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LIV Young Lawyers interview with the Honourable Anne Ferguson, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria

LIV Young Lawyers interview with the Honourable Anne Ferguson, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria

By Lucinda Bordignon


Last year, LIV Young Lawyers member Lucinda Bordignon interviewed the Honourable Anne Ferguson, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria about her career and life in the law, as well as her advice for young lawyers.

Why did you decide to study law? Where did you study at university?
Well, I really enjoyed crime novels – particularly their mystery and suspense – and when a friend began studying law at university, I thought that it sounded interesting and might be something I could pursue.  I also took Legal Studies in Year 11 and quite enjoyed it.

When I was at school, I thought I would end up being a teacher. However, when I started studying Arts and Law at Monash University, I discovered I enjoyed learning about the law and ultimately ended up following that path rather than teaching.

What was your first job after university? What was your plan?

I didn’t really have a plan - I was just focused on getting a job.  I finished university in Melbourne in the eighties during a recession, so that was motivation to find employment and start my articles. At the time, I didn’t have a strong preference to work in any particular area of law, but that would later change as I progressed.

What challenges did you face as a graduate lawyer or as a lawyer in your first two years of practice?

The main challenge I faced was the lack of practical training at university at the time. For example, when I was doing my articles in property law and conveyancing, I did not have any training in the day-to-day work a solicitor would perform in that area.

However, there were a few things I did that helped me overcome this challenge. One step I took was to work with the titles office clerk at the firm I was at to learn some of the practical aspects of conveyancing.  She took me with her to the Land Titles Office and introduced me to the staff working there. She taught me how to do a title search, to lodge documents and to understand the steps involved at the Titles Office.  This helped me to gain a practical understanding of property law and conveyancing in action. 

I found that a focus on developing relationships was very helpful to me when I was starting out in the legal profession. 

Where did you work after your first job in the legal profession?

After finishing my articles, I worked for one year as a solicitor practising in property law. Following that, I travelled overseas to study.

I actually did not think a career in the legal profession was for me - I thought that a career as a teacher might suit me better. I also wanted to travel.  So I took off overseas and studied in England for three years and completed a PhD about unfair contracts. While I was completing my PhD, I came back to Melbourne for a few months to work as a solicitor and was exposed to litigation work, which I found interesting.  After finishing my study, I accepted a position as a partner at my old firm and moved back to Melbourne to work as a litigator.

Did you go to the Bar? Why not?

No, I have never been a barrister. At one stage, I did get close to going to the Bar, however it did not come to fruition. I worked as a solicitor and then partner at Gadens, and then moved to Allens Arthur Robinson (now Allens Linklaters), working there first as a solicitor, then special counsel then five years as a commercial litigation partner.

In what circumstances did you make the move to your first position on the bench?

I moved to the bench from my position as a partner at Allens. I think my experience practising in litigation, for example, managing discovery, and the detailed day-to-day knowledge I gained while practising as a solicitor, helped me with some aspects of being a judge.  I had a lot to learn though in other respects because I had not been an advocate.

What do you enjoy most about being the Chief Justice?

I enjoy interviews such as this one! I also find it very rewarding to make things better for people using the Supreme Court of Victoria. The Court is improving all the time. For example, the new improved e-Filing system was extended to the Common Law Division, the Costs Court and the rest of the Commercial Court. This will make things better for people using the Court - for example, country practitioners can now file documents online.  At the Court, we like to look at things from the user’s perspective.

What advice would you give to young lawyers wanting to one day go to the bench?

My advice is to do everything to the best of your ability. It’s also important to listen and learn, and aim to forge good mentoring relationships. It is never about just building a resume – it’s important to hone your skills and develop your technical expertise.

What do you think about mentorship? Do you think this is a valuable opportunity that young lawyers should take up if they can?

Absolutely. You can always learn something from a mentor. Even if you learn what not to do, that is a positive thing.

What do you think about networking? Do you think this is something that young lawyers can benefit from doing?

It is definitely worthwhile trying to meet a broad range of people professionally and in business. Forging relationships is extremely important in a career in the legal profession.

Is there a piece of advice that you wish someone had told you when you were in the first five years of your legal career? What was it?

If I was a young lawyer now, my advice would be that a career in the legal profession is a long road. You can’t afford to burn yourself out in the first five or ten years of practice. Don’t be discouraged if you face obstacles – it’s important to persevere. I have learnt that it is so important to find balance and to look after yourself, mentally and physically. If you are finding things difficult, there is no shame in reaching out for assistance. You owe it to yourself and to your friends and family to look after yourself and to stay well.

Do you have any advice or tips for women wanting to practice in the law and have children?

It is difficult to look forward when you are in your mid-twenties to mid-thirties. As I mentioned, a career in the legal profession is a long road. If you take a break from your legal career, it is the equivalent of a nanosecond. Focus on family, spend time with your children. Work out with your partner who is the best person to stay at home to look after things there, if that is the family model that you want. It can be difficult when your contemporaries and friends are not doing same things as you. However, don’t be worried about taking time out of your legal career - it won’t hold you back.

I encourage people to have a family when they are ready to have a family, and in the way they want to do it. There are many different ways to have a family now and there are lots of different models for what can work.

You might need to take a break from your career for reasons other than having a family, health reasons or caring for a family member for example. And that is OK. There are lots of reasons why paid work may not be a priority for a time.

The LIV Young Lawyers thanks the Honourable Chief Justice Anne Ferguson for her time.

Lucinda Bordignon is co-chair of the LIV Young Lawyers Professional Development Committee


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