Laura Heffes is a Senior Criminal Lawyer at Justice Connect within the Homeless Law team.
What has gotten you to where you are today?
A passion for the work, hard work and commitment.
How much do you give credence to the phrase that haunts law students - “it’s all about who you know”?
Realistically, it is sometimes about who you know. Some people are lucky enough to have existing connections with people working in their chosen field. However, it’s important to remember that “who you know” can also be within your control. There are plenty of volunteer opportunities – particularly within the community legal sector – which can expose you to the work and build your connections. You might find entry level legal jobs hard to come by, but you can also build connections and put yourself on the radar by starting out in another capacity (i.e. administration or paralegal) within your chosen field. I didn’t know any lawyers (let alone criminal lawyers) before I left university, but I built my connections by working and volunteering in the community legal sector.
Did you ever feel tension between choosing the corporate path or the SJ&E path?
Yes, but not for long. During my law degree, many people told me that it was in my best interests to pursue the corporate path (despite having no interest in it). I remember being immersed in corporate opportunities but having very little exposure to the criminal or community law path. I applied for summer clerkships at the commercial firms (because everyone did) and was ultimately offered an Articles position at one of the large firms, but after some soul searching I turned it down in favour of an Associate role at the Supreme Court of Victoria. In hindsight this was an excellent decision, but at the time it was a hard decision to make.
How strong a role does empathy play in your profession, given that the law can place so much emphasis on being objective?
Empathy plays a very large role. For the last 5 years I have worked within the community legal sector, providing free legal services for financially and socially disadvantaged clients. The legal system can be a very blunt instrument and very difficult for our clients to navigate. So although we work within a system which often involves strict liability and objective tests, it is integral to be able to understand the client’s situation and experience in order to effectively advocate on their behalf. At the end of the day we are always acting on our clients’ instructions, so understanding the motivation and context of their instructions is crucial in achieving the best possible outcome for them. By the same token, a criminal justice system which is grounded in empathy has much more capacity to contribute to positive change.
How do you approach stress management and your own well-being?
I am a compulsive list-maker, so my commitments are always well organised and diarised. Working within a supportive workplace with an open-door policy is a key factor. I don’t suffer in silence – if I find myself over committed due to things unforeseen, I flag it with my manager as early as possible so a contingency plan can be put in place if necessary. I also make time for holidays, exercise and friends/family and try to leave my work at work.
What are your hobbies?
I love musical theatre, travelling, good food, pre-loved clothes shopping and all things cat-related.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?
Getting a really good outcome (whether a withdrawal or a favourable sentence) for a vulnerable client who would otherwise not have access to in-court legal representation.