Katharine Brown, Trainee Solicitor at VGSO
Katharine is commencing her second year as a trainee solicitor at the Victorian Government Solicitor's Office in 2017. She is also the Chair of the Young Liberty For Law Reform (YLLR). You can visit her LinkedIn profile for more details about her previous experience here.
What has gotten you to where you are today?
I currently work at the VGSO (Victorian Government Solicitor’s Office) as a graduate lawyer and in my spare time I also chair Young Liberty for Law Reform, a program of Liberty Victoria.
Both roles involve thinking about the law strategically and in a way that intersects with public policy – and both have definitely been influenced by my previous experiences.
My first job in the law was at a criminal defence firm, which was definitely my entrée into social justice and the law. You work with clients who just face so many disadvantages and are up against this big, powerful system. It’s a role that’s often pretty thankless but it’s really at the coal front of human rights.
I also did an internship through the Castan Centre at the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York. They combine strategic litigation with public advocacy, and that experience had a massive impact on what I think about the law and how it can be used for good.
Finally, I worked as a research assistant in a statutory body that does research and policy work (the Sentencing Council) during my final years of Uni. That role made me really excited about the role of government and the policy process.
Did you ever feel tension between choosing the corporate path or the SJ&E path?
In a word, no. I always knew I wanted to practice law in a way that helps people, and while corporates can definitely play a role in that, for me that’s always meant working in the public service or for an NGO. Having said that, if I was a more commercial person I might have felt differently. But my interest has always been in social policy and people.
How strong a role does empathy play in your profession, given that the law can place so much emphasis on being objective?
The biggest role! For me, being empathetic doesn’t mean not being objective – it means understanding the context you’re working in and how the law actually impacts people. In law school we often talk about cases and legislation as if they operate in this legal vacuum above the real world. I think caring about the actual impact they have and how they tie into human nature and emotions makes you a much better lawyer.
I highly recommend this blog for anyone interested in these questions. It’s by my former boss at the Center for Constitutional Rights, who is just an absolute wizard on all things law and social justice: https://socialchangenyu.com/the-harbinger/justice-is-possible-but-you-have-to-believe-it/
How do you approach stress management and your own well-being? This is such an important question! I think the number one thing is to surround yourself with good people who make you happy.
Also, for me at least it’s about exercising, sleeping well and turning my phone off every now and then.
It also helps me to take a step back when I do get stressed and just realise that whatever I’m stressing about actually doesn’t matter in the bigger picture. If it’s not something you’ll be concerned about in a year’s time, it’s not worth losing sleep over (easier said that done, I know.)
What are your hobbies?
Reading, hiking, yoga, running, beach, hanging out with my friends and housemates (does that count as a hobby?) and watching way too much Netflix!
What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?
At VGSO, it’s getting to work on really interesting legal matters that intersect with public policy and also just working in teams of really great, down to earth, smart and strategic lawyers.
At YLLR, it’s working with other young people and getting to be a part of the amazing things they’re doing to make change.
What are the biggest challenges you face?
Being a grad or young lawyer almost everything you do is a new – so basically everything is a challenge. It can be a bit exhausting at times. But it’s also incredibly fun and stimulating. The challenge is to make sure you’re learning as much as you can and also enjoying the ride!
Did you always know this the path you wanted to go down?
Yes and no. When I was in year 12 I thought I wanted to be a primary school teacher. Then when I left school I thought I maybe wanted to be a journalist. Or academic. Or scientist. I did Arts/Law because I knew I was interested in policy, and I wanted to keep my options broad (and science had more contact hours than arts …) I almost stumbled into law, but then found I really enjoyed it. I definitely always knew I wanted to be working with people and policy. And from about third year VGSO was definitely where I knew I wanted to be. But I also loved my work in criminal law and policy.
What does a day in your shoes look like?
Get up, stumble through the morning until I have a coffee. Get into work a little bit early to get on top of my work, go to court or a meeting or work on an advice task, have lunch with the other grads – in the park if it’s sunny or in the kitchen with the quiz if it’s not, make some phone calls, send some emails, do some research work…After work I usually have dinner with my housemates, go for a drink or do a yoga class. And then some nights I do work for YLLR – depending on how motivated I’m feeling!
How important a role does confidence play in your work?
I think it plays a huge role. When I got my first job I remember being so nervous. Particularly in law everything sounds like a new, very overwhelming language. But after a while I think you figure out that you actually have the skills to work it all out. And when you don’t, you just ask!
Confidence is really almost a skill you have to learn (and it took me a really long time). But it’s important to be conscious of it. Particularly for women I think we’re socialized to underestimate ourselves. But people in the workplace react really well to confidence. If you look like you trust yourself, people will trust you!
What has been your most valuable lesson learnt through your experiences with the law?
Hmm that’s a really tough question! I think on a personal level the most valuable lesson from my experience so far has been about figuring out how I want to practice law in a way that’s engaging and satisfying.
From a bigger picture perspective, the most important lesson at least for people interested in social justice and equity is to make a conscious decision to work with not for the communities you want to help. Listen to them, engage with them and be led by them on what their needs are.