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Lawyers breaking the barriers

Lawyers breaking the barriers

By Karin Derkley

Diversity Legal Biography Young Persons 


For law graduates from diverse backgrounds, overcoming the challenges of breaking into the legal profession requires extra grit.

Former High Court Justice Michael Kirby famously said the legal profession must reflect the community that it serves. And the profession is steadily, if slowly, moving that way. Women now represent more than half of solicitors and are increasing in the higher echelons. Cultural diversity is increasing too, although perhaps not fast enough, given that around a quarter of the Australian population have a non-Anglo ancestry. There are still barriers for those from newer migrant communities, for people with disabilities, with Indigenous ancestry or from disadvantaged backgrounds. Among them they say are potential employers’ preconceptions about what your name, appearance, disability, postcode or law school says about your abilities and potential skill as a lawyer. Another is the isolation of being in a workplace where the issues you face are ignored. There is also they say a lack of support – not having anyone who can help get a first clerkship, who can make introductions to prospective employers, and make these young lawyers feel like a career in the law is something to aspire to.

These four young people overcame those barriers through a combination of keen intelligence, ambition and determination, and because they managed to find supporters who saw what they offered and helped them make real their dream of going into the law.

Idil MohamudIdil Mohamud, lawyer Slater and Gordon

It was early in law school that Idil Mohamud realised how important connections are to making it as a lawyer. Growing up in the northern suburb of Mill Park, she earned a scholarship to Ivanhoe Grammar before doing a double degree in law and international relations at La Trobe University. Ms Mohamud’s parents had fled Somalia’s civil war in the late 1980s and could offer her little in the way of the connections.

“Even though you know you're completely capable, it’s a big leap when you don’t know anyone you can draw on for that immediate inspiration or guidance,” she says. “So I found myself floundering around in my first years of law studies.”

It was after a Slater and Gordon lawyer heard about her studies and she was recruited for a casual paralegal position in the firm’s class action team that she was finally able to envision herself going into legal practice. “The first case I worked on was the Manus Island class action, which was a very affirming experience.” Just as important was the presence of other African-Australian lawyers at the firm, including at senior levels. “That affirmed for me that this was a place where I could bring my whole self to work.”

When she graduated in 2017, Ms Mohamud was hired by Slater and Gordon to work full time in the same class actions team. She says she is enjoying a fulfilling start to her career, taking opportunities as they arise and doing community work, including mentoring other young African-Australians to help them negotiate their own way forward in their career. “It can be so difficult when you’re very junior and finding your way, so I feel it’s important for me to share connections and opportunities with others,” she says.

While acknowledging the legal profession is improving, with initiatives to promote people from different cultural backgrounds, she says it is important that workplaces ensure people feel included rather than them having to struggle to fit in. “From personal experience, workplaces will be able to attract and retain more staff from culturally diverse backgrounds when people feel like they’re valued at work and able to participate fully.” The test will be whether staff are able to progress into senior positions, she says. “If we’re not seeing that follow-through, we might need to reflect on whether there are other structural challenges to overcome.”

Sam JacksonSam Jackson, employment and work health and safety lawyer, Sparke Helmore

A few weeks into starting his law and commerce degree at the University of Tasmania, Sam Jackson, already in a wheelchair due to a genetic disability, broke almost every bone of his body in a car accident. “So I was disabled from birth, and I had a good go trying to make it worse,” he says.

Inspired to go into law during Year 12 Legal Studies after listening to a talk given by former Supreme Court of Tasmania judge Pierre Slicer, he initially assumed he would go into criminal law. But after he restarted his double degree at the University of Tasmania, with a focus on human resources, his lecturers suggested he go into employment law. 

He was accepted for a clerkship and then a graduate role at Herbert Smith Freehills’ Melbourne office and has worked in employment and safety practices ever since, first with Freehills, then K&L Gates, and now Sparke Helmore. “I love the fact that each matter you are dealing with is about people.” 

Mr Jackson says his disability has not held him back as a lawyer and says he is more likely to encounter patronising attitudes in the supermarket than in the workplace. “Being a professional is a great leveller. People assume that because you’re in a firm you must have a degree”.

However, he’s also aware that unconscious bias, if not outright discrimination, can make employers reluctant to employ people with disabilities. “Employers worry they’ll make expensive changes to their workplace and then that person will leave, or that they’ll constantly be taking sick leave.

“But the reality is that people with a disability generally manage their health extremely well and the stats don’t reflect that they take more sick leave. Plus people with disabilities tend to have longer tenure and are generally much more committed employees.”

The legal profession could be a leader in positive action, he says, just as the public service is in the UK, and to a lesser extent in Australia. “Once you’re in employment, it makes you so much more employable.” 

He is also conscious of how the law can help to improve facilities for people with disabilities in the community as well as within the profession. Wheelchair access to public transport is one of his biggest bugbears. “One of the biggest barriers to people with disabilities gaining employment or education is a lack of available accessible transport. If you can’t leave your house, how can you get a job?”

Karri WalkerKarri Walker, law graduate, Arnold Bloch Leibler

It was something of a shock for Nyiyaparli woman Karri Walker to go from the relatively safe cultural space of her Indigenous studies and criminology course into the law degree at Melbourne University. Ms Walker’s mother’s family is from the Pilbara region in Western Australia. 

“I’d been used to an environment where I was surrounded by like-minded people who understood my culture and where there was no sense of being scared to express your identity.” At Melbourne Law School (MLS) there was suddenly an “overwhelming silence” in terms of an Indigenous perspective, she says. “And that takes a toll on your identity.” 

At the same time, she was aware that while the law has historically been a tool to oppress Indigenous people, it also has the power to undo those wrongs. “Something like constitutional recognition and the Uluru Statement from the Heart shows how the law can represent and reflect Indigenous people’s struggles, history and culture,” she says. 

At MLS Ms Walker became its first Indigenous student representative and convinced the school to integrate Indigenous perspectives into the curriculum. “Even if you’re teaching something like contract law, you can still engage with Indigenous understandings of that area of law.” 

Initially assuming she would work in native title law, Ms Walker took up clerkships at three different commercial law firms as a way of challenging herself. At one of them, Arnold Bloch Leibler, she realised not only how much she enjoyed commercial law, but that she had found a firm where she could be herself. “I had been worried that with commercial law I would have to give up part of my identity. But at ABL I felt that my culture was respected and understood because the firm has such a long history of commitment to Aboriginal Australia.” 

She says encouraging more Aboriginal people into law schools and law firms is about creating an inclusive environment “where you feel you can thrive.

“If the law is viewed as a tool to achieve social justice, as it is at ABL, all lawyers in all firms in Australia should have a level of knowledge and understanding of Aboriginal culture and history, and the issues we are continuing to face today.

“When cultural differences are respected and understood, you get far more creative solutions because everybody feels empowered to contribute their own perspective and lens. It’s better for the lawyers and it’s better for the clients.”

Khoodadad (Kay) Mohammadi,Khoodadad (Kay) Mohammadi, legal analyst, Herbert Smith Freehills

Khoodadad Mohammadi arrived in Australia when he was nine, with no English and having never been to school in Afghanistan where his parents had been farmers. At Narre Warren Secondary College he made up for lost time, putting in extra after school hours with the help of his teachers to get his English up to speed. Legal studies in Year 11 captured his imagination and, with strong exam results, he became the first in his family to study law, at Victoria University Law School. 

Working 30 hours a week at a local factory in the mornings to support himself through law school, he travelled into the CBD for afternoon lectures. “That first year at law school was really hard,” he says. “I had no support apart from the lecturers who only had a few minutes spare to help me. But eventually I got into the routine and I did really well in the course.”

However, solid marks, an honours thesis, a semester of weekly volunteer work at Victoria Legal Aid, a two-week stint with County Court Judge Phillip Misso and a two-week exchange program in dispute resolution at Florida International University, were to no avail when he applied for and was rejected for numerous clerkships. 

“I couldn’t sleep at night worrying about how I would get a job,” he says. “I tried to work out what I was doing wrong.” What he eventually decided he was lacking were the kinds of connections that could help him get the all-important legal experience employers told him he needed. “I thought: I am just going to have to connect with more people, and get them to introduce me to places or people that could potentially lead to something.” He signed up to the LIV mentoring program, attended LIV networking events and signed up to the state government's CareerSeekers internship program which supports refugees and asylum seekers into professional careers.

Finally he was got his foot in the door. “CareerSeekers got me a 12-week internship in the legal department at UniSuper and that was when things really turned around for me. It helped build my skills and gave me experience.” 

With the connections he built at UniSuper and CareerSeekers, he was introduced to Herbert Smith Freehills partner Shaun McVicar who referred him to the firm’s new practice group, the ALT: Dispute Resolution team, for a role as a legal analyst. Still in his probation period, he aims to progress in the firm. “It’s been great. It has a really good culture and nice people, and there are plenty of networking events and career development opportunities to grow and further my skills.” 

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