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Profile: Meet the new LIV president

Profile: Meet the new LIV president

By Karin Derkley

Legal Biography 


Lawyer Sam Pandya grew up in suburban London and sees cultural and socio-economic diversity as a theme for his presidency.

He took an unconventional road to legal practice in Victoria, and as the new LIV president, Sam Pandya wants to be seen as a role model for all aspiring young lawyers – especially those not born with advantages who may feel locked out of the top echelons of the law.

“I didn’t grow up with the privileges of private school and an ‘old boys network’. I want my example to show people if you really want to achieve something you can get there, even if you haven’t had the opportunities other people have.”

Mr Pandya migrated to Australia from the UK in 2009 to join his Melbourne-born wife and his first daughter. But his family’s migration story began in the late 1960s when Sam’s parents migrated to Britain from Gujarat in north-west India in search, he says, “of a better life”. 

Mr Pandya was born soon after his parents settled in England and grew up in suburban London where he went to local comprehensive schools. His father worked as a chemistry teacher at a local school, supplementing the family’s income with casual work, and his mother worked in a factory for many years.

“It was a pretty tough life, especially when I was young,” he says. “Mum and Dad worked really hard and we didn’t have much money. There was a large and supportive Indian migrant community in London, but we had few helpful connections in the wider community.”

It was when the family moved from multicultural Finsbury Park to outer suburban Palmers Green, where they were able to buy a house, that Mr Pandya says he first became aware of looking and being different. “There weren’t many migrants in that area, and you got pushed around a bit because you stood out from the crowd.

“But the approach of Indian migrants was to just get on with it: don’t get upset, work hard and cherish the opportunities.”

A passion for sport connected him with his “tribe” of other bright local kids keen to study. With solid marks, he was initially unsure of what course to study at university and decided on accounting, finance and economics. Company law was one of his first year subjects. It sparked a keen interest in legal rights, justice and the legal process and Mr Pandya realised he’d discovered the career he wanted to pursue. 

“I’d been interested in the law before, but I never thought I had the ability to do law because I didn’t go to a private school, and I didn’t have the money for the practical training courses.”

But once he finished his economics degree with a strong result he was able to qualify for the law course at University of London. 

“I really enjoyed my law studies,” he says. “I loved how every case was different and how you could make a change in the world you lived in by using your brain, your skills and experience. I saw it as a way of addressing the kind of social injustice I experienced as a kid.” 

While he thrived in the course, his family’s lack of resources meant he had to complete the expensive year-long legal practice course part-time while he worked to support himself. 

“I knocked on the door of every suburban law practice for weeks trying to find work.” Eventually he found two firms willing to give him part-time work – one a civil litigation firm, the other a migration firm for which he travelled out to the city’s airports to support people detained there.

“That experience made me feel that I wanted to help vulnerable people who start with nothing and were looking for a better life from wherever they came from,” he says.

But while his social justice instincts were pricked, when it came to the next step, finding a two-year training contract, it was his qualifications in finance and accounting that got him his foot in the door. 

“I applied at law firm after law firm, and in the end I had to think outside the square and about who would want my skills in accounting and finance.” In the end, it was the Insolvency Service (the UK’s equivalent to ASIC) that opened its door with a short-term contract that initially involved a daily 100km journey to Southend from his London home.

The job eventually relocated to London and became permanent, and it was at that office that he met his future Melbourne-born wife Julie White, one of many Australian and New Zealander lawyers working at the office at that time.

“The expat lawyers were all having a wow of a time working and travelling in Britain and Europe, so I decided I would take the chance to go the other way and try living and working in Australia.” 

One of his Australian workmates assured him of a job available in Sydney. It turned out to be in a tiny town north of Gosford on the NSW central coast. “It was pretty rough, but I learned a lot from my time working for a small but very busy regional practice.” He eventually found himself a job closer to Ms White in Sydney as a solicitor in the commercial insolvency group at Kemp Strang. 

The couple moved back to the UK for four years where they married and had their first child before deciding to relocate to Melbourne where Mr Pandya joined Maddocks. 

Making it to a big city firm was an achievement, but one that for Mr Pandya was tempered by the growing sense that his work had taken over his life. “I got to senior associate at Maddocks, and then I was considering whether to aim for partnership. But by then we had two kids under three and I had to think: do I want to work very long hours to strive to become a partner or do I want to be more present for my children?”

Pregnant with their third child, Ms White, an employment lawyer, encouraged him to start his own practice. “I worried about whether it was the right thing to do while supporting three kids,” Mr Pandya says. “But Julie said, you can work from home these days with technology and you'd be great at it.”

The pair now work together in their firm OpusRed, practising in insolvency, commercial and employment law. 

“I've really enjoyed the experience of running my own practice,” he says. “You’re your own boss, you work your own preferred hours and you can do whatever kind of work you want to do for the people that you want to do work for. And Julie and I are able to pass the baton to each other all day every day dealing with the needs of the kids. It’s worked really well.” 

Just as importantly though, Mr Pandya has finally been able to practise the kind of law and act for the clients he has always aspired to represent. 

“I’d always had a strong sense of social justice and now I can act for the people I would often work against in the past. I can now act for the wives of bankrupts to save their houses from the liquidators, and for employees and small business people to make sure they are being treated fairly in their dealings with more powerful entities.”

It was five years ago that Mr Pandya received a call from then LIV Council member now Associate Justice Mary-Jane Ierodiaconou encouraging him to join the LIV Council. 

“Mary-Jane said they needed people with accounting skills. I was very interested. I really wanted to give back to the profession and make sure lawyers have the support to run their practice and serve their community as best they can.”

He also felt the profession could benefit significantly from more people like him from backgrounds beyond the socio-economic and cultural enclaves the legal profession has traditionally been drawn from.

Seeing Reynah Tang as the first LIV president of Asian background in 2013 was a big leap forward, he acknowledges. For Mr Pandya, being the first LIV president of Indian heritage is another step forward for a profession that he says should reflect the community’s diversity. 

“You can’t be what you can’t see, both in the socio-economic and cultural sense,” he says. “I want to be the living example that even if you don’t have a private school education or have gone to Melbourne Uni, that doesn’t mean you can’t achieve what you want to achieve. 

“I want to be a president who understands the challenges and difficulties you may face to becoming whatever you want to become as a lawyer, a partner, a magistrate or a judge and that there are people in the profession who can support you. It gives people hope and determination to continue to pursue their goals.”

While cultural and socio-economic diversity is a major theme for his presidency, Mr Pandya is mindful there are many other issues concerning the profession.

Having run his own practice for more than five years as well as having worked in government and a range of different-sized private firms, he is well aware of the challenges facing the profession and the responsibility of the LIV to support all Victorian lawyers, in whatever capacity they work. 

“Our role is to be at the forefront of assisting practitioners to be more forward thinking and ensure we are regarded as ethical and well-respected professionals in our society.” 

There are also the challenges presented by technology, which he believes present opportunities for practitioners who embrace it as an enabler to the provision of better and more accessible legal services. 

“Lawyers need to be helped to embrace the changes of technology so it works for them, financially and practically. The role we play as good and trusted advisers is not threatened but enabled by technology.” 

Then there is the ongoing issue of mental health and wellbeing in the profession – “the most important issue, that lawyers have to consider,” he says. 

Mr Pandya acknowledges concerns about the law’s work culture of long hours and relentless demands. “People say ‘well we did it, we worked really long hours, so why can’t they do it?’ But just because you did it before, doesn’t mean it was right. 

“We don’t want that culture of overwork in our profession because it leads to mental health problems. We need to talk about it. Let’s try to change that culture and that way of working.” 

While he respects the role of large law firms, he also wants to challenge the notion that a position in a large firm is the holy grail for a young lawyer. 

“Some young people think that to succeed they have to go a big city law firm. But you can learn such a lot in smaller law firms. And there are law firms in the suburbs and across the regions crying out for new lawyers to join their practices.”

He is also keen to continue the important role of the LIV as a voice for the legal profession in the community and an influence on government policy. 

“We want to be respected by government, we want to support the rule of law, and make sure we are consulted when legislation changes and when there are issues like royal commissions or changes to the court system.” 

Mr Pandya says he intends to make the most of his year as president and engage as fully as possible with the LIV’s members to reflect and address their concerns. 

“Like many from migrant backgrounds, all I had growing up was determination, single-mindedness and a family that supported my ambitions for my life. My parents instilled in me the values of community, togetherness and the importance of always supporting others. And I will ensure those values inform my approach to the challenges faced by our profession in the year ahead.” 

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