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Top tips from the legal profession’s brightest

"Law is a field where you can constantly re-invent yourself."

‘My childhood was character building. My parents gave me a lot of tough love and the worst thing you could do in their eyes was to not make a contribution to the community as a good person.’ – Helen Fatouros

With an infallible determination to achieve positive outcomes for society, it is no surprise that Helen Fatouros is standing in front of a crowd of aspiring young lawyers in their penultimate or final year of study, as the Director of Criminal Law Services, Victorian Legal Aid.

The aim of the Women in Law event is to celebrate the triumphs and emergence of women in the legal industry and to look into the future at the crucial role women will play.

Ms Fatouros and a panel of four successful law professionals are engaged in a discussion about success, unique qualities and strengths, flexibility and lifestyle within firms, while Deakin law students busily scribble invaluable notes about their potential future careers.

Growing up, independent thought was important and there was a debate at the dinner table almost every night says Ms Fatouros.

‘We spoke about the news and ideas and my parents encouraged both my brother and I to critically think about what was being said.’

She says the analytical approach to everyday situations, fostered from an early age, shaped her thinking and understanding that to be successful in life you have to be a good person through the professional and personal contributions you make.

‘It’s not about the prestige or the title. It’s all about the positive contribution you will make and how you use your law degree to make a difference, particularly to those who are disadvantaged or poor.

‘Being a prosecutor or public defender is not about winning or losing, it is about being a custodian of the law and the justice system,’ she says. 

Ms Fatouros next touched on the immense pressure that can come with finishing your law degree, particularly in a competitive job market where there are more graduate lawyers than there are positions. 

‘I don’t want to be dismissive of the feelings you have described around pressure and competition, but your careers will be long and varied. The hard truth is that there are many law graduates and not enough jobs.  You may not practice law or get your perfect job straight out of university, some of you might get that dream job and find it wasn’t what you had planned – either way my advice is to be flexible,’ she says.

‘It’s important to learn and make thoughtful mistakes.’

To the surprise of many attendees, Ms Fatouros says that most experienced lawyers, barristers and judges from the High Court down make mistakes. The important thing is that they should be thoughtful mistakes that preferably are only made once.

‘Diversify your stuff-ups and learn from them.’

To make the most of a career in law, Ms Fatouros points participants to some underrated but crucial skills: Self-awareness, knowing when you are under pressure and when this is impacting on your performance, resilience, communication skills and client management skills.

‘Those skills are far more important to hone in the early part of your career, rather than getting that promotion or becoming a senior associate or director. As an employer of young lawyers I am looking not just for excellent academic performance, I am also looking for interpersonal qualities.’

Ms Fatouros reiterated that some of the learning students do is trial and error and some is structured. Her advice is to think mostly with the heart when choosing what you want to do and to choose a job or path that you are passionate about.

‘Get to the end of your law degree and look at the bright horizons ahead of you with creativity.’

The panellists top 10 tips for aspiring lawyers:

  • If you are passionate about the law you will get there.
  • You need to take a step back and take responsibility for your own health.
  • Courage is very important. You need to stand up for yourself and for your team.
  • You need to decide what is important for you. ‘Those who say you can’t and you won’t, are probably scared you will.’
  • Law is a field where you can constantly re-invent yourself.
  • With an increasingly global focus, there are many benefits you can gain from a career in law, such as secondment opportunities.
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff and don’t take things too seriously.
  • You all have worked hard to have your professional identity as part of your life – don’t forget about that. It’s about prioritising and time-management.
  • ‘If I don’t value my own time, how can my colleagues value it?’ Respect your own time and your other commitments.
  • Transferrable skills are important to develop professional maturity.

Women in Law panellists: Elizabeth Lee (Australian National University), Colleen Martin (Corrs Chambers Westgarth), Bronwyn Lincoln (Herbert Smith Freehills) and Pey-Chiann Hor (Maurice Blackburn). 

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