Returning as an in-person event for the first time in two years, Hardware Lane was buzzing with conversation, food and happy faces. An additional 140 tuned in to our online livestream of the event to welcome in the new legal year.
While catching up over breakfast, a mix of judges, magistrates, lawyers, and others from the legal sector got the inside word from Attorney General Jaclyn Symes MP, Legal Services Board CEO and Commissioner Fiona McLeay, and our Executive Director, Lynne Haultain.
We were privileged to witness a powerful Acknowledgment of Country from soprano Shauntai Sherree, and then to a discussion between her Honour Justice Jacinta Forbes and Jacob Varghese, CEO of Maurice Blackburn Lawyers, on balancing caring responsibilities with a career in law.
Attorney-General outlines her priorities for the year
Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes MP opened by acknowledging the crucial role the legal sector plays in supporting those in need, particularly coming out of the recent floods and the pandemic. The Attorney outlinined her priority for the year as ‘making the justice system one that upholds the rights of all Victorians, and protects our most vulnerable.’
‘As a government, and as the Attorney, we will continue to listen and engage with stakeholders, especially on measures that address the root causes of offending and reduce recidivism.’
She also spoke on her areas of focus for 2023, including planned changes to bail laws, and the way sexual offending proceedings in the legal process are approached, ‘shifting the focus away from the scrutiny of the actions of the victim survivor, to those of the accused.’
‘We know that to deliver lasting change, system wide reform is critical, but the opportunity for cultural changes starts with us.’ The Attorney went on to describe the planned initiatives within government that aim to support this cultural change, including mandatory reporting of gender pay gaps to the government by firms on the Government Legal Services Panel.
Legal Services Commissioner highlights the need for ongoing cultural change
Legal Services Board CEO and Commissioner Fiona McLeay reflected on the demographic shift in the legal sector over the past 20 years, and the importance of not only attracting new people to the profession but retaining them through a commitment to inclusive workplaces that prioritise wellbeing.
‘As we look back, it’s really remarkable to see the impact of a relatively small gesture, to gather people together at the start of a legal year in a way that would enable more women to attend, and think about how much has changed in that time.’
Ms McLeay recognised the hard won changes in the profession, with 75% of new Victorian lawyers in the past year being women, but acknowledged that there is more work to be done to ensure everyone has a fair shot at a safe and fulfilling career in law.
‘We need to keep pushing for cultural change that promotes healthier workplaces. This needs to happen across the whole sector, not just individual workplaces. Every workplace – from law firm to barrister’s chambers, from government department or agency, from court, and even perhaps Parliament itself – needs to own the part it plays in helping ensure workplaces are healthy and productive.’
Discussing the balance of caring responsibilities with a career in law
Her Honour Justice Jacinta Forbes and Jacob Varghese, CEO of Maurice Blackburn Lawyers, spoke on their experiences and insights on balancing caring responsibilities with a career in law.
Mr Varghese described his family circumstances in having a young family where both he and his partner work full time.
‘Inevitably whatever solution works for your family will probably not be working in six months. So a constant conversation with your partner, but also really importantly, a constant conversation with your employer, about what your needs are, and how those are changing over time.'
‘I don’t know any leader of a law firm in Victoria that is not acutely aware that you can’t keep talented employees if you're not meeting their work life balance needs.’
Justice Forbes outlined her experience being a parent throughout her career. ‘Twenty or so years ago when I started a family ... there was no entitlement to paid maternity leave, there was very little job security about what you might come back to after a period of leave.’ While acknowledging that that we’ve come a long way, Justice Forbes challenged the language around the debate, especially the reference to ‘competing priorities’. ‘Those obligations have to coexist with our employment obligations. We shouldn’t be considering them as separate spheres.’
Sharing our plans for the year ahead
Victoria Law Foundation Executive Director Lynne Haultain outlined what’s in store from VLF in 2023. With a wide-ranging program on foot, highlights included the second International Access to Justice Forum in October, and the release of the Public Understanding of Law Survey (PULS) findings. ‘We now have nearly 6,000 face to face interviews and will begin data analysis soon... PULS will powerfully inform policy and practice.’
Lynne also noted that Community Legal Grants are now open, and Victorian Law Week is in May, featuring a return to the popular in-person Law Talks for high school students, which this year will take place in Gippsland.
Donate to WAM
Don't forget to donate to Women and Mentoring (WAM). WAM offer a unique, early intervention program that supports women in contact with the legal system by matching them with a supportive mentor.
WAM began operating in the City of Yarra working with the Neighbourhood Justice Centre in 2009. In 2015 they received funding from the Melbourne Women’s Fund to replicate the program in the Sunshine Magistrates Court precinct and this year they are expanding to Ballarat.
We encourage all attendees, colleagues, and friends to make a donation to this exceptional organisation, making a difference to women in need.