Lawyers Weekly spoke with barrister Zali Steggall, the independent running against Tony Abbott in Warringah, and boutique firm principal Pallavi Sinha, Liberal candidate for the NSW Legislative Council, about what lawyers can bring to the political table, at a state and federal level.
Ms Steggall (pictured, left) – who is a barrister at Sydney’s Family Law Chambers and formerly represented Australia in alpine skiing at the Winter Olympics – said that not only are lawyers well-placed for careers in politics because of their training, but also because political discourse can benefit from such professional approaches.
“On some issues, the debate seems to have moved away from facts and moved towards rhetoric and slogans for the sake of political brinkmanship,” she told Lawyers Weekly.
“I think that’s unfortunate, because then you have headlines that aren’t based on fact. Getting back to the basics of legal training, one should only be using facts. Lawyers can bring the right approach to the debate, but there also has to be an ability to compromise and work together.”
Ms Sinha (pictured, right) – who is the principal of Sydney-based firm Lawyers With Solutions and was formerly a solicitor at King & Wood Mallesons – said the ways lawyers are taught to study and practice make them “quite well-suited” to careers in Parliament, “particularly as the Legislature is the branch of government that makes the laws”.
“Lawyers are also taught to think critically and analytically which is useful for making substantive contributions to policy. When lawyers become legislators, they bring a particular perspective that helps them to solve problems, which the legislature may be presented with, and they will often be able to build a strong case in favour or against a particular policy or course of action. [And] many lawyers also have experience advocating on behalf of community interests, which can develop into an interest in politics, centred on serving the community,” she explained.
Ms Steggall supported the community service argument, noting that “of late, politicians have been more about the importance of themselves rather than the role, which is to focus on the concerns and wishes of the community. We need a return to basics on that”.
Further, and in addition to the practical skills that lawyers can bring to the table, Ms Steggall noted that a politician’s role is more than advocating for, debating and enacting legislation.
“It’s also about being a good listener, and being able to relate to the community, and then it’s also about being able to work collaboratively together – ironically, that’s what’s been missing in politics, and it’s what’s needed to be able to get some real outcomes.”
However, while such arguments make it clear that state and federal Parliament can benefit from the experience and expertise of those with legal backgrounds – and lawyers are one of the most highly-represented professions in politics – there may be various reasons why legal professionals might be reluctant to pursue political aspirations.
For example, Ms Sinha identified both the "incorrect" perception that there are already too many lawyers in politics, and the idea that transitioning to politics is effectively starting a new career from scratch which, she said, could be a disincentive for an experienced lawyer, as being potential hurdles to get over.
However, those hypotheticals should not deter legal professionals from taking that vocational step if they so wish, both candidates stated.
“Such reasons should not be an impediment for someone considering this opportunity to serve their community. I believe they could be overcome with more positive discussions about the benefits of lawyers entering politics and highlighting the achievements of present and former politicians with a legal background,” Ms Sinha said.
Ms Steggall agreed, noting that one can’t change the world from the outside, “it can only be from the inside”.
“Every person who stands up to contribute to the debate has the opportunity to improve the debate and bring it forward. To all those people, I would encourage them to stand up and give it a go, because at the end of the day, you can’t complain about a situation and not be prepared to help,” she said.