Legal Eagle “Falconer” Edition No 4: Gemma O’Brien
Gemma O’Brien is a La Trobe graduate who has joined us today to share her wealth of experience. From NAAJA to an Associateship at the County Court, to setting up her own social enterprise, and working at the Melbourne City Mission, Gemma gives us an insight into her professional experience and personal perspective. The LSA extends our thanks to Gemma for her time, and invites you to read about her amazing experiences below.
What was your first job after graduating from La Trobe, and how did you end up in that position?
I went through Leo Cussen and then I went to do PLT (practical legal training) at NAAJA (North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency). I was working in the criminal division in Katherine in the Northern Territory. I was often on Circuit. This involved going out to remote communities to attend circuit courts. From there I came back to a job as a Judge’s Associate at the County Court. I think my time at NAAJA helped me identify that I wanted to work in criminal law.
What was it like to work as a Judge’s Associate?
Being an Associate allowed me to experience a diverse range of matters – crime, sex offences, civil law, defamation, personal injury. As I wasn’t entirely sure where I wanted my career to go, my time at the Court allowed me to better understand different areas of practice, and to see good (and bad) advocacy on a daily basis. I don’t think I would have had exposure to such a diverse range of practice areas had I worked at a firm.
What were the working conditions like in that position?
Fantastic! Like many public service roles, there is good work-life balance. You get 8 weeks paid leave per year, and finish at 5pm most of the time.
There is an excellent collegial atmosphere. You have access to great networking opportunities. I had the opportunity to network with barristers, solicitors, judges and Court staff each day. Most Associates are in a similar position, in the sense everyone is trying to work our what their next career move is. Some would go on to work at the bar, some would go to work for government (the Office of Public Prosecutions for example) and others would progress to firms.
You also develop excellent writing skills. You have to write for the judge; you may have to draft judgements or memoranda for them. You also develop excellent research skills, as you do a lot of case law research. You also become really good with stakeholder management as you regularly coordinate the Court and Corrections staff, solicitors, barristers, victims and their families and witnesses.
It sounds like a lot of different and challenging work, are you given much training?
Yeah, there is. A lot of it is on the job, but there is also an intense induction. You are eased into the role with an existing Associate who is paired as a buddy.
What advice would you give to students reading this who are in the process of looking for graduate jobs in their field of interest?
Always try as much stuff as you can, get as much experience under your belt whilst you are a student – as the networks and knowledge will help you in time. I wish I had used every break mid-year and at the end of year to intern and get a range of experience in different areas. I thought it was only relevant in your penultimate year – but it’s not.
I’d also suggest joining professional associations like the LIV for networking opportunities.
Finally, in addition to internships and clerkships, it’s worth meeting with professionals in your field of interest and that can give you an insight into their role, workplace and area of practice. People are often surprisingly generous with their time and will take the time to sit down and have a chat with you.
It must be a really rewarding experience to work for a not-for-profit like Melbourne City Mission. What motivated you to move from the legal services field into the community services area working in social enterprises?
I spent a bit over 2 years working at the Court, predominantly in the criminal division. I was overwhelmed by the number of people who would come before the Court who were not necessarily malicious, but just had made a number of poor decisions – or lacked adequate role models. As a result of their decisions, their trajectory was so limited.
I thought there was a role that I could play earlier in the piece, perhaps in a more interventionary role. I took a role at Melbourne City Mission (MCM) where I was delivering advocacy and leadership programs to refugee, migrant and Indigenous young people.
This was a significant career shift, but I thoroughly enjoyed it, and was continuously challenged. About 9 months into my new role, I realised the chronic vulnerability of the community development sector – being almost exclusively reliant on government and philanthropic block funding. I couldn’t understand how the work that I was doing (which had a 25 year legacy!) could come to an abrupt end if I was unsuccessful in securing the next grant. I knew there had to be a better way.
And so I set up a social enterprise: CQ Cultural Consulting. This social enterprise works with the same cohort of aspiring, culturally diverse leaders, and recognises the unique talent they have to deliver training and consulting to organisations and businesses about diversity. We launched about 18 months ago, and have had significant early success.
My law degree and practice provided me with some really valuable transferable skills. Knowing how to write, influence and negotiate have proven hugely valuable in developing a start up!
What is the greatest challenge you’ve faced in your career?
I think for much of my university days, and even the first 5 years working there is an unfair and unrealistic expectation to ‘have it figured it out.’ Especially in law, there is often a defined pathway for students: with many transitioning from uni, to a clerkship, to an area of practice and so on.
I was constantly asked ‘what are you doing next?’. Most of the time, I didn’t know…I didn’t have a clear pathway.
If I was looking back and telling my younger self what to do, it would be to take up experiences, jobs, and opportunities that really interest you. If you’re interested in something – then you are often playing to your strengths – you identify what your strengths are and find your work rewarding.
I would also tell myself, it is completely fine not to ‘have figured it out’. That happens as you grow.
What is your proudest achievement within your career?
Setting up CQ. It is a social enterprise that is bigger than me, and bigger than the amazing team that comprise it. It has momentum and demonstrates how you can achieve both business outcomes and social impact at the same time.
Finally, on a lighter note, if you could trade lives with anyone (living or dead) for one day, who would it be, and why?
Forever…?? Hmmm…Maybe Michelle Obama. Just for a day, maybe a week. Reason: I love her – amazing, passionate orator, who influences and creates change….but really to get an insight into Barack…without actually having to trade lives with him for a day. The responsibility of being President is too much!