If Professor Jenni Lightowlers has a philosophy about life, it’s saying yes to the possibilities that bubble up along the way.
As one of Australia’s leading and most respected lawyers in the field of innovation and commercialisation, Prof. Lightowlers has recently been appointed dean of the Deakin Law School and brings to the role a wealth of legal and corporate expertise.
Jenni has enjoyed a long association with Deakin. She was appointed to Deakin Council in 2004 where, until 2015, she chaired the Legislation and Student Appeals Committees and for six years, held the role of Deputy Chancellor and served on the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee.
‘From the start Deakin impressed me as a young, nimble and innovative university whose foundational strength was in rural and regional communities. One of Deakin’s fantastic attributes is the diversity of its student cohort,’ she says.
Jenni is the founding partner of Francis Abourizk Lightowlers (FAL), a Melbourne-based technology law firm that’s a global frontrunner for its work in the life sciences, cyber security, defence, commercial and intellectual property sectors.
Last year, in recognition for her outstanding services to Deakin and research and commercialisation in Australia, she was awarded an honorary doctorate and appointed as an inaugural Vice Chancellor’s Fellow.
With such an impressive line-up of achievements and accolades it’s easy to assume that her legal career has taken a traditional, straight-line trajectory. The reality, however, is far more interesting.
Raised in Western Australia and the first in her family to attend university, Jenni’s study and career journey began in arts and education.
‘I’d always wanted to do law but, at that time, a law degree in Perth took six years and my parents – neither of whom had finished school – thought it was a bit of a stretch. We didn’t know any lawyers, weren’t part of the legal fraternity and didn’t have any connections. So I took their advice and became a secondary school teacher where I taught English, literature and drama and generally had a wonderful time,’ she recalls.
After moving to Melbourne, her teaching career flourished and she was soon heading up the English department at a large independent school. But beyond the classroom, there was still a hankering to study law.
‘At 28 I was head of a department of 900 so where do you go from there? I needed to do something different and I’d been thinking about law for 10 years so I thought it was time to give it a go,’ she says.
While expecting her first child, Jenni was accepted as a mature-age law student at the University of Melbourne and within days of giving birth, scrambled to her first lecture – in torts.
‘There were no flexible or part time degrees back then so I had to juggle a young family, teaching, studying and trying to find good childcare! Sometimes I had with me a baby who slept under a lecture theatre seat. While many students came straight out of school from wealthy families and private schools there was a little group of us – all mature-age students - who were bringing our lunch in plastic bags and trying to cobble everything together,’ she smiles.
Despite her competing responsibilities, Jenni completed her law degree within five years and then began three years of ‘fantastic legal grounding experience’ with a large law firm.
With her sights set on the Bar, she then took a stop-gap, part-time job with the CSIRO which fortuitously led her to the establishment of her own business.
‘FAL grew from the legal group within CSIRO which did all the licensing, intellectual property (IP) work for big pharmaceutical companies, multinational corporations and health organisations. I was going to read at the Bar but when this opportunity came up it meant I was going to be self-employed so I didn’t proceed with readership and we set up the firm. At the same time I also went back to uni and completed a master’s degree that focused on intellectual property,’ she explains.
Specialising in IP, Jenni says one of the most enjoyable aspects of her work with FAL over the past 25 years has been the firm’s ‘amazing’ clients.
‘In IP you’re working with people who have really smart ideas and are visionaries. They’re passionate, smart and engaged but need help putting a legal framework around their work.’
She says it’s given her the remarkable opportunity to evolve with clients who may have grown from a small research collaboration to a major ASX-listed company.
‘As they’ve grown, I’ve had to expand my skills to meet them at the milestones,’ she adds.
After an interim role as Acting Dean, Jenni is now looking forward to leading the Deakin Law School over the next three years.
‘The academic and research work DLS produces is amazing and we’ll be reinforcing strong links into real-world professions for our graduates. A Deakin law grad should be equipped for any job that uses the analytical, smart, technology-savvy, global skill-set they’ve acquired. DLS is about the future of the students and I’ll be doing everything possible to provide inspiration, links and sharpen the real-world focus.’
She says there are also huge, untapped job-growth areas for law graduates – particularly in IP and cyber-security law – and with innovation, invention and research on the national agenda, SMEs will increasingly require legally-savvy practitioners.
‘It’s about being creative and clever. Platforms, systems and the way jobs are performed may change, but law graduates have the required skill-set to address this.’
While Jenni happily acknowledges that her life’s mantra is ‘saying yes’ and embracing opportunities, she believes it’s an ethos that also applies to Deakin.
‘Deakin is a university that empowers people – from diverse backgrounds – to say yes and make the most of every opportunity.’