Interviewer: Jane Ku, Legal Research Assistant
I am a recent Juris Doctor graduate from the University of Melbourne. In February, I will be joining the graduate program at a commercial law firm.
An interest in working as part of the business and in finding workable solutions to complex and varied matters has shaped Robyn Taft as an experienced corporate lawyer. Robyn joined Justitia earlier this year after spending six years as the Corporate Counsel at a south-east Melbourne council, and following a thirty-year career working in-house for both commercial organisations and government. I spoke to Robyn on the phone, while she was taking a well-earned break from drafting a workplace policy.
What was your motivation for getting into law?
Robyn did not plan on a legal career. She recalls, “I didn’t set out to be a lawyer after secondary school. I briefly considered a career as an archaeologist, but my mother was concerned about the job prospects in archaeology and suggested law as an alternative. At the time, I really had no idea what law involved.” She is grateful that she heeded her mother’s advice and went to the University of Melbourne to study a combined Bachelor of Arts (Middle Eastern studies major) and Law. She found she really enjoyed the law electives and was motivated to practice law.
How did you get into law?
Robyn completed her articled clerkship and got her “foot in the door” in the property team at a mid-size law firm. Whilst she enjoyed aspects of it, she did not like the long hours, the process type work and being slotted into one area of practice. Robyn was more interested in working in a commercial setting and being part of a team finding best practice solutions to legal issues. She was also interested in being involved in a variety of work and legal issues. After one year in private practice, Robyn saw an opportunity to change track, getting a job as an in-house lawyer at Australia Post.
“There were only two other lawyers in the whole of Post at the time. Now there are about 15. I loved being part of the business and not being surrounded by only lawyers… but by all sorts of people from different backgrounds with varied skills”. Working in-house was a valuable experience for Robyn, helping her to make sure she was taking her time to learn instead of being like many young lawyers who are “ambitious and wanting to climb the ladder too quickly” in a large firm. She credits the flexible hours that the organisation allowed her for making it easier to manage a work-life balance, as she had two young daughters at the time. She was the first person to work part-time at Australia Post headquarters.
Robyn’s in-house experience is certainly diverse. She has worked for Australia Post, an electricity company, an electric car start-up company, the Essential Services Commission (an independent Victorian regulator), the Australian Red Cross Blood Service and Glen Eira City Council.
“The legal basics are largely the same in most organisations I have worked for, for example, there are always issues concerning contracts, IP and technology, privacy, consumer and property. However, it is important to quickly learn about the industry of the organisations you are working for, and that comes from immersing yourself in the business and learning from your colleagues.”
When I asked her to reflect on the most interesting work she has done, Robyn recalls dealing with some very large international contracts, involvement in some litigated intellectual property disputes and running a discrimination case involving a policy concerning the ability of homosexual men to give blood in Australia.
Local government work
In her most recent role at the council, Robyn had a challenging time, managing a team and dealing with a huge range of general legal issues as well as the governance of the council. “It was such a busy and varied environment. But it was always rewarding to see results. The work needed a lot of problem-solving skills and common sense. I undertook a range of work involving everything from advising tree arborists to dealing with angry residents and giving advice to our recreational staff.”
She led a team of six staff, providing advisory services including general legal advice, contract drafting and negotiation, managing litigation and disputes, risk advisory, tendering, a councillor secretariat role, governance advice, policy, protected disclosure legislation, privacy issues and Freedom of Information requests. “I wasn’t trained to manage people, I learned on the job. Managing staff is hard, although I was lucky to mostly have really competent and hard-working staff”.
Working at Justitia
While she was working at Australia Post, Robyn met Sarah Rey, Managing Partner at Justitia. When Sarah heard Robyn was thinking about retiring, Sarah asked Robyn if she was interested in doing work for Justitia in the local government space. With her extensive experience in local government, Robyn now works with Justitia lawyers on a variety of projects.
“I’m at the tail end of my career. I love spending time travelling, reading books, looking after my family and going to the gym now that I’m semi-retired. I am lucky to live a very balanced life and working for Justitia gives me interesting and challenging work without the stresses of a full-time role. I enjoy learning about the businesses of different clients and how I can use my experience to assist and support them. Having had actual experience working in large organisations means that I am really well equipped to give practical legal advice. I work mainly on the employment law and governance issues within councils: such as drafting policies and code of conducts and investigating councillor complaint issues”.
Robyn Taft is a Special Counsel at Justitia.