A prominent figure in the Australian legal profession and an advocate in every sense of the word, Fiona McLeod has dedicated her career to being a champion for change.
Whether it be clearing institutional hurdles for the career advancement of female talent in law, or addressing the systemic inequality which hurts some of society’s most vulnerable, she likens her method to the way a lawyer approaches a case.
“If you have a vision for where you want to be and you can take people with you, and if you can assist in the design of practical implementation of change and the steps that organisations can take to transform themselves, then that’s going to be successful,” Ms McLeod said.
Just like effective advocacy, she believes evidence and allies go a long way in helping achieve results.
“Prepare it like you would a case in court. Ground yourself in evidence, prepare an argument, get allies on side, answer all the grounds as to what it is you want to see happen.
“Because, just like if you come into a court and berate people and tell them that they’re doing the wrong thing, but without any solutions, then you won’t drive institutional change,” Ms McLeod said.
Ms McLeod has forged a successful career as a barrister and been at the forefront of Australia’s legal professional bodies. Over many years she has dedicated her voice to speaking about issues touching the profession. Critically, she has also focused her efforts on addressing them.
“The ability to be a spokesperson comes from taking on responsibility within an organisation for leadership.
“I’ve been in a position to speak to issues where there are legal ramifications and often they do overlap with social issues but that doesn’t mean, in my view, that lawyers should hold back when there is clearly a legal foundation for injustice or legal barriers to justice,” Ms McLeod said.
“I’ve always been drawn to the law as a way to serve community interests and have a strong sense of social justice,” she said.
Service and conviction have been hallmarks of the Victorian barrister’s 27-year career. Ms McLeod took silk in 2003 and has practised in commercial, administrative, common law, human rights and government law. She is the president elect of the Law Council of Australia and immediate past president of the Victorian Bar Association.
In her current role, Ms McLeod said she was determined to confront enduring access to justice issues impacting Australia’s Indigenous community. She is focused on how a current Royal Commission concerning youths in custody in the NT can engage a wider discussion about the alarming incarceration rate of indigenous Australians nationwide.
“I’ve got the opportunity this year and next year particularly, to work on issues on and around how justice affects different people in our community. Our first peoples in particular are below the radar in terms of being able to access to justice,” she said.
Ms McLeod’s love for advocacy was sparked during law school mooting and witness examination competitions, while at university. She pursued her passion two years after admission as a lawyer in Victoria and singed the bar roll in 1991.
“I set out that goal for myself,” Ms McLeod said.
“I took a risk in terms of my financial wellbeing but it certainly was the right time for me to go […] The bar has been brilliant for me. I love being self-employed, answering to myself and having that direct responsibility for the management side,” she said.
In Ms McLeod’s view, fostering a collegiate culture at the bar and in the wider profession is critical for future change-makers. Being able to fall back on a strong network of family and peers was essential for anybody seeking a dynamic however stressful career, she added.
She urged young practitioners to back each other with “wholehearted” confidence, acknowledging that some of her own grit was sustained by the knowledge that others were in her corner.
“It’s really critical we support each other […] and it’s one of the easiest ways to deal with a natural reluctance to promote yourself and your qualities – that we promote each other wholeheartedly,” she said.
While there can be little discussion of Ms McLeod’s career successes without reference to the encouragement from colleagues and family which spurs her, there is no doubt that the goals she has kicked have been hard-earned.
Ms McLeod advised aspiring lawyers and barristers to stay steadfast in pursuit of their goals and never to fear that those goals were beyond them.
“I takes commitment, you can’t just turn up and expect the world to be presented to you but if you really have a vision of what it is you want to achieve; then you make it happen,” she said.
Last year Ms McLeod was recognised for her outstanding service to social justice and the profession at the Lawyers Weekly 2015 Women in Law Awards. She won a trifecta of awards for Barrister of the Year, Mentor of the Year and the Women in the Law Excellence Award.
Submissions for the 2016 Women in Law Awards close soon – submit or nominate today!