Angela Lynch, CEO of Women’s Legal Service Qld was recently awarded the 2017 Women in Law Excellence Award, after receiving the highest score of all entrants across many different legal sectors.
Here, she talks to us about her career drivers, achievements and challenges, encourages all lawyers to consider volunteer work, and shares her views on the road ahead for the legal profession.
Crowd & Co: Can you tell me about your career path and the key milestones that led to your current role?
Angela Lynch: Across my career I’ve always been passionate about using the law to affect safety for women and their children. An absolute career highlight was becoming CEO of Women’s Legal Service earlier this year. I’ve been with the service for over 20 years in a variety of roles. It’s an honour and a pleasure to lead an organisation whose mission I so strongly believe in.
In 2011 I authored, with Associate Professor Rachael Field, the Coordinated Family Dispute Resolution (CFDR) model of Family Dispute Resolution. Developed for the Federal Attorney-General’s Department for families where there was domestic violence, the model was ground-breaking and a world first – dealing with mediation and domestic violence. When domestic violence is present there is a real power imbalance that renders standard mediation processes ineffective and sometimes dangerous. Piloted in five sites across Australia, the model was evaluated by the Australian Institute of Families Studies. I was invited to speak at a forum in China on the CFDR model by the Australian Human Rights Commission. The opportunity to highlight safety issues with existing mediation processes was an absolute highlight.
C&Co: Is it possible to single out a few career achievements you are most proud of?
AL: I’m proud of a number of recent long-time-coming law reform ‘overnight successes’ that will result in increased safety for survivors of domestic and sexual violence. For years we’ve advocated for the Federal Government to introduce vulnerable witness protections in the Family Court. In 2017 the Federal Attorney General announced Family Law Act changes preventing domestic violence perpetrators from directly cross-examining their victims in court. That was a huge win. In Queensland it’s been the case that sexual assault perpetrators can subpoena their victim’s counselling notes and use these against them at trial. Again, for years we’ve advocated for these notes to be privileged. Recently, the Queensland Government introduced legislation that establishes a sexual assault counselling privilege in Queensland. I’m proud that our advocacy is ensuring women have increased access to justice.
C&Co: What has been the biggest challenge in your career?
AL: One of the biggest challenges of my career relates to funding surety for Women’s Legal Service. Last year our funding was precarious. We came close to a major service scale down. We strongly advocated for our clients right to legal advice which is so essential to safety. The Queensland and Federal Governments really listened, and our funding is now secure.
Throughout my career I’ve also been challenged by the dangerous myths and misinformation about domestic violence. The idea that domestic violence is just a women’s problem, that many women lie about being victims, or that women can easily just pick up and leave. I think as more light is shone on this issue these attitudes are less and less prevalent. But we’ve still got a long way to go. They’re insidious.
C&Co: What are the things that have been critical in growing your career?
AL: Working at Women’s Legal Service our staff, volunteers and clients motivate me. I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by a community of strong, powerful, smart and dedicated women. I’ve had so many wonderful mentors. The strength and resilience of our clients in the face of violence continues to be the reason I do what I do.
The commitment of our volunteers, particularly the lawyers who volunteer their time and expertise at our evening drop in legal advice sessions, or remotely through our ‘legal link’ and remote volunteering programs, the barristers who volunteer to represent our clients in court – they’re inspiring. And we’re always looking for more volunteers!
C&Co: What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve received?
AL: There’s a Dalai Lama quote: “Every individual has a responsibility to help guide our global family in the right direction. Good wishes are not sufficient; we must become actively engaged.” That’s a sentiment that’s guided my career and I hope others may take from that too. Whoever you are and whatever you do you can always get involved. There are so many unique opportunities for members of the profession to contribute. We at community legal centres really need all the help we can get.
C&Co: What do you think will be the biggest challenge in the future for lawyers?
AL: Whether you’re in the private or community legal sector I think there is increasingly an expectation that as lawyers we need to do more with less. In the private sector there’s increasing competition from traditionally non-legal organisations moving into our space, while clients are becoming more savvy through the vast amounts of information they now have access to.
In the community sector we are sadly never wanting for demand for our services. Currently 50 per cent of calls to our Statewide Domestic Violence Legal Advice Helpline go unanswered. However, the funding pool in not keeping up with ever increasing demand, while larger traditionally non-legal not-for-profits are more and more competing for the same funding.
C&Co: What things do you think will define successful lawyers in the next decade?
AL: I think there will be more focus on wellbeing, resilience and flexibility. The profession has had an issue for some time in relation to mental health, quality of life and managing family commitments. Increasingly we will see success defined through new metrics that maybe weren’t a consideration before.
C&Co: What are the key changes you see as necessary to help improve the specific experience of female lawyers?
AL: We’ve made some progress, but the profession still has a long way to go in relation to gender equality. A Law Council of Australia study indicated that while 63 percent of law graduates are women, women account for just 10 percent of senior appointments. We would like to see a commitment to removing unconscious bias about the fitness of women to serve as leaders in the legal profession. My understanding is that discrimination in relation to family commitments is still rife. More of a commitment to work–life balance is absolutely necessary to retain and advance women in the profession. And that will have positive flow on effects for the profession as a whole.
Finally, what’s one piece of technology that’s changing the way you work for the better?
Women’s Legal Service recently launched the free Penda app, which helps Australian women experiencing domestic violence and their support people to avoid poverty. From client experience, we recognised that many women experiencing violence are very isolated – unsure of what to do or where to seek help. Those who support these women are also often unsure of what help is out there. Many women have limited resources, but most have access to a smart phone. Penda combines information and referrals on legal topics including domestic and family violence orders, child support, parenting, property settlement, and visas and immigration with domestic violence and safety information. It’s a tool for survivors, and absolutely anyone who comes in contact with them. Penda empowers women from all walks of life to make informed decisions and take the next step toward financial security and safety.
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