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Making change is a long-game

16 March 2020 at 8:11 am
Maggie Coggan
As the head of Maurice Blackburn’s social justice practice, Jennifer Kanis is fighting entrenched disadvantage by providing legal help for all, not just those who can afford it. She’s this week’s Changemaker.

Maggie Coggan | 16 March 2020 at 8:11 am


Making change is a long-game
16 March 2020 at 8:11 am

As the head of Maurice Blackburn’s social justice practice, Jennifer Kanis is fighting entrenched disadvantage by providing legal help for all, not just those who can afford it. She’s this week’s Changemaker. 

Kanis’ career has been varied to say the least. Starting out as a teacher, she never thought that in 15 years she would end up as a principal lawyer, with stints as a state politician and in the charity and advocacy sectors in between.

But a passion to help others and do good in the world has led her to where she is today –  fighting for the rights of everyday people across a range of issues including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rights, asylum seeker rights, gender equality, and LGBTIQ equality. 

In this week’s Changemaker, Kanis discusses how a career path doesn’t always need to be straightforward, her biggest achievements, and overcoming challenges in her job. 

What made you decide to go into the pro-bono law and social justice advocacy space?

Well, I’ve always been interested in social justice and ways to make an impact from when I was a teacher to when I was in another legal practice.

I had been a member of parliament, and then was voted out in 2014, and spent a bit of time working with the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission and then at the ASRC, where I headed up their advocacy campaigns team.

I had a pretty unique opportunity to think about where my career was going and what I was doing, and it made me realise how much I love law and being a lawyer, but also changing the world. When this role at Maurice Blackburn came up, it was in so many ways exactly what I was looking for in that it’s a job where I’m a lawyer, but the objectives of our practice are all around social justice and empowering our clients.

What would you say you want to achieve in your time at Maurice Blackburn?

We’re in a very privileged and fortunate position here in that we have a really well-resourced team, and I think we really have a responsibility to use those resources in a way that makes the biggest impact. We can’t take on every case that comes our way, and for us, it’s really important to make sure that we get outcomes for our clients but that we also influence public perception with meaningful policy. 

Do you have any advice for people trying to get into the sector? 

I mentor a lot of junior staff in and outside of the firm, and they often get really concerned about opportunities that they might miss out on. One thing that I’ve learned to accept is that while you always need to be focused and you need to be doing things in a thoughtful and reflective way, you also need to realise that life and careers are unpredictable. Being able to go in a different direction can actually sometimes lead you back to where you need to go. 

What are some of the biggest achievements of your time at Maurice Blackburn? 

Before my time at Maurice Blackburn, the firm ran a case around safe access zones around abortion clinics, and we’ve really kept our support of women’s access to healthcare and workers rights to a safe workplace up over time. We have seen that issue go from a case in the Supreme Court in Victoria to legislative change. Having that long-term view with our clients and our commitment to the issue has had really great outcomes which I’m proud of. 

We also acted for a woman last year who wanted to access IVF treatment with donor sperm, but wasn’t able to do that without the permission of her estranged husband. Winning that case in court and then participating in the review of the IVF laws, then seeing these laws be changed last year was pretty monumental for us. 

Being able to take that long-term view and being able to really see matters and issues through has been, and continues to be, really rewarding.

What do you find most challenging about your job?

Access to justice is a big issue here in Australia and there are a lot of people who need assistance, and it can be difficult to not take on every case that comes to you. You can also get quite emotionally invested in the cases, so it’s important that your team stays healthy so we are able to do the work we need to do, while also acknowledging that you aren’t always able to fix everything.

Any book recommendations? 

I just finished reading Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton, and I loved it. I’m actually really sad that it’s finished because I didn’t want it to end, so I would 100 per cent recommend that to anyone who’s looking for a great book to read. 

Maggie Coggan  |  Journalist  |  @MaggieCoggan

Maggie Coggan is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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