#LawyersMakeADifference highlights real stories of lawyers using their skills to help people in our community. In this article, Dr Andrew Lu OAM, Partner HBA Legal and Adjunct Senior Lecturer in law at the University of Western Australia, shares his story.
I came to the practice of law through the Arts, where the concept of a portfolio career and project-based work is common, and there is a substantial practical component to the training. In contrast my legal training in the 1990s was by case method and almost entirely theoretical, but I enjoyed my law studies to such an extent that I returned for a second helping… and a third… and a fourth. I have practised full-time as a defendant insurance lawyer, advising insurance companies and the health industry in medical negligence, disciplinary and accreditation cases. I have also taught law, which has informed my legal practice almost as much as legal practice has informed my teaching. As an adviser to hospitals, I am mindful that many complaints about professional services arise when communication channels break down, so part of what I do is to preserve or salvage relationships. The rising popularity of less-adversarial approaches to dispute resolution or dispute prevention, such as health mediation, is changing the nature of the work I do.
Anyone who has been in the Australian legal profession these past two decades has lived through the nationalisation and rebranding of long-standing local law firms, the internationalisation of national firms, the rise of boutique practices, the incorporation of legal practices, and the listing of law practices on the stock exchange. Though I did not know it at the time, I started working as a solicitor at the dawn of a new sunset for the linear legal career. The era when progress to partnership was a reasonable expectation of any competent solicitor prepared to put in the work, and when becoming a senior associate really meant you were on your way to becoming a principal of a legal practice, is over.
Today’s legal careers look more like the portfolio Arts career, so comparisons with the career trajectories of past generations can lead to disappointment and are unfair. Career breaks, the movement and transfer of partners or entire teams and clients between different firms, insourcing and outsourcing, part-time law partners, non-partner or even non-lawyer shareholders of incorporated practices, the law as a second career, and the freedom to move into and out of private practice with secondments in-house, have become common disruptions. These have added to the diversity of perspectives among today’s lawyers, and arguably aided the retention and recognition of lawyers who want to continue in practice but may not have been able to do so before workplace flexibility was normalised.
One of the great benefits of an education in the law, and of having met many others whose legal studies helped them to make impactful contributions, is to recognise that the respectful professionalism of the law, the empathy and collegiality that binds us, and the primary duty that all lawyers owe as officers of the Court, has social currency. Many who have read law but may not have been admitted as practitioners, or who have worked briefly in legal practice before directing their passions and talents towards other activities, continue to self-identify as lawyers. Some are influential in politics and public life. Very many of the philanthropy managers I have met began their careers as lawyers in the top tier of law firms. I also have friends who are journalists, company directors, management consultants, operations managers, administrators, writers, actors, insurance brokers, mining entrepreneurs, estate agents, chefs and doctors who have law degrees. They are the hidden lawyers making a difference.
Service to support good governance in the not-for-profit sector brings its own significant rewards, and lawyers are in high demand as company directors. The challenge for the busy lawyer, especially at the mid-career stage of a senior associate with many competing professional and personal demands, is to recognise the opportunities to make a difference and to make time for projects that enrich society. I have experienced the power of connection and of collaborating around a shared passion with senior and respected thinkers time and again, through serving on the boards of Arts and not-for-profit organisations. Having joined my first Arts board as a junior, I have valued the chance to contribute to support the generous work of artists in telling the important stories of Australia. I am a non-executive director of the National Gallery of Australia Foundation, the Australian Youth Orchestra, the Arts Law Centre of Australia and the Melbourne International Film Festival. All are companies of long standing that do valuable national work with limited resources. Supporting organisations I respect, as a business volunteer, reminds me that lawyers in private practice breathe rarefied air. We are properly resourced to do our work. We can learn much about inclusion, leverage, collaboration and resilience from the third sector.
In a conservative profession that tends to perpetuate tradition, very few senior Australian lawyers look or sound like me. I identify simultaneously as a first-generation migrant, as an LGBTIQ+ Australian of Asian ethnicity, an introvert in a profession that favours extroverts for leadership, and as someone of Chinese heritage in a country where that is an impediment in the jobs market. Sobering research by ANU reveals that in modern multicultural Australia, a Chinese job applicant must make 68% more job applications to secure the same number of interviews as an Anglo-Saxon applicant. Through mentoring and encouragement from senior colleagues, I have stopped being apologetic and begun to embrace my identity as a minority of a minority.
Last year was the 200th anniversary of Chinese migration to Australia. For the very first time, a Chinese-Australian barrister was appointed Queen’s Counsel. A lawyer of Chinese heritage has never served as a judge of any Australian court, although over 5.6% Australia’s population has Chinese ancestry. Whilst lawyers as a group are steadfastly committed to justice and fairness, equity and diversity in leadership remains a challenge. The ‘bamboo ceiling’ is a phenomenon of the Australian legal profession that until recently had no label. It describes a problem of explicit or implicit bias in the Australian legal profession that has constrained the advancement of Asian Australian lawyers into senior roles in firms in Government, and at the independent bar. Without seniority in legal practice, appointment to a tribunal or court is not possible. Only through being aware of biases in selection and promotion, and targeted interventions, can ceilings be smashed. As we observe from the increasing numbers of talented women lawyers stepping into senior roles long merited by their experience and service, ripples of change begin by knowing the facts, recognising the bias, and taking steps to foster inclusion. The Australian legal profession is just beginning to discuss the challenge of intersectionality, and to champion how cultural diversity in legal practice makes a difference. Those of us who have overcome the perception of disadvantage have an especially precious opportunity to promote positive change.