Lee Carnie joined the Human Rights Law Centre team in May 2016, as part of their LGBTI Rights Unit. Lee is passionate about improving practical access to human rights for the LGBTI community. With a plethora of volunteering experience, Lee has specialised in frontline advocacy for young people experiencing homelessness, substance abuse and mental health issues. Lee was awarded the Edward Walter Outhwaite Award for Human Rights Lawyering in 2011. You can visit Lee's LinkedIn profile here.
What has gotten you to where you are today?
Hard work, persistence and a healthy dose of luck.
How much do you give credence to the phrase that haunts law students - “it’s all about who you know”?
Some law students still get their foot in the door through who they know – whether these are family connections or networks developed through work and volunteering experience at university. However, it is definitely possible to find work in the social justice sector through a public application process instead of ‘connections’, through programs like the Federation of Community Legal Centres’ Law Graduate Scheme (which I did) or Victoria Legal Aid’s New Lawyer Program.
Did you ever feel tension between choosing the corporate path or the SJ&E path?
When I was at law school, there was an entrenched assumption that all law students are aiming for a career in corporate law. I realised that I wanted to work in the public interest sector as soon as I started volunteering at my local community legal centre, but it wasn’t immediately apparent how I could find my first job. I didn’t want to close off any opportunities so I continued to develop experience in both areas. Getting experience in commercial law firms and the social justice sector gave me a broader insight into how different sectors operate, which has been invaluable for my current work which relies heavily on working with pro bono partners equally dedicated to human rights.
How strong a role does empathy play in your profession, given that the law can place so much emphasis on being objective?
Empathy has played a crucial role in my legal experience to date. When you are working with people who have had their human rights breached or who are experiencing disadvantage, it’s impossible to understand the motivations for their behaviour unless you can understand their experience. Particularly when representing your client in court, I believe that you need to be able to empathise with their situation to be able to deliver a persuasive argument that captures your client’s story. Without empathy, I believe it would be very difficult to relate to, understand or explain your client’s actions and to continue working with clients who don’t act in their best interests. For example, many of the young people experiencing homelessness I represented at Youthlaw would be struggling with thousands of dollars in unpaid public transport fines or debts from dodgy loan sharks and be facing criminal charges for shoplifting. They would often not do anything about their legal issues for months until there were warrants out for their arrest, they had missed multiple court dates and were being hounded daily by debt collectors. To advocate on their behalf, you need to be able to empathise to understand how their legal issues stemmed from them not having enough money to survive, the impact of long-term family conflict and violence (the leading cause of youth homelessness) on their mental health, the constant stress of not having a safe place to sleep for the night, and how this perceived inaction was often because they would prioritise their immediate housing, safety and mental health needs over their legal problems.
How do you approach stress management and your own well-being?
The community legal sector is increasingly embedding support structures for lawyers who work with clients who have experienced trauma (e.g. trauma informed care training, vicarious trauma workshops and reflective practice). Personally, I find managing work/life balance one of the most difficult parts of my job and try to be strict with myself on clear boundaries around my work hours to ensure that I can also spend quality time with my partner, friends and adorable cat!
What are your hobbies?
I’ve been doing lots of Bey Dance and Laneway Learning classes, as well as playing boardgames and volunteering.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?
At the moment, it’s when a bill I’ve advocated for which introduces human rights protections is passed. It’s unbelievably rewarding to see the impact of the work that you do.
What are the biggest challenges you face?
Juggling the hundreds of potential cases and projects I could be working on and being strategic about which types of projects I can do.
Did you always know this is the path you wanted to go down?
I knew that I wanted to work in the social justice sector, but I didn’t know that I would be fortunate enough to be working as a lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre.
What does a day in your shoes look like? Every day is different – it is too varied to tell. Today I had meetings with MPs, worked on a submission to a senate inquiry, updated a campaigning website following the successful passage of LGBTI laws in South Australia and had the opportunity to sit in on a Supreme Court case the Human Rights Law Centre’s Indigenous Rights Unit is running.
How important a role does confidence play in your work? Confidence in your own abilities and in the expertise of your partners is crucial to so much of the coalition and partnership-based work that we do to achieve legal reform.
What has been your most valuable lesson learnt through your experiences with the law? Your clients often remember how they are treated through their engagement with the justice system more than the outcome. If they are treated with dignity and respect – and feel like you have listened to them and told their story accurately – this can be more important to them than their legal outcome. Conversely, negative interactions with other lawyers, court staff, security guards or police officers while they are trying to navigate the legal system can taint their entire experience even if they eventually obtain a positive legal outcome.