'No more the meek & mild subservience', arise Madam Counsel

An interview with

Senior Counsel
New South Wales (NSW) Bar, Australia

Jane Needham is a very busy lawyer. A Senior Counsel (SC) in Australia, she juggles a frenetic silk's career and that of being the President of the NSW Bar with raising a young family. Her present commitments also include being involved with the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. A strong feminist with a passion for Henry James and medieval English romantic literature, we are absolutely delighted that she found some time to share her thoughts with TheLawMap.  

TheLawMap: Does 'the legal process as a means to resolving conflict' has exactly the same meaning everywhere in the world?

I am not by any means an international lawyer, but as the answer would differ even from lawyer to lawyer I would have to say “no”. In Australia, there is a move towards civil and administrative Tribunals rather than adversarial Court proceedings, and a growing focus on ADR (alternative dispute resolution). However, there remains a role for the higher courts. The Australian Productivity Commission is conducting (yet another) inquiry into access to justice issues, and it will be interesting to see what comes out of that.

TheLawMap: From reading 14th century tales like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to being involved in a Royal Commission relating to child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, you've had a really interesting path to being where you are presently, a silk and a senior member of the Australian Bar. What made a student of Medieval English and Linguistics take up Law?

I started my law career when I was 27, and came straight to the Bar (not completely usual here), and have been here ever since, with a “sabbatical” after about 8 years and two breaks for maternity leave. I had my first child in 2002, and was appointed silk in 2004, from a part-time practice at that point.

It was the realisation that a degree in Mediaeval English was very unlikely to provide me with work, particularly as I lived in Australia and wasn’t really interested in an academic career, that prompted me into looking elsewhere. I finished my Arts degree and travelled for a year, landing a job as a receptionist in London. After a while they gave me some event-organising and customer support duties, and I became pretty good at being a personal assistant, and I realised that unless I did something a little more challenging I was unlikely to do anything but fancier personal assisting. On my return to Australia two things happened – my father (then on the bench of the NSW Supreme Court) offered me a job as his Associate (see: above re my personal assistant skills!) and my flatmate suggested I join her in studying law at night, so she would have someone to come home with on the train. Being an obliging sort of person, I said yes to both, and here I am.

TheLawMap: What are the main areas of law you take a special interest in?

Currently I am engaged almost full-time in inquiries dealing with child sexual assault, and will be for the foreseeable future (see Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse). However, my real legal love is equity, trusts and succession, perhaps because of my early exposure to the Equity Division as an Associate, but also because most of the law relating to that area can go back to the 1600s or 1700s and those case reports are very short! I really enjoy all aspects of succession law, particularly as I have a fascination with other people’s lives and how they choose to live them. The deceased in such a case is central, and yet absent, and holds a compelling sway over the proceedings.

I am also interested in revenue, although I do not do much of it, but I like to do the occasional revenue case so I can say that my work is “death and taxes”.

TheLawMap: Recently elected Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott's first cabinet seem a little short in female representation. Is the political sphere any representation of life in general and more specifically, is there still a glass ceiling in Australia for women aspiring to be leaders in their chosen field?

I could talk for hours about this! I think the treatment meted out to Julia Gillard, our first female Prime Minister, was really shameful, and marked a low in political debate. I was one of the many women who cheered out loud at the misogyny speech.

The lack of women in the Coalition cabinet indicates, to me, a typical result of the requirement of “selection on merit” when the definition of “merit” is measured against traditional norms. Unfortunately this is true of both sides of politics – as can be seen when the most talented Labor candidate for leader after Gillard’s retirement, Tanya Plibersek, was described by Bob Hawke, former prime minister, as not being suitable as she had a three-year-old child. Hawke’s candidate for leader, Bill Shorten also has a three-year-old child. The assumptions made about competency of women tend to be made against old expectations – that they won’t really be interested in working if they have a family, that they’re not up to the pressure, and the like. So “merit” is harder to achieve for women in a man’s world. It beggars belief that the only “competent” candidates for a cabinet post all, bar one, just coincidentally happened to be male.

I don’t think political life does reflect general life, but as in anything, female role models are a must if young women are to overcome “imposter syndrome” and seize opportunities like their brothers. I think that having women in positions of power and influence also show young men that women are their equals. Unfortunately, I think Gillard’s treatment will put many women off choosing a career in politics.

I am glad, though, that my daughter spent the last three years with women in the roles of Prime Minister, Governor-General, Governor of NSW and Lord Mayor of Sydney. I recently spoke at a swearing in, where the judge and three of the four speakers were women, and I took her along, just to assist in the normalisation of images of women doing jobs well.  

TheLawMap: What is it like juggling a young family and life as a Senior Counsel?  
I also juggle being Senior Vice-President of the Bar Association. The fact that it took me two weeks to get back to you might just indicate the answer! I have three young children – a daughter and twin sons, all currently at primary school. My life is a bit chaotic and I think it is fair to say that I do not have Mondayitis – on Mondays I come into chambers to find a quiet, calm, TIDY environment where people (generally) do what I ask them to. I try very hard to spend either the beginning or the end of the day (including a meal) with the children. Usually it’s breakfast, and I take them to school, so my working day starts around 9.30 am. I’m sure those who see me turn up at that time each day think I have a very relaxed existence, but by that time I have been giving the advocacy and mediation skills a proper workout. If I have to leave for work early I try to leave so I am home for the dinner/bath/bed routine. I also try very hard not to work on weekends, and that often means late nights or reading at home. I am a little wary of taking the current work home as my children are voracious readers and a lot of it is not suitable for anyone, let alone children!

It goes without saying that my husband is the best person on earth.

TheLawMap: Judging by your tweets you seem to take an interest in issues relating to protecting the environment and climate change? In your opinion, are there enough legal safeguards in Australia towards protecting the environment?

I don’t think that there are. Australia will be enormously adversely impacted by climate change, and yet, despite hard evidence of anthropogenic warming, very little is being done and in fact aspects of environmental protection and research are now being wound back. In particular, I am horrified by the prospect of losing the Great Barrier Reef. We go there every year or so for a week on a very low-key island to snorkel with turtles and mantas, and the thought that that beautiful biological diversity may be held hostage to financial interests is devastating.

TheLawMap: As a lawyer, what keeps you going every day?

Every day is different! Not every day is good, of course, and almost every day has its difficulties, but even after 23 years in the profession I am continuing to learn. My recent lurch this year into inquiries and commissions – a new field for me – demonstrates that continual renewal.
TheLawMap: If you had one wish to change something within the legal profession, what would it be?

I would like to see an acceptance of flexible work practices within it – not just a statement on a website, but real, actual change. I think this may be changing slowly, but there remains a crushing expectation to put in extraordinarily long hours. Of course when there is a need to work hard and long, it has to be done, but there is a view that a 10-hour day is for wimps. I fully accept that my circumstances are not everyone’s, but I have been able (with a LOT of planning) to work part-time for about five years of my career, and as far as I can see nobody has been adversely affected by that. I think the bravado about long hours forces women to make choices they might rather not make (whether it is in partnership, or as a parent). It remains the general case that the woman in a (heterosexual) partnership is the one to make those choices, not the male, and that results in the loss of some extremely good lawyers from the profession. Real acceptance of flexible work practices will result in men feeling empowered to take that route – currently it is socially acceptable for women to do it, much less so than men – and the world could only be a better place.

With special thanks to Jane Needham for her valuable time. She is a graduate of UNSW in Mediaeval English and Linguistics (1984) and later an LLB with 1st class honours from UTS (1989). She was admitted to the Bar in 1990 and appointed silk in 2002.  

Jane Needham SC
What became apparent through our interaction during this intreview is just how affable she appears to be alongside being a formidable lawyer. A casual glance at what she herself described as a 'quick and dirty bio' explains all her passions in life. She is an ardent admirer of the musician Billy Bragg, lists her favourite books as Malory, Le Morte D’Arthur and Henry James, Portrait of a Lady, and her absolute favourite place is Lady Elliot Island, Great Barrier Reef, Queensland. That her favourite food is, 'something that is not eaten standing up or at my desk' is a testament to how well she manages to juggle her time between the roles of being a busy professional and mum! Her passion for equal rights for women is summed up by her favourite song, Sister Suffragette from the film Mary Poppins.