How to forge a career in the legal profession
Perhaps one of the most unremarked upon features of a career in law is that there is a surprisingly wide variety of paths that can be followed. While most lawyers will have their areas of specialism in which they build extensive expertise and grow a practice, the legal profession also presents practitioners with a range of opportunities beyond the actual law itself.
In my experience, what is essential to forging a successful law career is to have a clear plan and trajectory that you want to follow. Of course, we are all different, and no two individuals will necessarily want to pursue the same career path.
However, it is a profession that offers a wide range of different opportunities under the all-encompassing banner of law, which is why it continues to attract so many people from a diverse range of backgrounds who want to follow their own individual paths within the profession.
Building a professional reputation in the law
The law is undeniably a profession where networks are essential. Your reputation matters, and the more people who know who you are and what you are capable of, the likelier it is that you will receive referrals from others in the profession and beyond it.
From my earliest days in the law, I understood how important it was to be a part of the wider profession, to be known beyond the confines of my own firm and circle of contacts. Throughout my career, I have always been very active on boards and committees — sometimes being on fifteen of them simultaneously — and this has undoubtedly helped me to build a reputation.
For instance, I joined the Young Lawyers Committee of the Law Society of SA in 2007 when I was first admitted to the Bar, becoming Chair in 2010. I was also the SA Young Lawyers delegate on the Law Council of Australia.
Later, I joined the executive of the Law Society Council, taking on a variety of roles including Treasurer and then eventually becoming President in 2019, at the age of 35.
In addition, I have always been happy to give presentations, speak at seminars, present papers and attend conferences, both here in Adelaide and across Australia, and not just limited to the field of law, either.
Conversely, this has also meant that I don’t have to oversell my own abilities and take on work that is not within my area of expertise, as if I can’t help a client, I am likely to have someone in my network to whom I can refer them.
I understand, of course, that this sort of career path is not for everyone. I am fairly unusual in that I actually enjoy being on committees and have never been afraid of getting up and talking in front of a room of strangers (every single school report I ever had essentially said that “Amy talks too much!”). The key to this is that whatever career path you choose to follow, you need to know what you are good at and what your strengths are.
Choose an area of law that excites you
It is an obvious thing to say, but in order to build a career it is important to find a field of law to which you are committed, so that you are prepared to put in the hours to build up experience and expertise.
I specialise in personal injury, worker’s compensation, motor vehicle accidents,
public liability, industrial negligence litigation and estate litigation. My choice to focus on these areas is a result of one of my earliest experiences after graduating from university (albeit before I was admitted to the Bar).
Whilst completing my GDLP, I filled a maternity leave contract for a year at The Australian Workers Union. I acted as a worker’s advocate, and it was a role I absolutely loved. I found that I derived great satisfaction from helping people involved in workplace accidents and disputes, and I am grateful that this helped me decide my path in the law.
You also have to decide fairly early on the extent to which you are comfortable with litigation and the adversarial aspect of the law. I enjoy it immensely (back to those school reports and talking too much), but I do understand that for many people in the profession, this is not where their strengths lie.
Ultimately, finding the areas in which you are strongest is not only going to lead to more success, but will also help you to maintain enthusiasm and commitment over the length of your career as well.
Support is crucial in the law
I am fortunate that I have the personality type that has enabled me not only to succeed in litigation, but also more generally in a profession which continues to be largely male dominated.
I have absolutely faced sexism in my career, but it has never phased me. Perhaps it has something to do with being six feet tall that I feel less intimidated by men than some women might, or the fact that I actually thrive on the adversarial aspects of my job (although I never take a courtroom battle personally!).
However, I also believe that to create a successful career in law, it is important that you have support around you.
When I was at school, I was particularly good at maths and science, but I knew I didn’t want to be a doctor or spend my life working in a laboratory (opportunities for women being relatively limited in the sciences). I did, however, also take legal studies in year 12 (although I had to do it outside of school) and this, combined with a desire to help people, is what eventually led me to study law at university.
What was important was that whatever choices I made, no-one ever said to me I couldn’t do it.
I was fortunate that my parents considered education to be crucial, although neither of them went to university themselves. We don’t have a family history of working in the law, although both my father and grandfather were involved in the union movement (my Dad and Grandad worked at Holdens, and my Nonno was a janitor), and this is why today, I am proud that many of our clients likewise come from a working-class background.
The support of my husband has also been central to my being able to develop my career and business while enjoying a rich family life at the same time. Despite the long hours and our busy schedules, we have still managed to bring up two wonderful children, Niko aged four, and Amelia, who has just turned one.
In fact, I was pregnant with Niko while I was President of the Law Society in 2019, which had had never happened before in Australia. Lots of people at the time said to me how encouraging it was to see an expectant mother in such a prominent position, and that it gave support to other women as well.
Becoming a partner and running a business
As much as I enjoy the litigation aspect of my job, in order to help people achieve positive outcomes, I have also very much taken to the other side of my role, namely growing and running a law firm.
Becoming the Managing Partner at DBH didn’t happen by accident. Running my own business was a clear part of the career path that I mapped out for myself and was something I was extremely ambitious about. When I was an Associate in the firm and having a review with the Managing Partner of the time, I was asked where I wanted to be in five years’ time — “In your job,” was my reply.
I very much enjoy the responsibility of being a decision maker, and working on things like business development, strategy and marketing. It’s really important in this space to have a clear plan, if for no other reason than knowing it’s crucial to being able to keep the doors open.
Like all aspects of a law career, it is important to have support and the right people around you, and at DBH we are especially fortunate to have such an experienced set of supportive partners who work so well together, and who have the same vision for the business.
The same applies to our whole team of lawyers and administrators. A law firm relies on being able to trust the people who are a part of it, so it is essential that you have the right people in place at all levels of the organisation.
Although DBH is by no means a small firm (we currently have 68 employees), it is still the case that I know everyone who works here, as well as their families, really well. This does of course make it easier to have confidence in the whole team, but at the same time it becomes harder when there are difficult decisions to be made, such as during covid when the prospect of redundancies reared its ugly head.
Being a Managing Partner has also meant that I have had to become a pseudo employment lawyer and have learnt a lot about HR as well. However, the most significant thing I have come to understand is that being a good lawyer does not automatically make you a good manager.
Running a business requires its own particular set of skills, and I have had to work at it. Switching between my different roles can sometimes be challenging, but the opportunity to be in the room when decisions about the business have to be made is what makes it all worthwhile.