Australian law firms address lack of Aboriginal recruits
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When Marlikka Perdrisat was detained by police for doing nothing more than waiting outside a friend’s house, she decided to learn more about her rights and the law, and become an advocate for Australia’s indigenous communities.
“I thought if something like that could happen to me, then how is somebody who has no education going to respond in those situations?” explains Perdrisat, a Nyikina and Wangkumara woman from a remote part of Western Australia. “So, once I got the confidence, I got into law, really learnt about my rights and what I could do to change things.”
The 29-year-old now works as a paralegal for law firm Gilbert + Tobin in Sydney. She is one of a generation of indigenous students who are now taking advantage of innovative cadet programmes devised by law firms, which aim to reverse the underrepresentation of Aboriginal people in the legal profession.
Fewer than 1 per cent of solicitors in Australia identify as Aboriginal, even though indigenous people make up almost 3 per cent of the population, according to Law Society data. And in the Northern Territory, where indigenous people comprise almost a third of the population, 1 per cent of lawyers are Aboriginal.
Case studies: diversity and inclusion, and social justice
Many firms consult with staff and undertake community outreach to ensure diversity programmes are genuinely inclusive. Others have used legal expertise and technology to help social justice projects extend their impact and reach. Scroll down to read case studies in best practice.
The low proportions of indigenous people in the legal sector are particularly concerning, as these communities are among the most marginalised in Australia and need effective advocacy to protect their rights, argue some in the industry. National statistics show Aboriginal people make up 28 per cent of the prison population and more than half of young people in detention. At least 474 Aboriginal people have died in custody since 1991, when a government report recommended a shake-up of the justice system. There have been seven Aboriginal deaths in custody so far this year.
Maxine Evers, associate dean (education) in the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) law faculty, says the marginalisation of indigenous people dates back to the colonial era when white people took the land and managed Aboriginal communities through policies that included segregation and assimilation. “Many indigenous people don’t see themselves working at a law firm, let alone in a Supreme Court . . . or even a magistrates court,” she says. “It’s so far removed from their environment because they have had such a lack of opportunity.”
Besides poor education and lack of finance, indigenous students may also face cultural challenges in adjusting to life in big cities when they take up work experience or jobs with law firms. In 2019, UTS teamed up with law firm King & Wood Mallesons to offer law students paid internships to help them transition to legal jobs. The Waiwa Mudena programme (the name means “to rise up and go after” in the native language of the Aboriginal artist who designed its logo) offers skills development, mentoring and secondments with KMW clients to provide experience of in-house legal work and training.
Dan Creasey, Melbourne-based head of pro bono and community impact at KWM, says a critical aspect of the programme is that it was created in consultation with indigenous students at UTS to ensure the firm provided the right support, mentoring and training.
Feedback from previous cadet programmes run by KWM had also highlighted a desire among students for broader legal experience, and more contact with clients and alumni networks to maintain connections when an internship ends, he says. “Starting [this programme] by asking students, how we can . . . support you . . . to become a lawyer and to stay in the profession — that’s a powerful thing and that’s why it has been a success.”
One of the big problems with Australia’s justice system is that it makes decisions about Aboriginal people, rather than with them, and without proper consultation, he says.
Since KWM’s pilot in 2019 with four students from UTS, the firm has expanded the programme nationwide, accepting 10 cadets in 2020 and a further 10 this year. Three secured jobs at KWM and five others found jobs in the wider legal sector.
At Gilbert + Tobin, the cadet programme has been adapted for Aboriginal students who come from remote parts of Australia and do not want to lose their connection with home. “It’s a challenge because you are away from your family support network,” says Eloise Schnierer, an indigenous lawyer and Gilbert + Tobin’s head of corporate social responsibility. She says her firm is helping cadets who want to return “on country” to work in their communities by facilitating secondments with organisations practising law. Last year, one cadet worked in Darwin at the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency, which advocates for indigenous people.
Schnierer says offering remote working breaks down barriers for indigenous students and helps Gilbert + Tobin build relations with organisations and leaders away from cities. But supporting indigenous students to find jobs in the legal sector is important anyway, she adds. Five cadets have gone on to be graduate lawyers at Gilbert + Tobin.
Perdrisat has taken up a secondment in Western Australia with the Environmental Defenders Office law centre, where she is using her legal skills to work on issues affecting her community, including drafting submissions to the government to try to protect the local river system. The secondment was made possible because Gilbert + Tobin encouraged flexible remote working.
“The Fitzroy river is under threat from fracking, water harvesting and a lot of different issues — so it just felt a bit silly for me to focus on corporate law in Sydney, when there was a big issue at heart for me,” Perdrisat explains.
“I’m back on country, I’m working for my people and I’m on the side of the battle that I want to be on,” she says. “At first, when you’re an Aboriginal person you think ‘am I just here to tick a box and get them over the diversity line’, but when you realise what your speciality is and what you can add, then I think you can really make a difference.”
Case studies in best practice
Researched and compiled by RSG Consulting. “Winner” indicates the organisation won an FT Innovative Lawyers 2021 award; other organisations are listed alphabetically.
Diversity and inclusion
Many firms consult with staff and undertake community outreach to ensure diversity programmes are genuinely inclusive.
WINNER: Nishimura & Asahi
In 2020, the Japanese firm established a nine-strong council to promote diversity and inclusion internally and in the wider community. Initiatives to improve gender equality include not requiring applicants to specify their gender during the hiring process and designing a flexible leave policy that allows staff to accrue additional time off work for illness, fertility treatment, childbirth or pregnancy.
Allen & Overy
A diversity and inclusion policy for each of the firm’s nine offices in Asia Pacific is tailored by locality to account for cultural differences across the region. The policies were devised following a listening programme last year to gather ideas from more than 300 lawyers and staff. Commended: Fiona Cumming.
Gilbert + Tobin
The firm established a cadetship programme for Australian indigenous lawyers that offers part-time work in its Sydney, Melbourne and Perth offices, as well as allowing individuals to work remotely. More than 30 cadets have been through the programme, five of whom have joined the firm as graduate lawyers.
King & Wood Mallesons
In collaboration with the University of Technology, Sydney, the firm launched a paid internship programme for Australian indigenous law students aimed at increasing indigenous representation in the legal industry. The programme was designed with input from indigenous students in interactive workshops.
Mori Hamada & Matsumoto
The firm ran a seminar for its lawyers, clients and the wider community on LGBTQ+ rights in Japan and participated in Goldman Sachs’s Pink Friday Pride, which celebrates inclusion in the workplace. With other Japanese law firms — such as Nishimura & Asahi — Mori Hamada & Matsumoto is supporting Shibuya, a ward of Tokyo, to create English-language guidebooks on the ward’s same-sex partnership certificate system.
Lawyers have used legal expertise and technology to help social justice projects extend their impact and reach.
WINNER: Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer
The firm worked with human rights organisation Justice Centre Hong Kong to devise an app, HK Asylum Guide, to help asylum seekers in Hong Kong understand their legal rights. The app provides a simple, accessible help with applying for “non-refoulement” protection, which forbids a country to return asylum seekers to a country where they would be likely to suffer persecution.
Corrs Chambers Westgarth
On behalf of historian Jenny Hocking, the law firm obtained a High Court ruling in Australia stating that the national archive should release correspondence between Sir John Kerr, former governor general, and Buckingham Palace that related to the dismissal of the Whitlam government in 1975. The documents were embargoed as private correspondence, but the lawyers argued they should be treated as public. The ruling released the papers, and 30 years of letters. The papers revealed that Queen Elizabeth did not have advance knowledge of the dismissal.
Davis Polk & Wardwell
The firm represents charity Oxfam in its “pay-for-success” programme, Start From the Beginning — the first social impact fund in Hong Kong to use this model. The aim of the programme is to increase teaching of Chinese as a second language in Hong Kong kindergartens to reduce inequality between Chinese and non-Chinese speakers.
Davis Polk & Wardwell’s involvement has helped Oxfam to scale the programme from six kindergartens in 2018 to more than 70.
The firm has developed a team that supports social enterprises by providing pro bono services, such as government lobbying, and devising low-cost debt products and funds that specialise in impact investment. One client is Social Traders, an organisation in Australia that helps businesses to procure services, such as construction work, from social enterprises.
Nagashima Ohno & Tsunematsu
Partner Akihisa Shiozaki co-chaired an investigation led by think-tank Asia Pacific Initiative into the Japanese government’s policies responding to the pandemic, supported by six associates seconded from the firm. The lawyers took a leading role in planning and executing the investigation, conducting more than 100 interviews, and they authored the second half of the report. Several recommendations have been adopted by the Yoshihide Suga government, including harsher penalties for breaching restrictions and financial support for people who have suffered economically because of the government’s Covid policies.
Shearman & Sterling
In collaboration with Star Shelter, a crisis centre in Singapore, and financial education charity Aidha, the law firm is facilitating a series of training and mentorship sessions on financial literacy.
The aim is to help women fleeing abusive relationships to achieve greater financial independence. Shearman & Sterling is using its network and expertise to find mentors and develop programme content.
White & Case
Nearly 40 lawyers and legal staff dedicated more than 400 pro bono hours in 2020 to assisting the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) to continue its operations during the pandemic. The firm provided the IFRC with insight into the status of humanitarian organisations, as well as emergency regulations such as travel restrictions, quarantines and restrictions on imports.
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