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Committed to fairness

News

Cite as: Jan/Feb 2015 89 (1/2) LIJ, p.22

Katie Miller has always had an instinct for fairness. As 2015 LIV president, the 34-year-old government lawyer is taking on the role of chief advocate for the organisation and the profession. 

The federal government first came across Katie Miller when she was eight years old. The western suburbs primary school student wrote then Prime Minister Bob Hawke a letter arguing against tax reform.

She told the Labor leader that increasing the levy on flavoured milk, muesli bars and bread, Miller family staples, was not fair.

Around the same time, it was pointed out to her bookkeeper mother and accountant father at a parent-teacher interview that the bright young student had a preoccupation with being fair and would get very upset if the wrong miscreant got the blame. Come Year 12, in time out from the debating team, she umpired the softball season.

“I have always had a really insane sense of fairness. I thought my sister should go to bed earlier than me because she was younger. Looking back it was procedural fairness not substantive fairness I was interested in,” said Ms Miller.

“Mum and Dad had views on the proper way to act. They were big on fairness, ethics. As kids, doing the right thing, following through on a commitment, was part of our lives.”

The federal government next met Ms Miller when she joined its ranks, starting her career with the Australian Government Solicitor (AGS) in 2005 and eventually winning an Australia Day award in recognition of her diverse and outstanding contribution to the development and promotion of AGS’ legal practice in Melbourne.

Just on a decade later, Ms Miller becomes the 2015 president of the LIV, the state’s peak body for lawyers. The 34-year-old government lawyer is believed to be the second youngest LIV president (Victoria Strong was 33 in 2005) and its sixth female president since 1859. She is also the first practising government lawyer to lead the LIV.

It was no surprise that Ms Miller became a lawyer and went straight into the government sphere. Although, for a while her career choice wasn’t clear. Science (maths and statistics) was done alongside law (with honors) at the University of Melbourne. Dux of her year at Westbourne Grammar, the prize-winning student was interested in politics – she met her husband, high school teacher Matthew Thomas at a YMCA youth parliament camp where she was elected youth premier – but that settled into a keen interest in government processes which led to an accredited specialisation in administrative law.

“I was more interested in the business of government than the business of politics,” said Ms Miller.

“I’ve always been interested in what’s happening in society, the public interest. I click with what’s happening in public rather than private. ”

Ms Miller is now managing principal lawyer with the Victorian Government Solicitor’s Office (VGSO), although on leave for the duration of her LIV presidential year.

“I just love administrative law. I love writing advices. I love breaking open the puzzle and figuring out the answer, the process of weighing. You can feel it synthesising into place in your head. I love all that thinking. You have to be nimble, you have a lot of considerations as a government lawyer. It’s not enough to be right. But I also love litigation, going to VCAT, it’s exciting. I call myself a cruise director.

“I think I’ve been really lucky in the nine years. I’ve had four secondments, really interesting work. I could count on one hand the number of dull days I’ve had. It’s a collaborative environment, a great place to learn.

“I’m not ambitious. I wanted to work in government and got a role. Once there, I wanted to do different things so you do them. But a lot of it has just been opportunity and falling into something.”

Ms Miller’s commitment to the LIV began in 2007. She has been on at least a dozen sections, committees and taskforces including administrative and human rights law, refugee law reform, constitutional law, government lawyers, audit, corporate governance, social media, membership, future focus and the new technology law committee, getting up an hour earlier on weekdays to read LIV material.

“As a government lawyer you can be really narrow. But at the LIV you can tap into every-body else’s professional experience and knowledge. It makes you a better lawyer. I have developed interests here that I would never have thought of. For example, I love corporate governance.”

Part of Ms Miller’s new role at the LIV is chief advocate for the organisation on current issues for the profession and the community.

Alongside LIV CEO Nerida Wallace, Ms Miller has begun establishing relationships with new Attorney-General Martin Pakula and new Shadow Attorney-General John Pesutto, and following up on pre- election promises outlined in September LIJ in response to the LIV’s Call to the Parties document, with a focus on:

  • review of legal aid;
  • review of the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities;
  • legislating for advance care directives;
  • Royal Commission into family violence prevention.

In terms of legal profession and LIV core issues, the 2015 LIV Conference of Council on 9 February, and in turn Ms Miller, will focus on:

  • the law business – changing how we do the business of law;
  • workplace cultures and driving change – who’d want to be a lawyer?; and
  • professional membership bodies – why would you want to join?

“The change the legal profession is going through is really interesting,” Ms Miller said.

“There are challenges but there’s also opportunities. For a long time the legal model hasn’t been working for anyone. Clients hate part of it, lawyers hate part of it. So there is a great opportunity to jettison the stuff that nobody likes.

“If we don’t change we will get wiped out. It’s classic natural selection. It can be scary but we should be saying let’s build something better.

“The sustainability of the profession has always worried me a bit. How do you value lawyers? We need to understand our value, not just in hours billed, and get more sophisticated about how we express our value, otherwise we are just going to be competing on price and we are going to lose. That’s one of the challenges.

“I’ve got a job to do and I hope in 12 months I leave the LIV and the profession in better shape than it is now. That’s success to me.”

Beyond the law, this self-described nerd – “At uni I would order a pot of tea at the pub” – does yoga, reads (Hugh Mackay, Manning Clark and Kerry Greenwood are on the nightstand), rides her bike, watches Bulldogs games (AFL tribunal is dream job), takes piano lessons (plays classical, listens to Taylor Swift) and travels overseas.

The latter gives her a chance to learn new languages – Italian and Mandarin so far, adding to the two – German and Japanese – she did as VCE subjects.

(Fun fact – the 2008 China trip to the Beijing Olympics was won in a box of breakfast cereal.)

She does karaoke for a lark. She also bakes – directors at the December LIV Council meeting enjoyed her Christmas fruitcake. And then there’s her four-hour a day social media habit which sees her reach for the iphone first thing every morning to get a Twitter hit.

Over the Christmas break, she apprenticed for Shane the builder, filling cracks in the walls of the house she and her husband are renovating. Come April, she will give up something for Lent because she likes the idea of some restraint in today’s have-it-all culture.

The Victorian legal profession might never have seen the likes of Kathryn Elizabeth Miller before.

What the president thinks

Katie Miller on:

Billable hours: “Everybody hates the billable hour. et’s get rid of it.”

The workplace: “The way we cling to offices is funny . . . working from home is great, you don’t have to get into a suit and onto a tram. And why don’t lawyers go out to clients?”

Social media: “You always want what’s new . . . I enjoy engaging and having the discussion. It’s very democratising, everyone can have a say.”

Technology: “It’s key to how the profession is going to change and survive.”

Women in the law: “I’ve never suffered discrimination but that’s not to say it’s not there. People judge women on how they look, the hair, the nails. It’s not enough to be good at your job. aw is still gendered. Maternity maths is always done. We still talk about senior women because it is still exceptional. We are not there yet.”

Valuing lawyers: “It’s easy (for non-lawyers) to say you are pampered, spoilt, you charge high fees, take a pay cut. It’s just not that simple.”

Succession: “We need to make sure we are bringing up the next generation, it’s succession of the profession.”

Law graduates: “We need to be honest with them – it’s not like it used to be. It is a hard slog now. Perhaps some will become part of the solution for greater access to justice.”

Access to justice: “The Productivity Commission report will be the game-changer for legal services. The challenge for us is to ensure changes implemented are sustainable for the profession and clients.”

Flexibility: “We still expect a large pound of flesh. The new start-ups with their own models are really exciting. Trust is a big part of it but trust is our game. It’s important to talk about it to normalise it.”

Mentoring: “I will have a coffee with anybody who asks.”

Pro bono: “I did a rotation at Brimbank Melton CLC. I helped a woman with an infringement notice. Then I helped her get her car back. It was nice being useful. I loved it. She gave me a hug.”


CAROLYN FORD

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