Interviewer: Madeleine Jones, Legal Research Assistant – Madeleine is a recent law graduate, having come to law from a career in public health with a compliance focus. Madeleine worked as a Healthcare Consultant, then later with an international development organisation. It was this experience which piqued her interest in the study of law. She sought to gain an understanding of how law can help those in a sustainable way.
How did you get involved in employment law?
I started volunteering at the community legal service, Jobwatch, which brought me to employment law. I was able to help those who were in a situation of clear need and was glad to be finally able to make a tangible difference using my legal skills. Having previously studied criminology during undergraduate studies, I was most happy helping others solve issues which related to their everyday working life.
What do you believe is a key challenge faced by employment law at the moment?
The key challenges being faced are the snow ball effects of movements such as #metoo. Although these are important and empowering movements, they mean that employees are expecting their workplaces to be more proactive by making sure expected standards of behaviour are clearly communicated opposed to waiting for a complaint before addressing any issues.
Following on from that, do you find that your role as an employment lawyer is primarily reactive or do you pursue opportunities to assist clients before issues arise?
The majority of my contact with clients arises when clients need something and are reacting to an immediate problem. However, I am proud of Justitia’s approach of making an effort to identify issues with their clients and deal with them before they present problems later on. Contract and policy reviews are a particularly good way of identifying issues for clients before they arise. I encourage employers to be proactive with reviewing their policies and contracts, as the last thing you need as part of a stressful investigation, disciplinary process or dismissal is to be arguing with the employee (or their lawyers) about an ambiguous clause!
What do you find most rewarding about your role as an employment lawyer?
I find the positive workplace outcomes to be the most rewarding part of my job. I enjoy working with employers to find the best outcome for them and their employees going forward. Justitia’s preference to avoid adversarial communication between parties helps facilitate open communication where the interests of both parties can be considered appropriately.
I also find it rewarding to work with areas of employment law that work towards a social good. Workplaces have the opportunity to replicate the society we want, and I particularly enjoy the opportunity to work with clients who are working towards this goal.
An example of this is the recent decision to bring in family violence leave into all modern awards which recognises that family and domestic violence is not just a private issue. It is a systemic issue that requires engagement of the workplace as part of a wider community response.
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?
Prior to joining Justitia as a lawyer, I worked as a Legal Research Assistant for a number of years whilst undertaking legal studies and also volunteering at a community legal service which specialised in workplace law. Following graduation I took a role with a federal government agency where I gained valuable experience in workplace relations, and also the inner workings of government.
What are you most proud of in your career to date?
I am most proud of my work volunteering at Jobwatch on a case where our client had been dismissed because they were involved in a family violence incident where the police had successfully applied for an Intervention Order against their former partner. As the client and her partner worked in the same open plan office, the employer decided that either the Applicant’s, or the former partner’s employment had to be terminated. This matter proceeded to a hearing at the Fair Work Commission, where Jobwatch’s client was awarded the maximum amount of compensation available under the Fair Work Act.
What is the most common type of employment matter you work on?
The most common types of employment matters I work on include providing advice on various issues and contract and policy reviews. I enjoy communicating with clients about what they wish to achieve and I am developing a keen eye for identifying gaps and opportunities to improve clarity for the parties.
What was your most challenging case?
A case from my volunteer work where one party was vexatiously appealing against the client. The matter went all the way to appeal at the Full Federal Court.
What do you like about being lawyer?
I like the requirement for us to use our minds and work as problem solvers. I also like that we get to solve problems by delving into the language of a statute, contract or other instrument and consider the meaning. It requires us to think outside the box and look for answers where people wouldn’t traditionally look.
What qualities do the organisations with good cultures usually have?
I have observed many workplaces, but the similarities I have noticed in those with good cultures include a willingness of all levels in the organisation to communicate with each other. Those at the top need to ensure they are communicating with those below, and those below need to feel they are being heard by their managers and able to communicate upwards. Also, workplaces with collaborative and team cultures seem to do well because people feel they are achieving together, rather than competing.
What do you dislike most about being a lawyer?
I find it frustrating that the litigation process can be so unsatisfying for all parties involved. In many cases, the cost and time involved outweighs the benefits of litigation. This is why lawyers and clients should be encouraged to resolve matters at an early stage.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to become an employment lawyer?
Get some hands-on experience with a community legal centre which provides advice on employment related matters early in your career. This allows you to mostly deal with employees who require legal advice in relation to their employment. I have found this experience particularly helpful in my career as it emphasised how employment law is an area where you are always dealing with people. I found that it was important to do more than just study the workings of employment law but also to observe the impact it has on those it effects, who generally have less power in the employment relationship.
Nicola Martin is a Lawyer at Justitia. Click here to view her profile.