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‘Engaging in extracurricular activities can give you a sense of purpose outside the law’

This special counsel recently lobbied two governments to ban phones in schools – and said that having passions outside of law has helped promote her personal and professional growth.

user iconLauren Croft 11 August 2023 Big Law
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Clayton Utz workplace relations special counsel Cynthia Elachi was recently named a finalist for Special Counsel of the Year at the upcoming Australian Law Awards.

In addition to her legal career, however, Ms Elachi is also the co-founder of The Heads Up Alliance, a not-for-profit organisation that encourages Australian parents to delay giving their children smartphones and social media until the end of year 8.

Ms Elachi started the alliance after she gave her eldest child a smartphone when she was 10 or 11 years old – which she quickly regretted.


“It quickly became apparent that this little device was replacing too many of the things that ordinarily make for a good childhood (spending time with siblings, playing outside, reading and even sleeping). Fortunately, the phone stopped working after a couple of months, and my husband and I decided not to replace it. There were tears, of course (‘but mum, everybody else in my class has a phone!’), but my husband and I felt that we’d seen enough, and there would be more tears in the long run had we given in,” she explained.

“To help alleviate her fears of missing out, I reached out to other parents in her school to create a local ‘alliance’ of parents who were interested in delaying social media and smartphones for their children. Despite my daughter’s assurances, it turns out there were, in fact, other families who also did not want their children accessing social media or smartphone ownership too early. And thus, The Heads Up Alliance was born.

“The NSW Premier Chris Minns is my local member, and he was very interested in what we had done with The Heads Up Alliance in his own electorate. As a father of young children himself, he really empathised with our cause. After meeting with him last year, he announced that if he won the election (he was the Opposition Leader at the time), he would ban smartphones during school hours. When he won the election in March, I was thrilled to see that this was one of the very first promises he fulfilled.”

The Heads Up Alliance has since successfully petitioned to have phones banned in Queensland schools, with Sydney Catholic Schools also announcing a smartphone ban in more than 150 schools.

In reflection on how far the alliance has come, Ms Elachi said she “would have never guessed” the broader change that the community has been able to enact for other families.

“We didn’t set out to be advocates but have no regrets about the path that has unfolded. I am very proud that my work has contributed to the removal of smartphones from so many classrooms, enabling children to focus more on learning. Outside the classroom, children are more inclined to play a game of footy or simply speak to the friend sitting next to them, instead of communicating via a screen,” she added.

“Our original mission remains our core: encouraging parents to create their own local alliances so they can delay social media and smartphones for their children in community.”

While balancing her legal career with being an advocate and co-founder can be “demanding”, particularly with a large family of her own, Ms Elachi said that her “legal background has been invaluable” for the alliance.

“Lawyers are natural (and trained) advocates, so it’s definitely a skill that can be used to campaign and create change outside of our day jobs. Because lawyers are often actors in an adversarial system, we can have a reputation in the broader community for being divisive. However, lawyers are actually very good at bringing people together.

“At Clayton Utz, I specialise in employment law, which at its core is about people. A lot of what The Heads Up Alliance has been doing these past few years is building relationships with others who have similar concerns, as well as networking with all sorts of people with influence, including policymakers,” she added.

“Much of what I do professionally is focused on encouraging positive interactions in the workplace for the prevention of bullying and harassment. Smartphones and social media are often the means by which children are bullied and harassed by others. Therefore, there is a bit of an overlap with what I do for work and what I am doing outside of work through The Heads Up Alliance. Of course, presenting information and ideas in an engaging and persuasive way has helped significantly to raise awareness about the impact of smartphones on children’s wellbeing, which ultimately resulted in numerous wins for our movement.”

There are also a number of flow-on benefits to having additional interests and passions outside of a legal career, according to Ms Elachi.

“While I love what I do professionally, being focused on outcomes for specific clients means, in my personal life, I look to be a positive agent for society more broadly. It is very important to me that I contribute to my community. Engaging in extracurricular activities can give you a sense of purpose outside the law, helps to broaden networks, build connections (which hopefully leads to friendships), enhances wellbeing and promotes personal (and even professional) growth,” she said.

“Legal work can be very intense and demanding. Having extracurriculars means we can bring some balance and variety to our lives. Whether you choose to have a ‘side hustle’, advocate for a cause, work with a charity or enjoy a hobby, there are so many benefits of engaging in extracurricular activities.”

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