On the Right Side of the Law
2 December 2013 at 9:19 am
The passion to fight injustice has been close to the heart of lawyer Fiona McLeay from a very young age. Now McLeay is the Chief Executive Officer of Justice Connect, a pro bono legal service, and this week’s Changemaker.
McLeay says her earliest memories of injustice and unfairness goes back to being in Grade 4, when she lived in the “wheat and sheep country of the South Australian Mallee”, and a good friend, the daughter of Irish immigrants, was bullied.
“I still remember thinking ‘this just doesn’t make any sense – why should how she talks make any difference to how she is treated?’ Thirty-five years later, no one has ever given me a satisfactory answer to that question,” she says.
Since then, McLeay has spent her life addressing the “imbalance between those who ‘have’ a sense of their place and rights – and the resources to protect them, and those who ‘have not’”.
McLeay started her career in commercial law. At Clayton Utz she helped develop the introduction of a coordinated pro bono program which grew into a significant firm wide CSR program nationally and a separate foundation – which still exists today.
She was also the first General Counsel to be appointed at WorldVision at a time when in-house counsel in charitable organisations was rare.
McLeay has been awarded international scholarships at Harvard and NYU and in 2012 was appointed Deputy Chair of the inaugural Advisory Board to the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission.
What are you currently working on in your organisation?
Realising the potential and the opportunities that result from the new “Justice Connect” – which is a product of the merger of PILCH Victoria and PILCH NSW.
Our focus remains the same – to get free legal assistance for people experiencing disadvantage – and the organisations that support them.
We launched the organisation in Melbourne November 14 – and Sydney on December 12. We’re working to ensure we widen access to pro bono legal services. For example, our specialist legal service for Not for Profit organisations, Not-for-profit Law (formerly PilchConnect), has now expanded to undertake training and make referrals for NSW NFPs as well as Victorian ones.
Our Referral Service already operates in both States – we will strengthen and expand it to link more people and groups experiencing disadvantage with free legal help. And we’re exploring new ways to connect people to pro bono, with a particular focus on regional, rural and remote areas.
What drew you to the Not for Profit sector?
It wasn’t a long term plan, but the sector is a great match for my skills and my passion. I’m interested in how organisations can both achieve good things for the community and be the best they can be in their area of business, be that for profit or Not for Profit.
How long have you been working in the Not for Profit sector?
Eight years. Prior to that I worked as a lawyer at Phillips Fox in Sydney and then Clayton Utz in Melbourne.
What was your first job in the Not for Profit sector?
My first paying job in a Not for Profit was as General Counsel at World Vision, in 2006.
I was drawn to the position because it was the chance to test my skills in a completely different environment, in a role they had never had before (I was their first General Counsel) and in an organisation that is tackling one of the biggest issues the world faces – global poverty.
I left there to join PILCH Victoria in 2010 – but I had served on the PILCH Board in a volunteer capacity before then.
My volunteer work has been part of the professional and personal experiences that inform my career.
I started out in Brownies and Guides, went on to become involved in and then lead a church youth group in my community in Sunbury, volunteered at Fitzroy Community Legal Service and Marrickville Community Legal Service while I was at uni, and I have served voluntarily in Boards and Committees on organisations focussed on social justice – and still do.
What is the most rewarding part of your work?
Knowing that the work we do at Justice Connect helps so many people resolve problems they couldn’t otherwise fix – and seeing the positive impact it has on the lawyers who do the work as well.
Justice Connect has been involved in many high profile cases, with the Tampa work in 2001 perhaps the best known. But lots of the people we help are average, “ordinary” people. And most of the work is not glamorous or high profile. Many clients don't just have a legal problem. They often struggle with illness, homelessness and relationship breakdown.
Their legal problems can be time consuming to resolve. Despite this, we see lawyers willing to donate their time and talent and to rise to this challenge again and again.
It’s not just young lawyers who are determined to stay true to their initial motivation for becoming lawyers. It’s true for mature practitioners too.
Julian Burnside AO QC recently told me that after 40 years of commercial practice, it was his pro bono work for asylum seekers that finally gave him a sense of “doing something useful”.
What has been the most challenging part of your work?
Like any Not for Profit, we face the perennial challenge of funding. It’s not so much finding the money, but maintaining clarity of vision and purpose, and then sourcing funding to support that.
That means planning for ongoing, not short term funding and being willing to say “no” to some things.
Anticipating and being prepared for changes that can see new clients emerge overnight is another challenge – things like a natural disaster or government policy changes.
The beauty of Justice Connect is that we can tap into significant (and experienced) support to respond quickly. We work hard to make sure that we are nimble and don’t assume that something that worked yesterday will work tomorrow.
What do you like best about working in your current organisation?
We make a real difference to people’s lives. Sometimes it’s one individual at a time; sometimes it’s taking on something big, and pulling together a team of pro bono lawyers and barristers from a number of places in a coordinated effort – like the Gunns 20 case or work for asylum seekers.
Most recently, it’s been incredibly rewarding to see everyone – staff, the Board, stakeholders, funders and supporters of two previously separate organisations – pull together to create Justice Connect.
There was commitment to the idea that while what we did was working well, we could do better, we could do more. It is really rare for so many people to move in the same direction with such purpose. It’s a great example of the incredible calibre of the people I work with.
I consider my greatest achievement to be …
I measure my success by the things that stay once I’m gone. So for example, when I worked at Clayton Utz, I developed the firm’s CSR program. Ten years later that work remains in the program, including a workplace giving program, a volunteering program and a charitable foundation.
The measure of my achievements at Justice Connect will be its effectiveness and strength long after I’ve gone on to other things.
Favourite saying …
I have had pinned on my noticeboard wherever I am since 2002 this quote from Martin Luther King Jnr: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
I’m always being asked …
“How do I get your job?” – Usually by keen young lawyers with a strong social conscience and lots of ambition. The other question I get a lot is “Why do lawyers do pro bono?” – Some people can’t understand why lawyers would do work for free – they assume they are motivated by some commercial or financial gain. The answer is – because they believe they have a professional responsibility to use their legal skills to help others.
In my experience, in their hearts, most lawyers have an altruistic streak – many say to me that they got into the law to help people and to make a difference – that’s why they do pro bono work.
What are you reading/watching/listening to at the moment?
Reading the New Yorker, listening to various podcasts, watching the Keating Interviews with Kerry O’Brien on ABC TV. Looking forward to the new books by Tim Winton and Christos Tsiolkas over summer.
Through your work, what is your ultimate dream?
My professional life has been defined by a commitment to social justice. I am deeply invested in the mission of Justice Connect, which aims to help build a world that is just and fair – where systems are more accessible, rights are respected and advanced and laws are fairer.
School taught me …
To love learning and ideas, to be passionate about words and that curiosity is a good thing.
What does a typical day for you involve?
I could be in Sydney or Melbourne. If I’m in my home city of Melbourne, it starts with a cycle along the river into the office. If I’m in Sydney, a jog around the harbour.
A typical day involves several meetings, some of them telecons to the State I’m not in at the time and some with individual staff for regular briefings on their area – whether one of our program areas or operational matters.
At least one or two external meetings with a funding organisation, member or other important supporter or partner.
Fielding and responding to who knows how many emails on everything from signing off a media release, inviting guest speakers for a key meeting or event we’re holding or being briefed on an aspect of our IT system.
I could just as easily be drafting a presentation or speech or reviewing Board papers. I’m rarely involved in the day to day detail of particular clients or matters – I’ve got a talented and committed team who are much better at that work than me!
What (or who) inspires you?
Helen Keller, who said “Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing”.