From tough beginnings to top of the profession: How one lawyer continues to use compassion and openness to succeed in law

By Naomi Neilson|17 February 2021
Sarah Avery

In the midst of a global pandemic, ACT Law Society vice president Sarah Avery started their own firm and began navigating how their non-binary identity can fit into the normal day-to-day, all while remaining dedicated and passionate about helping people. In this spotlight, Mx Avery talks to Lawyers Weekly about the new firm, how they have started incorporating a new identity into professional life and how their career has unfolded.

Reflecting on their term as ACT Law Society president, now-vice president Sarah Avery said they really value that they were able to build a sense of community and collegiality that enabled lawyers of every background and every identity to feel acknowledged for the work they do each and every day. It is this sentiment that really makes Mx Avery stand out as the admired, successful lawyer that they are today and sets the stage for a truly fruitful legal career.

On why it is so important for them to contribute to the profession in this way, Mx Avery, who grew up in a working-class family that did not have any ties to the legal profession, said: “I realised how fortunate I was growing up to have opportunities that I did because I knew that my parents hadn’t had them, and I knew that everyone else didn’t. I wanted to make sure the really good fortune that I felt was shared with other people.”

In their work as a member of the ACT Law Society, as a solicitor across many practices and offices and now as a sole practitioner of their own firm, Mx Avery has kept this up, from working on a reconciliation plan and introducing an Acknowledgement of Country to the Law Society through to taking the time to really listen to their clients.

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In the midst of a global pandemic that shook the profession and sent every practitioner into a mostly digital, mostly-at-home job, Mx Avery launched their own firm with a focus on criminal law assistance, occupational discipline and coronial matters. They said the whole set up process was done themselves, from creating the website, marketing their services and writing up all the smaller details that made the firm what it is now.

“I have always been really scared about the idea of opening a firm. In fact, I had vowed to never, ever do it because I thought the anxiety involved in running one could be way too great,” Mx Avery said with a laugh at the way things turned out. “But the uncertainty of COVID-19 meant that, for me, making the leap to opening a firm actually meant that I had more control and reaching out into this space that was so unknown was probably the most protective thing [for my career] that I could do at that point in time.”

On what makes the firm different from the competition, Mx Avery said they just wanted to “provide the best possible service” for their clients, which meant treating them nicely on the telephone, speaking to them with respect and keeping them informed at every small step of the way. Mx Avery said they wanted “everything in the business to be of a high-quality and reassuring to the people that I deal with” on a daily basis.

“Probably the main thing is that I really take time to listen to people. A lot of folks would be quite busy and brisk with clients,” Mx Avery said. “It’s also about having a bit of life experience behind me because I really understand that, a lot of the time, you’re barely going to scratch the surface with a client until they trust you. That takes a lot of time to just listen to them and make sure that they know you give a damn.”

Mx Avery said that they feel they have a “really good background in understanding” all the ways their clients might be struggling. If it is struggling with mental illness and then having committed a crime, “I get where you’re coming from”; if they’re a lawyer who may be having a hard time with practice and discipline, “I definitely get where you’re coming from”; and if it is a client who has recently lost someone, “I understand how that feels”.

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“I have a high level of compassion and empathy with my exposure through presidency, particularly to the struggles of other lawyers and people accessing legal services. This has only helped me to get better at dealing with everyone,” Mx Avery told me.

Speaking of the presidency, Mx Avery said they were most proud of giving their fellow, underappreciated practitioners a “sense of self-worth and self-esteem” that they could be going without on their normal day-to-day. They did this by thanking them for all their achievements and contributions that they have made to the profession, no matter how small or how thankless it seemed. When asked how they knew this, Mx Avery said the lawyers would come up and say thank you for making them feel acknowledged. 

While at the ACT Law Society, Mx Avery also offered every firm and practitioner across the territory that they would come out to see them at their premises and talk about the different things that were of concern to them and check in on how the Law Society and its members may help lighten the stressors: “We have so many lawyers and ultimately 30 firms in the ACT took me up on it and hopefully that consultation has continued.”

Adding onto this, Mx Avery told me that, throughout their career, but more specifically, at the Law Society, they “generally found it to be a privilege to be helping people, and I was really happy that some people were able to engage with that”.

Introducing a non-binary identity into the law

Mx Avery took up the mantle as ACT Law Society’s president, and the first-ever openly queer one, just as the marriage equality debate was ramping up. As the face of ACT’s legal profession during a major time of controversy and change, Mx Avery had to figure out how to navigate their own personal stakes with the opinions and values of society members. They told me they felt “constrained” by what they could say during this time.

“I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t pushing my own values over that of the members, and you really can’t make an assumption about what other people’s values are. I was probably a lot more circumspect about that than I otherwise would have been because I really didn’t want to overstep and make my views sound like theirs,” Mx Avery said.

Instead, what Mx Avery did was make sure that their inclusion and diversity committee was across the debate and understood that this was an issue that the members might have a stake or interest in. Whenever there was a question or a need to change some parts of the main council (as in, what they were saying or doing), they wanted to make sure the committee was across the decisions: “I did not want to push my own agenda – I wanted anything that was coming up to come up through our members.”

Generally, taking the role was a “very positive” experience for Mx Avery who said they felt welcome and supported. Nobody at the society or outside of it made their new role into a negative issue at all, and Mx Avery added that they felt the members “were very happy for someone to be authentic in the role and to make them feel like however they were as a person was also valid [in the legal profession and Society].”

At the end of their professional emails, Mx Avery clearly shows clients and colleagues – and anyone else – that they identify as she/her and they/them. They also are happy with either the Ms or Mx honorific*, but it’s the latter that takes me by surprise (because I hadn’t ever come across it before). In attempting to pronounce it (as “mix” and “mux”, by the way), Mx Avery laughs: “Oh my god, that’s why I don’t use it in court – it’s only ever good written!” They said that it sounds a bit unusual to them too and hopes there will be a better way forward for this honorific that makes it easier to bring into courts.

Speaking of courtrooms, Mx Avery said it would be good for the law societies and bar associations to consult with their members about whether there are some workable or proposed honorifics that could be used in the courtroom, which better fit both the legal practitioners and clients who identify as gender-diverse or non-binary. While Australian law societies have generally done a decent job of incorporating different genders into the rest of the profession, there are plenty of changes that need to happen in courts.

Transitioning their identity into their day-to-day professional life is a relatively new thing for Mx Avery, who said that generally people are not well educated on gender diversity at this moment (I see the irony here in my pronunciation mix-up) and because people still hold outdated expectations of how certain identities should present themselves.

“At this moment, I have a fairly stereotypical queer-looking physical presentation in my hairdo and how I dress, but ultimately it’s really an internal process that you are going through,” Mx Avery told me. “I found it a little challenging with the legal profession, and that’s not about acceptance because people are very accepting, but for the forms and things that haven’t yet been updated to allow for people of different gender identities.”

Circling back to the courtrooms, Mx Avery added: “Though I believe it’s happening fairly steadily over time – and that’s great – more importantly, I haven’t seen anyone use a gender diverse honorific in court and I would feel scared probably to be the first person to do that [in Australia], so I haven’t stopped out into that area myself yet.”

When I asked about their opinions on the way the legal awards and representations in events are given to practitioners, Mx Avery said their exploration of their identity really came about after they won some well-deserved awards as a female lawyer: “Most law organisations have a fairly expansive view on gender, but I think it would be helpful for them to articulate those and make it clear that people of female and non-binary gender are very welcome, because I am sure that they are in most of them.”

I asked Mx Avery how they show potential clients and colleagues that they are an open and welcoming person of all identities and of all diversities and generally that is in how they treat everyone they meet. In a digital world, however, some other tactics have to be swapped in to demonstrate that: “I try to wherever I can to use signifiers that show people who are looking out for it that I am an inclusive person who gives thought to it,” they said.

Prioritising mental health after a trauma (and in normal day-to-day)

Just three months into their first-ever legal job – during an exciting time that should be about finding their place in the workplace and getting a feel for what it means to really, actually be a lawyer – Mx Avery broke their ankle while canyoning. After having to be helicoptered out, Mx Avery spent a week in Wollongong’s hospital and another locked in Canberra’s. Not too long after the break, Mx Avery was told they had a pulmonary embolism (a blood clot on the lung) which “shook me very badly”. 

As a result, and without really comprehending what was happening to them, Mx Avery started having panic attacks. Having this kind of mental health issue happening in the background of their normal day-to-day (paired with the ordinary pressures of just being a lawyer) was “quite a distraction” from them feeling like they had finally made it to the legal profession and become a lawyer after all the studying and years of dedication. 

“It really detracted from my self-worth for a long time and made me feel like I just wasn’t cut out to be a lawyer, maybe I wasn’t going to go very far and maybe my life was over before it had begun,” Mx Avery said. While they talk me through what happened when they were at the very beginning of their career, they finish up one of their answers with a request that readers know this: “Even if you do get off to the worst possible start you can do anything. You can get back to your old self and do really well.”

It was not until their employer noticed and sat them down to talk about their year-long panic attacks that Mx Avery finally understood what had been happening. Thinking on this employer – who could have just as easily ignored the signs – Mx Avery said they felt lucky to have a manager who “took the time to talk to me and to put in context that I was having a pretty severe response to this outlandish thing that happened to me”.

“Without that person taking the time to talk to me about it, I think it would have felt like I was probably worthless and a bad person who wasn’t living up to my values because I was someone with a really strong work ethic but, all of a sudden, it was a struggle to even be around other people,” Mx Avery said. “I think I was really lucky to have a really compassionate and very straight-talking employer who was able to say, ‘this is what’s happening, and you need to talk to someone about the panic attacks’.”

In terms of valuing their mental health now, Mx Avery said that it does not entirely just mean taking themselves away from the workplace for any length of time – but making sure that the time spent away from work is “as nurturing as possible”.

“It took me quite a while to work out what that was going to be. I made a lot of mistakes in my 20s and it’s only recently that I hit upon a good balance. I was still able to thrive at work, but I would say that my clients got the best part of me and myself at home got the worst part of me,” Mx Avery explained, adding that there was a great period of just navigating what this meant before they understood how to better manage it.

“Now what I do is when I need to talk to someone, I talk to someone. I had used to just bottle things up because I am a very private and shy person deep down – and because I didn’t want to be a burden – but I’ve actually realised that it’s good to talk to people. I prioritise sleep very highly because I know it’s the foundation of good mental health, and I now also say no to a lot of things. I don’t feel the need to go over and above for every single person who asks me for something. As much as I possibly can, I will help, but I have better boundaries now in terms of saying if I need some time to myself.”

Mx Avery, a solicitor-turned-Law-Society-president-turned-sole-practitioner, has really grown from a place of trauma and confusion to succeed in the law time and again. In wrapping up our interview, they wanted to add in one last line that felt like the perfect way to finish the article completely: “Everyone has something to offer to the profession as a lawyer because there are so many people out there in the world that need us.”

*Sarah Avery goes by the pronouns they/them and she/her, and the honorifics Ms and Mx. With permission, Lawyers Weekly has used they/them and Mx in this article.

From tough beginnings to top of the profession: How one lawyer continues to use compassion and openness to succeed in law
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