Aboriginal Lawyer panel Raising Awareness Indigenous students 

The scene: On Tuesday 14th November 2017, our principal Matthew Karakoulakis, was invited to appear on the “Koori Twilight: The Aboriginal Lawyers panel”. 
Our Principal solicitor is proud of his background with a Greek migrant and Aboriginal heritage; he is actively involved in the community. 

As a Board Member on Tarwirri, an independent, not-for-profit organisation representing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal professionals and law students within Victoria. Matthew has contributed as a panel member to the “Koori Twilight”.   

The audience:  The audience consisted of judicial officers from courts Victoria and members of the JOACAC.

The purpose: To help identify issues that arise for Aboriginal lawyers, law students/young professionals in the legal workplace and ways to help support them on their journey.

As an Indigenous lawyer, our founder was invited by Tarwirri; the Indigenous Law Students and Lawyers Association of Victoria, to appear as a guest panelist on the “Koori Twilight: The Aboriginal Lawyer panel”. In this article you can read Matthew’s thoughts on each question posed to the panel.

A descendent of the Narungga people who was raised on Kaurna land and experienced life as an indigenous law student, young professional and founder of his own practice now; Matthew along with other guest panelists; Kareena Gay a proud Kamilaroi woman and president of Tarwirri; Michael McCagh a Yued man and a solicitor for the litigation branch of the Victorian Government Solicitor’s office and Karri Walker, a Nyiyaparli woman studying the JD (Law) at the University of Melbourne and working as a paralegal at Herbert Smith Freehills, were all asked probing questions about their personal experiences and what steps should be taken in order to secure more Aboriginal Lawyer, students/young professionals in the legal career.

Below are the questions posed to the panel and Matthew’s thoughts.  

Question: You have worked within a number of different commercial legal organisations before establishing your own practice. Statistically and anecdotally commercial legal firms struggle to attract and retain Aboriginal Lawyers, are you able to provide some perspective at your time working within this arm of the profession and make mention of any ways commercial organisations can better attract Indigenous talent?

 Matthew:  Before starting up AMK Law I worked at numerous legal organisations such as ASIC and Clayton Utz. Indeed, the number of Indigenous Lawyers is concerningly low. The first step in improving these statistics is awareness and events such as these do just that. On a more practical level, what I found has helped is getting Indigenous students on board when they are still in University. Many firms are now offering clerkships and work experience placements to Indigenous students. This is a step in the right direction and we can already see numbers starting to increase. However, offering clerkships and work experience placements is not enough by itself, I believe that the support has to start much earlier, even before University. Indigenous students in year 12 and below should be encouraged and supported to pursue a legal career, if that is what they want. Also, it is not just law firms that can provide support and exposure to Indigenous students. Community as a whole, including the bar associations and judiciary can play a part in encouraging Indigenous students to become a part of the legal fabric that supports Australia. Most importantly, it is those of us, (we Indigenous lawyers) that have already paved our own way to help pave the way for our future Indigenous lawyers. We understand the barriers and challenges that obstruct a young Indigenous student’s pathway into the legal profession and are well-equipped to help make that easier. For example, we can help explain why more flexible arrangements are needed for Indigenous employees to meet their community obligations to their employers if that is what is needed. This ideology should not just be adopted by the legal profession but should be adopted by all industries and Indigenous students should be supported to pursue a career of their choice. We as the legal profession can take the lead and be an example to the rest of the commercial world.

Question: How important has your identity been in your studies / professional life and how do you believe the profession in general would benefit from the increase diversity of Aboriginal Lawyers?

Matthew: It has shaped who I am as a professional. Although it is not something that is brought to the forefront of my daily activities as a professional, the values deeply impact on how I run my practice as it is part of how I make my decisions and how I conduct myself in my professional life. It starts with Respect. Respect for myself, respect for my employees, respect for my clients, respect for the legal and judicial process and most importantly respect for my culture.  Respect is deeply entrenched in our culture. It is for this reason that I believe the legal profession would benefit from Indigenous lawyers. Respect encompasses trust and having regard for others despite any differences we might have. The legal profession is very people oriented. We have to deal with clients and/or other lawyers, or legal professionals on a daily basis. Having respect for everyone includes having respect for our opponents, lawyers who represent the other side. This ensures that even though we represent different clients with opposing interests, there is a mutual understanding of “sportsmanship”, this means that our strategies do not involve personal attacks and that we conduct ourselves with professional civility towards each other. Another important value is reciprocity. Too often, the legal profession is labelled as a cut throat, highly competitive profession. However, I know that we are more than that, the legal profession is a close-knit society. There are often times I need to bounce ideas off another lawyer or another lawyer approaches me to bounce ideas off. Having reciprocity helps us all to grow to become better professionals.

Question: Each of you have been trailblazers in your own way: … Matthew upon the successful establishment of your commercial practice. This can often lead to your indigenous / non-indigenous peer’s seeking guidance and looking to you as a torch bearer. Obviously, each of you embrace this in your own way but can it be difficult to perform this role particularly when you are looking to establish yourself in a new environment like the legal profession?

Matthew: It has not been particularly difficult to provide guidance, I love to help where I can, and it provides me a lot of job. Of course, establishing oneself in the legal profession is never easy, but I had great mentors that guided me through, and given a chance, I would love to be able to do the same for other indigenous students and young indigenous professionals. I think it is not particularly difficult to do both because providing guidance to my peers when they need it is a part of this profession and is a part of Indigenous culture. Explaining the Indigenous culture to those that wish to learn more about it does not conflict with establishing myself in the legal profession. In fact, I think they go hand in hand. 

Question: Within your studies or professional life have you had to deal with situations where the priorities of the legal world conflict with your Aboriginality?

Matthew: There have not been many instances in which such conflicts have occurred because the legal profession is a very tightly regulated profession. This prevents conflicts from happening because many of the rules reflect Aboriginal principles. For example, the ASCR states that a solicitor must not take unfair advantage of the obvious error of another solicitor or other person, if to do so would obtain for a client a benefit which has no supportable foundation in law or fact. This coincides with the value of respect that is very much part of Aboriginal culture. Now as I run my own growing practice, I am able to have a more flexible schedule to perform any community duties if need be. In the past when I was an employee in various different organisations, I found that explaining my community duties was often enough for my employers to understand why I needed some time off. I have not encountered an employer that has refused to grant time off after knowing that it was for me to fulfill my community obligations.

Question: Today’s audience consists predominantly of members of our judiciary. A number present such as Justice Kaye have long shown their ongoing support to fostering a legal profession with more Indigenous representation. For those wanting to support this cause can you expand upon ways they can contribute?

Matthew: Holding and attending events such as these helps raise awareness to the situation at hand and I believe it’s the first step. Just by being here, members of our judiciary have already shown much support by expressing their interest in wanting to make our legal profession more inclusive and supportive for indigenous students/young professionals. More understanding leads to an environment that is more inclusive and lowers the barrier for Indigenous students to join our profession. Furthermore workplaces that have Indigenous clientele or employees are taking the next step in terms of making their workplaces more inclusive and supportive by holding cultural awareness seminars/workshops. Outreach, approach schools, talk to the community, liaison with universities, attend cultural events. Supporting is contribution, the fact that you want to understand how to help is showing support, the next step is to reach out and nurture those individuals who want to join the legal profession and don’t know where to start.

AMK Law acknowledges and pays our respects to the past, present and emerging traditional owners of the land on which we work and live.