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Women in Law: Interview with Abby Sullivan

Artwork by Erica Gage

Last year, Susan Kiefel became the first female Chief Justice of the High Court in its entire 113-year history. For women in the law, equality is still a long way off.

The legal profession is one of the worst places to be a woman: the pay gap is significant, jobs are inflexible with the demands of parenthood, and women are greatly underrepresented in senior roles. It makes female law students like myself often think about why we bother competing in a rat race we’re constantly disadvantaged in. In 2015, 14,600 graduates entered a job market of just 66,000 lawyers. If the excessive workload and very little support as a student wasn’t enough to deter us – we’re constantly told that we’re probably going to end up unemployed too.

Abby Sullivan is a female lawyer who doesn’t believe she’s personally been disadvantaged in the legal profession for being a woman. I thought it would be great to gain an insight from someone whose legal career hasn’t been shaped by the notorious boys’ club ruling the legal world.

 

Can you tell me a little about your career, and what work you have done surrounding women and law?

I graduated from Monash with an Arts degree majoring in Japanese and psychology before I moved to Japan to work. I was always interested in the law, but I wanted to get life experience for myself before studying law. I lived and worked in Japan for almost 6 years. When I returned to Victoria, I completed the Juris Doctor at Monash. By then, I knew definitively that I wanted to pursue a career in law, and I wanted to work directly with people in the community.

Before studying law, I had no idea that community legal centres (CLCs) existed and I didn’t know much about Victoria Legal Aid (VLA). However, a friend from my Arts degree told me about Women’s Legal Service Victoria (WLSV) and I grabbed the first opportunity I could to volunteer there. I volunteered at WLSV for about three months as I completed my practical placement, and was then offered a position as a paralegal then junior lawyer once I was admitted to practice.

Working at WLSV was a fantastic starting point for my legal career. I had an abundance of direct client contact with women from across Victoria and from all walks of life. All of my work at WLSV has revolved around legal issues that affect women. At WLSV my work focused on family law and family violence cases. I was fortunate to gain experience in the Magistrates’ Court, the Federal Circuit Court and in family dispute resolution. I was also exposed to policy work, contributing to our submission for the Royal Commission into Family Violence, project work and education. I have worked on projects around women with disabilities, women’s leadership and designing legal information sessions to make family law more accessible. The years of experience I had at WLSV in both legal and education roles set out the foundation for progression to working at Victoria Legal Aid (VLA).

 

Victoria Legal Aid is chronically underfunded, and many disadvantaged people cannot access the legal system. Do you think our government undervalues the importance of providing lawyers for those who need them?

There is an abundance of Victorians who rely on the legal information, advice, support, referrals and representation that is provided by VLA along with our practice partners from the private profession and community legal centres. The work done by the dedicated staff throughout VLA strives to ensure that Victorians with complex life and legal circumstances get quality legal representation. VLA’s commitment to supporting vulnerable Victorians access to the legal system is something that makes me proud to work at VLA. There is significant need in the community for the services provided by VLA and our practice partners that continues to grow as Victorians become increasingly aware of their legal rights. The VLA service provision is affected when there is an increased focus on law and order in the community.

 

What do you think of the current legal advice and refuge services available to women facing difficult circumstances in Australia? Are we doing enough to support women in this way?

In many ways, it will never feel like there are enough services to support women facing difficult circumstances in Victoria, if we do not also invest and support prevention work. In an ideal world, there would be no need for these services. How will we know if we are doing enough? I guess when there comes a time that our services are no longer needed and myself like many others working in the sector are out of a job. But that reality is not one that I see occurring any time soon. Progress is incremental.

We have family violence legislation that tells us that family violence is not limited to physical or sexual abuse, but also can be emotional or psychological abuse, economic abuse, behaviour that is threatening or coercive or behaviour that controls or dominates a family member. The Royal Commission into Family Violence helped bring family violence further forward into our collective consciousness. People are talking more about family violence and recognising that it is an issue that shouldn’t be. There are options and support available for victim/survivors and perpetrators.  

 

Family law can be a controversial topic of conversation. Many think the Family Court discriminates against men by giving women too much. But I disagree, it seems like the time and energy that childcare and housework requires is underestimated. Do you think the public have a misconception on how family law operates?

Many people have their own deeply personal experiences of relationship breakdown and it would be unfair of me to diminish their experience of the legal system and the impact that it may have had on their lives. Family law is an area of law that many have had some sort of experience with. It may be their own experience, a friend’s or a family member’s. It is also a highly emotive area of law where people sometimes feel like they have some sort of expertise, simply because they are part of a family.  

When relationships do break down, people shift from working together as a team for the success and growth of the family, towards a winner takes all mentality of punishment and power. It becomes ‘us versus them’ and in the middle are the children whose lives are turned upside down. Raising children also costs a significant amount of money. Dividing property after a relationship has ended is also tricky. Legislation is designed in a way that acknowledges that contributions to the financial circumstances of a family can be both direct and indirect. This means that earning money is not the only thing that is recognised as a financial contribution. Raising children and maintaining the household can both be non-financial contributions.

 

Why do you think women are so vastly underrepresented in the legal profession? How much can we consider to be the result of a disproportionate expectation on women to be child bearers and housekeepers, and how much is due to sexism and discrimination in the management of law firms?

I have been lucky to work at places with a strong female workforce. I would encourage female lawyers to push for leadership roles within their organisations. At VLA, we have several women in senior management roles. VLA also provides opportunities for flexibility in work practices that supports women returning to work after maternity leave and allows staff to balance their work and their home lives. The more legal practices recognise the value of providing flexibility in work practices, the more women we will see progressing through the ranks.

Sophia McNamara

The author Sophia McNamara

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