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Chrissa Loukas-Karlsson SC on career, the future, diversity and balance

Chrissa Loukas-Karlsson SC, Barrister at Public Defenders, was appointed a public defender in 1995 and silk in 2012. She was elected Junior Vice President of the NSW Bar this year. Perhaps her most colourful achievement, though, is debating Malcolm Turnbull at the University & Schools Club in her first year as a barrister in 1990 (and winning).

Here, she talks to us about her career, her views on the future of law, the role of men in supporting diversity and tips for achieving that elusive work–life balance.

Crowd & Co: What career achievement are you most proud of? Why?

Chrissa Loukas-Karlsson SC: Appearing as Senior Counsel in the High Court of Australia. Why? Because it is the highest court in the land and it tests your mettle being questioned by 5 of the greatest legal minds in the country.

Professor George Williams AO, Dean of UNSW Law, in an article titled ‘Female barristers are barely seen and rarely heard in our High Court’ says, “Justice should be available to everyone, irrespective of their gender, race or background. This applies with equal force to those seeking to administer justice. And yet, 20 years after judges highlighted the absence of women in appearing and speaking before Australia’s highest court, stark inequality remains.”

C&Co: What are the things that have been critical in growing your career?

CL-K: Perseverance. I enjoy reading autobiographies, biographies and historical fiction about people who have shown great perseverance. I highly recommend the trilogy of books my husband gave me, “Imperium”, “Lustrum” and “Dictator” by Robert Harris. 

C&Co: What do you think will be the biggest opportunity in the future for those in the legal profession?

CL-K: I’ve been reading a book by Richard Susskind called ‘Tomorrow’s Lawyers’. He claims the law and lawyers are at a crossroads and will change exponentially in less than two decades; much more than the change in the law over the last two centuries.

Susskind talks about 3 drivers of change, namely the more-for-less challenge, liberalization and technology in particular. In considering this, he suggests in a chapter called ‘New jobs for lawyers’, that the future of the legal profession will offer new job opportunities, such as legal knowledge engineers, legal technologists, legal hybrids, legal process analysts, legal project managers, legal data scientists, research and development workers, online dispute resolution practitioners, legal management consultants and legal risk managers.

For barristers, I think that oral advocacy will always have a place in our system of justice despite increasing reliance on written submissions. We must, though, all become much more technologically savvy and open to alternative ways of doings things.

C&Co: What do you think will be the key attributes that define successful lawyers in the next decade? 

CL-K: Adaptability and flexibility, emotional intelligence, the ability to problem solve, creativity, resilience, hard work with sustainable work–life balance, and technological prowess.

I like what Mark Cohen, writing for Forbes, said recently about emotional intelligence being widely overlooked as a crucial legal skill. I fervently agreed when he said, “Top lawyers with high intellect (IQ) and people skills (EQ) will always thrive, no matter how pervasive technology becomes in legal delivery.”

C&Co: When accepting the Women in Law Senior Barristers Award in 2013, you mentioned that support for diversity policies needed the support of other women as a starting point, but that men also need to be heavily involved. Do you think we’ve made any progress here?

CL-K: Yes, there has been progress. For example, the Law Council of Australia has implemented the National Model Gender Equitable Briefing Policy, which is committed to promoting diversity, equality and respect within the Australian legal profession. A key aim of the policy is to drive cultural change, support the progression and retention of women barristers, and address the significant pay gap and underrepresentation of women in the superior courts. Women like Fiona McLeod SC, Kate Eastman SC, Jane Needham SC and Lee-May Saw have been leaders in this ongoing challenge.

Men are also getting on board with this. Arthur Moses SC, the President of the NSW Bar, is a supporter of these endeavours. Additionally, my colleagues on the Bar Council Executive, Tim Game SC, Senior Vice President, and Andrew Bell, Treasurer, are supporters. They have all spoken on panels on implementing the Gender Equitable Briefing Policy at both the Criminal Bar and Commercial Bar.

The men I work with on the Bar Council generally (too many to all mention by name) are supportive. I should also mention the support of Anthony McGrath SC the previous head of the NSW Bar Association’s Diversity committee.

The men who believe in the equality of men and women, they are the real men.

C&Co: When accepting that award, you also referred to your then 4-year-old son as your “work–life balance enforcer” and said: “He has already worked out that when my glasses are on and my hair is in a bun I am in work mode. So when I get home or pick him up from pre-school he says ‘glasses off and hair down mummy’.” How are you going now with the balance? Do you have any tips for us on achieving a better balance?

CL-K: It’s a daily battle with balance, some days can only be described as being unbalanced! My tips are:

  • Delegate as much as you can: time is limited
  • Laughter is important, appreciate the absurdity of life
  • Say no when you need to
  • I believe in the Latin maxim Mens sana in corpore sano (“a healthy mind in a healthy body”): always make time for exercise and sleep for that matter
  • When your child wants your time, for example playing Minecraft together, do it (even though my son is very unimpressed with how hopeless I am at Minecraft!)
  • Be present when you are at home with the people you love
  • Choose to be positive
  • Be generous
  • Insecurity is a waste of time
  • Back yourself.

And for any women who’ve felt the sting of being underestimated, Chrissa has some final words of advice: “Just think to yourself, ‘underestimate me, that’ll be fun’.”

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