With a legal career spanning more than 40 years, including 25 as a judge, ACT Supreme Court Chief Justice Helen Murrell has a unique, lived experience of Australia’s legal justice system.
But it’s the increased presence of women taking leading roles on the bench that Her Honour notes as a key advancement in the legal professional over recent years.
During Law Week 2021, Her Honour shared some opinions and insights into the changing face of the ACT’s legal system and how the profession has evolved since she started practising law.
“When I became a barrister in 1981, there were about 30 females practising in a pool of well over 600 barristers in New South Wales. It was extremely challenging and I’m absolutely certain it toughened me up, but what really helped was that the women supported each other and I’m sure that was the key to success for those of us who remained at the Bar,” Chief Justice Murrell said.
Her Honour acknowledged that while the gender gap in senior legal advocates has significantly decreased over time, many of the challenges she faced when joining the Bar in her late 20s remain for many women today.
“The toughest part of my career was when I was at the Bar. The job was hard enough on its own, but being in my late 20s and building a practice as a sole practitioner while managing family responsibilities, that was extremely hard.”
Her Honour was at the Bar for 15 years before becoming a judge, and said that building resilience and having a positive attitude towards failure are qualities that have served her well in an industry known to have high rates of depression.
“I don’t think resilience is easily learned. Everyone experiences failures, but it’s how you handle these experiences and learn from your mistakes that will shape your legal career. I do feel we’ve become over-sensitive, and tend to over-personalise things these days to the point where some younger legal professionals simply aren’t developing the thick skins us older ones have.”
Her Honour would like to see more lawyers join the Bar in the ACT, and noted the ACT is a unique jurisdiction in that new lawyers in this region are given opportunities to develop their practice skills quickly compared to those in New South Wales.
“A career at the Bar is a fabulous career – tough, but so rewarding. To anyone considering it, I would recommend they start sooner rather than later and don’t overthink it. But I would also advise lawyers to seek out opportunities to grow their legal advocacy skills. When these opportunities arise, be courageous and take the leap.”
Taking on opportunities as they arise is advice ACT lawyer Georgia Briggs lives by, having recently opened her own law firm – Briggs Law.
“I’ve been a lawyer for a few years, so felt it was time to branch out on my own. I also teach law at two universities and have started a PhD, so I’m definitely keeping busy,” Ms Briggs said.
Georgia’s advice to those just starting out as lawyers, and particularly young women, is to run their own race.
“I would just say, give yourself a chance – it’s hard in an alpha industry. Your journey is going to be totally different from the person next to you – not necessarily better or worse, just uniquely yours so take it as it comes. I almost laugh looking back at my school reports which always said I should stop talking so much. Well, now I get paid to talk!”
Following a long and distinguished career in the legal sector, Chief Justice Murrell will hang up her robe in March 2022 but has no plans of retiring from the legal professional altogether.
“After 25 years as a judge, I don’t relish the idea of doing it for much longer though I’ve enjoyed every aspect of judging. I would like to utilise the skills that I have, but in a slightly different capacity.”
Spending more time with grandchildren and building fitness are also high on the priority list.
“I look forward to spending more time in the water swimming and practicing yoga, which I started a couple of decades ago when I had cancer. I’ve loved it ever since.”