for employment law. It also gave me some real depth of knowledge about workplace injury, which has stood me in good stead as an employment lawyer. I can talk about injured employees and fitness to work issues, with all that experience behind me.
What do you find most rewarding about your role as an employment lawyer?
I like positive outcomes (win-win solutions) where everyone is treated with dignity and respect. I think that sometimes disputes are about validation and being acknowledged, rather than compensation, although that becomes the focus of many disputes. Giving advice that works well in practice is great too!
One of my absolute favourite parts of being an employment lawyer is the incredible window it gives you into other peoples’ working lives and into many other industries and types of work. During my career, I have climbed down inside a giant chamber beneath a hydro dam, I have toured factories, been in smelters, just to name a few. I feel as though I have seen so much and learnt so much – it has been tremendously interesting.
What was your most challenging case?
I was one of a small team of lawyers working on a large piece of litigation concerning significant damage to a hydro dam. It was both challenging and fascinating. I put together a team of both Australian and international experts on hydro dams and then spent a few days with them at the dam in question. The case itself was extremely complex with a huge amount of documentation and some highly technical arguments. Its issues had to be understood by all the non-engineering, non-scientific lawyers – that was a real challenge.
What do you believe is a key challenge faced by employment law at the moment?
The changing patterns of work and different expectations of workers and employers. When I started work, you joined a firm and often settled there for your entire working life. That is definitely not the case anymore. Firms are lucky to retain young lawyers for 5 years, there is no longer that expectation of loyalty and longevity from either side. There are also many different configurations of working relationships and that is a challenge for employment lawyers. To be flexible with traditional paradigms and find ways of documenting and negotiating these new relationships. The aging population is a tremendous issue for the future. It is important to have a sustainable base to support the growing retired population deal with age-based discrimination in employment, as some older people will need to continue to work.
Lawyers are also extremely expensive. I am not sure how sustainable that is in the long term. With new technologies and increased competition, I think we will see innovative providers finding even more ways to provide clients with ready-made solutions to avoid the costs of engaging lawyers.
What qualities do the organisations with good cultures usually have?
Good organisations recognise the benefit of having excellent systems and processes. These ensure that all staff, at all levels in the organisation, are held to the same standards of behaviour. When things do go wrong, they treat people with respect and look for solutions in a sensible and flexible manner. This allows for some compromise and illustrates that the organisation is willing to try new ways of working to accommodate peoples’ needs. However, they also have the strength to see when it is sometimes a better solution for people to move on when you have not had a good “fit”. They are sensitive to work-life balance issues and accommodate working parents, people with disabilities and generally handle issues of diversity in the workforce well. They usually have a good attitude to gender equity/balance in the workforce (not so easy in industries dominated by one gender) and have a critical mass of women in senior positions (not just a token HR position).
What do you like about being lawyer?
I like problem-solving, and helping individuals and businesses get positive outcomes for issues. After more than 30 years as a lawyer, I am pretty addicted to giving advice but sometimes you just need to present options and let people follow their own path, even if it is not what you would have advised. I guess I like the fact that human behaviour and human interaction is always interesting and can still surprise me.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to become an employment lawyer?
I think it is a fascinating area of law in which to practice, but you must like people and develop a good understanding of human behaviour. As it is all about human behaviour, you cannot simply approach problems that arise with a one size fits all solution because that won’t work. You can help create good order by assisting employers create good foundations in their organisations. Good contracts, and good policies and procedures, can make a lot of difference at managing expectations and clarifying rights and responsibilities leading to less disputes down the track. There is plenty of scope for drafting documents, providing advice and litigating, so you get a great variety of work.
Joanna Betteridge is a Special Counsel at Justitia. Click here to view her profile.