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Diversity: Aboriginal lawyers making inroads

Diversity: Aboriginal lawyers making inroads

By Karin Derkley



There are growing numbers of Aboriginal lawyers working across Victoria, but support is still needed to overcome barriers.

Among barriers faced by Indigenous lawyers are: 
  • cultural isolation while studying and working 
  • employers and organisations questioning identity and cultural background
  • being pigeonholed and pressured to only work on “Indigenous” matters
  • culturally unsafe work practices leading to people hiding their identity 
  • lack of consistency in education and employment pathways. 
Source: Tarwirri

Aboriginal lawyers are making inroads into the legal profession in Victoria, driven by personal effort and determination, community support and targeted programs designed to overcome historical and ongoing barriers to their participation in the law.

Nearly 15 years ago the LIJ ran a story about Aboriginal lawyers that reported there were only a handful of lawyers of Aboriginal ancestry working in Victoria, just one Aboriginal barrister and no Indigenous magistrates or judges.

While Aboriginal lawyers still make up less than 1 per cent of the profession in Victoria, there are now dozens working across the profession, in commercial law firms, in government, as barristers and as magistrates, as well as in community legal services and Victoria Legal Aid (VLA). A growing number of Aboriginal students are also going through the state’s law schools. 

Tarwirri, the association for Indigenous law students and lawyers in Victoria, says it has around 150 members. The organisation provides support to its members through mentoring, access to professional development and work opportunities. 

“We currently have an amazing cohort of Indigenous legal professionals including those pursing further education at institutions such as Harvard and Cambridge, some working within community at VALS and Djirra and those who have recently established their own commercial legal practice,” says Tarwirri co-chair Mason Peter. 

Important role models for Aboriginal lawyers in Victoria include Magistrate Abigail Burchill, Magistrate Rose Falla, Victorian Aboriginal Legal Services CEO Nerita Waight, Djirra CEO Antoinette Braybrook and barrister Tim Goodwin. 

Trailblazing law practice owners include Bevan Mailman (a former Tarwirri president) who established Mailman & Associates in 2012 and now heads up Jaramer Legal with co-director Brian Bero in a joint venture with Norton Rose Fulbright, providing corporate and commercial legal services with a focus on Aboriginal enterprises. 

Organisations like VALS (Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service), VLA and other community legal services such as Djirra (formerly the Aboriginal Family Violence Prevention & Legal Service) are now also large employers of Aboriginal lawyers. 

Each of these organisations and agencies, as well as the Victorian Bar, have Indigenous employment programs that are helping to boost the number of Aboriginal lawyers coming into those areas of law.

VLA started taking on Indigenous articled clerks in 2001, in its Indigenous seasonal and articled clerkships program. Today it runs the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander clerkship program for law students, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander graduate program for law graduates who are eligible to enrol in practical legal training (PLT). Graduates are employed full-time. It also has nine Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander practising lawyers on staff, many of whom secured their role after participating in pathways programs.

But top tier commercial law firms are one area where Aboriginal lawyers are still relatively few. According to Arnold Bloch Leibler (ABL) lawyer and Tarwirri co-chair Karri Walker that’s partly because there is an expectation that Indigenous lawyers will work for community in Indigenous-facing roles. 

It’s also because commercial law is seen as unattainable by many Aboriginal students because of the lack of diversity in firms, she says. “When you walk into some of these environments you are very aware you’re the only person of colour. And a lot of non-Indigenous people don’t understand how this creates an unnerving feeling.”

ABL does not have a formal Indigenous internship or clerkship program. Partner Peter Seidel says the firm has been able to attract Aboriginal lawyers like Ms Walker to the firm because it has had a long relationship with the Aboriginal community through its public interest work promoting Indigenous rights. “It’s understood by Aboriginal law students and prospective lawyers that ABL is a safe place where people are respected and are given opportunities to thrive and progress in the firm.”

Other law firms are aiming to boost the number of Aboriginal lawyers by providing Indigenous internship, clerkship or graduate programs. Among them are firms such as Allens, Russell Kennedy, Clayton Utz, Gilbert + Tobin and Norton Rose Fulbright.

Tarwirri’s Mason Peter says the increase in clerkship and internship opportunities in recent years is a positive development, but much more needs to be done. “Pathways need to be embedded to support not just entry level roles but opportunities into graduate and further employment. Firms need to also provide a culturally safe employment space to allow people to excel and thrive. It’s no good to just have someone come in for a three-week placement and then leave either because there is no further opportunity or they feel unwelcome.”

Ms Walker says firms need to recognise these targeted programs are just the first step to attracting Indigenous lawyers into the profession, she says. “Step two is thinking about who are we putting this person to work with, do they have the understanding they should have, and how are we making this a place where they can not just survive but thrive?”

Too many lawyers are ignorant of Aboriginal history and culture, she says. “People need to be better educated around both Indigenous law and how they can work with Indigenous people to achieve equality and self-determination.” 

One of the first barriers to Aboriginal people entering the profession, she says, is the lack of support during law school. Many are the first in their family to attend university and don’t have the experience of other lawyers in their community to draw on. 

Director of engagement at Indigenous internship program CareerTrackers Jessica Bulger says a challenge for many Indigenous students is being able to see themselves in a legal career. “If you don’t have that industry experience as an undergrad it’s hard to stay motivated.” 

The CareerTrackers program connects Indigenous students to each other and to alumni already making progress in their legal careers. “The whole point is to create a community of Indigenous professionals who are able to lean on one another and have a network as they're coming up through their degrees,” Ms Bulger says.

Successful Indigenous internship or clerkship programs are those where the firms have done the “deep thinking about why they are building an internship program or a career pathway for indigenous students,” she says. “They understand why they want to have it and what skills they need to have the impact they want. They’ve worked out that diversity is good for their business, rather than doing it because others are doing it.”

Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF) has tapped into the CareerTrackers internship program to support Indigenous law students to provide a pipeline of candidates for its clerkship program, a number of whom have gone on to work as solicitors at the firm. 

HSF’s head of pro bono Brooke Massender says the firm started talking to CareerTrackers about 10 years ago about the barriers to Aboriginal students getting into law firms. “One of those [barriers] was the perception of lack of talent, which was obviously nonsense. The other was the perception that students recruited through specific Indigenous programs had been recruited at a different standard and hadn’t been set up for success in the firm.

"So we were very clear that the internships (we supported) would work through university, so students would be ready to compete on merit for clerkships. It’s not a separate program but a talent pipeline that enables people to access the firm with the right set of skills and grades.”

Among them are solicitor Kylie Arlidge, a Butchulla, Gooreng Gooreng and Wakka Wakka woman from Queensland, and digital law group paralegal Cooper Corbett, a Yorta Yorta man who grew up on the Mornington Peninsula. 

Ms Arlidge says she was initially apprehensive when she received an internship at HSF. “I always imagined I’d be doing family law or criminal law. But then I realised that the work we do here has such an impact on people’s lives and on this country, and that you could focus on structural change in a way you can’t with other roles.” Ms Arlidge now works in commercial litigation at HSF.

The numbers of Aboriginal clerks and lawyers HSF has recruited across the country in this way is now so high the firm has a First Nations Collective which provides networking and support for the lawyers, and which is consulted when it comes to questions and issues that affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

In 2020, solicitors and barristers were asked by the Victorian Legal Services Board + Commissioner for the first time to nominate their ethnic and cultural background on their practising certificate renewal form, including whether they are of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origin. This initiative was driven by 2020 LIV president Sam Pandya to improve diversity in the profession. ■

Matthew Karakoulakis –founder andprincipal lawyerat AMK LawMatthew Karakoulakis –founder and principal lawyer at AMK Law

Raised on Kaurna land on the Adelaide plains, with family heritage through his mother to the Narungga people of Yorke Peninsula, and a Greek migrant father, Matthew Karakoulakis says he knew he wanted to be a lawyer from age 10. “I had a feeling that being a lawyer I could make a difference in people’s lives – and that’s what inspired me to set up my own firm as well.” 

Despite knowing no one who was a lawyer and being the only one from his friendship group to go on to university, he managed to hold on to that vision. “My mum was especially encouraging about me wanting to be a lawyer,” he says. “She was an inspiration and a mentor to me.” 

At Flinders University a program that provided Indigenous students with a tutor gave him the confidence and skills to pass a law/commerce degree with high marks. It was when he tried to get a law firm job in Adelaide that he hit a wall. “At uni I had already sensed that other students went to the same schools and their parents all knew each other, and I could see that was how you got opportunities in the legal profession as well.”

Mr Karakoulakis eventually found a job with ASIC through its graduate program, rotating through its litigation, corporate and policy areas and relocating with the agency to Melbourne. After working at Clayton Utz and two other firms, he set up his own firm AMK Law with the aim of working with Aboriginal businesses. 

“Supporting Aboriginal businesses is my way of helping close the gap. A successful Aboriginal business flows through into community.” Recently he was excited to see that the 2020 Dreamtime Awards for Aboriginal businesses included many businesses his firm had helped along the way. “It’s been great to have been part of that community.”

Things have improved significantly for Aboriginal lawyers since he graduated in 2004, he says. “Law firms are much more diverse in their thinking and there's a lot more opportunity for young Aboriginal lawyers. I would love to see more Aboriginal lawyers practise in commercial law.” 

Moricia Vrymoet –VALS Directorof Legal ServicesMoricia Vrymoet – VALS Director of Legal Serivces

VALS Director of Legal Services Moricia Vrymoet says she never expected to go into the law as a child. “I always had an interest in law, but I thought it was for smart people.” But as a Gunditjmara woman from southwest Victoria, she was encouraged by the NIKERI Institute program at Deakin University to enrol into the law school there. She was so intimidated in her first exam she nearly gave up. But a lecturer encouraged her to re-sit the exam. “He stood by me all the way – and that’s what got me through the degree.”

Ms Vrymoet has gone on to have a rich career in the law, spanning VLA, YouthLaw, private practice and then six years at Victoria Police where she worked on royal commissions, civil and coronial inquiries and major organised crime in the Office of the Chief Examiner, as well as a prosecutor in the Specialist Children’s Court Prosecution Unit. During that time she also completed her Masters in Law majoring in criminal prosecutions. 

At VALS her portfolio oversees four practices across the state: criminal law, civil law and human rights, Aboriginal families, as well as the newly created specialist legal and litigation practice Wirraway, which Ms Vrymoet established to ensure greater accountability in police misconduct and corrections services and address deaths in custody.

For Ms Vrymoet, going into the law has been both an intellectual challenge and the chance to contribute to the needs of the Aboriginal community. “It’s been an incredible journey. I want to make my mark in the service of the community to achieve better justice outcomes for our people.”

Hayden Walker – VLA graduate lawyer
Hayden Walker – VLA graduate lawyer

Ballarat-based law graduate Hayden Walker’s Wiradjuri father had to hide in a cupboard as a child to avoid being taken away from his grandmother. Today Mr Walker is with VLA in its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Graduate Law Program.

The VLA program gives Indigenous law graduates the opportunity to learn practical on-the-job skills and also supports through their practical legal training at Leo Cussens, he says. “My goal is to help forge links with the Indigenous community so Indigenous people can feel safe reaching out to services and feel their case will be treated fairly.”

Mr Walker says he wants to be a role model to Indigenous law students and hopes to see an increase in the one per cent representation of Indigenous lawyers in the profession. “I want them to know they can become lawyers, because we need Indigenous representation.

“There is still a perception that Indigenous people are not clever,” says Mr Walker, who himself graduated with honours from Deakin University. “No matter how successful we become there still are those who think that everything is given to us and that we have special treatment which not only is blatant racism, but also not true.

“We want to be treated as part of the team, but at the same time for people to understand the cultural issues and historical trauma that Aboriginal people are facing through past and current racial ignorance.” 

Terri Pollard – lawyer at DjirraTerri Pollard – lawyer at Djirra

Djirra lawyer Terri Pollard, a Wiradjurri and Mununjali woman, says it has not been unusual for a court registry to mistake her for the client. “People assume you can’t be a lawyer because you’re Aboriginal.”

Ms Pollard was motivated to go into the law as a mature age student to help family and community members. “I was acutely aware of the treatment of Aboriginal people in the justice space and I knew that I was more than capable of becoming a lawyer. I wanted to follow the path of other amazing Aboriginal women and men that went into law.”

She is happy to be working for Djirra, the Aboriginal community-controlled organisation headed up by Kuku Yalanji woman Antoinette Braybrook. “I am surrounded by many incredible Aboriginal women throughout the organisation who have supported me in becoming a practising lawyer.” 

There is a perception as an Aboriginal lawyer “that we had to either jump through all these hurdles and hoops in our life to get where we are, or alternatively we are given a free ride. 

“While many of us have had life experiences that have led to where we are, I want to be seen as a lawyer in my own right. I want to see a day where it’s a normal occurrence to see a lawyer in court that also happens to be Aboriginal.”

Rita Tomlins – Deakin Law SchoolRita Tomlins – Deakin Law School

Arrernte/Warlpiri woman Rita Tomlins says that as a teenager growing up in Alice Springs (Mparntwe) she was sometimes on the wrong side of the law. “I remember being so disconnected. But I could see that it was a very complex system and I thought I'd love to study the law and understand it better.”

The deciding point was realising that bush lore in community back home on country isn't recognised in Australian law “even though it's still so strong in culture,” she says. “So I wanted to study that and learn why it wasn't recognised and how different they are. I have the vision that one day both laws will be recognised in Australia.”

Moving to Ballarat last year with her child and partner, she enrolled in law at Deakin University where the NIKERI Institute has been a lifeline supporting her with her studies away from her own country and most of her family, during a time of lockdown. “I got through my first year and passed everything and, if I’m being really honest, being locked down was perfect study conditions.”

She says at this stage she is particularly interested in environmental law “because if we are talking about closing the gap initiatives, it’s in law reform around protecting country and Aboriginal culture and putting people before profits. But I know that as I go along in my degree other things are going to jump out at me, so I’m open to other directions as well.”


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