Louise Mathias, Barrister & Mediator at Elizabeth Street Chambers, left school at 16 years of age and worked in a wide variety of diverse roles, including Medical Practice Management for 15 years, before starting her legal career.
Here, she tells us about her career path, why she vlogs, and her views on the often-hidden “human” element, in the legal profession.
Crowd & Co: I understand you took a longer path to law than most. Can you tell us about that path?
Louise Mathias: I lived in a small country town, Parkes, in Central NSW, after relocating there from Newcastle at 12 years of age. I didn't finish high school, I finished in year 10. I started work straight out of school. It was never really an option for me to attend university. At 16 years old, it was expected that I'd get a job and become self-sufficient. My father was a tradie. My mother had no formal skills. They both had a mindset, that you don't go on to do further studies, you get employment. My family was working middle-class and they wanted me to remain working middle class, whatever that means.
I continued to work throughout the years, and I found myself working as a Specialist Medical Practice Manager for 15 years, immediately prior to entering law. I was working with a gynaecologist/obstetrician, and he discussed with me that if I wanted to study, he'd give me the time off I'd need, around exams, to complete the course I chose. He said, "You're too smart to be doing a job like this. I'll be retiring in a few years, it would be good if you got some kind of skill behind you." And so is was, with that encouragement and support, that I needed, somebody gave me an opportunity and the first thoughts of study came to be.
I first sat the STAT (Special Tertiary Admissions Test) and then I applied for the LPAB (Legal Profession Admission Board) course. I commenced by doing one subject at a time, not knowing if I would be successful. I chose law by a process of elimination. I wasn’t interested in any of the commercial business subjects, whereas law I thought would be interesting, even though I knew very little about it. For the last 18 months of my law degree I was working full time and completing four units per semester and placing, so it was very hectic.
C&Co: You’re now a barrister, mediator, speaker and vlogger. What have been the most significant factors in growing your career?
LM: Honestly, a lot of hard work, which hasn’t stopped. I guess, because I had come into law later in life, and I didn’t have the legal connections that other people have when they come into law. As a result, I've had to establish myself by doing things in ways that other lawyers or barristers are reticent to do. For example, I have had a website for a number of years, whereas many other barristers don’t see a need for a website. I started to blog and I now vlog. I'm planning on starting a podcast next year. I recognise the changes in business outside of law, including social media and I utilise those platforms to educate. Coming to law later has had its advantages. I am not as constrained as other lawyers who have no other experiences, and am therefore willing to change and try new things.
I guess what's helped me is the fact that I have set myself apart from others. Some people like what I do and my authenticity and others don't, they prefer the traditional, and that’s fine. I'm not the traditional barrister and that's what's been significant for me, being authentic.
C&Co: Can you tell me about the podcast you have planned?
LM: It's going to be called "Life and Law". I personally think, in law, there's so much emphasis placed on a person's intellectual ability and their position, and very little, if any, emphasis placed on the soft skills including emotional intelligence, and how to deal with each other positively and healthily. I believe the human side of law is just as important, so that we have happy, healthy lawyers, not only technically-sound lawyers. So, I'll be talking about human topics – soft skills as well as legal topics. It's a combination of how people can be great lawyers, technically and with knowledge, but also how they can have a great life by mindset and life changes. In addition, we’ll cover topics on how to be the best version of ourselves, with topics to create thought.
C&Co: What do you think will be the key attributes of successful lawyers in the future?
LM: We all have law degrees, so what will set successful lawyers apart from other lawyers in the future, in my view, include:
- emotional intelligence
- leadership skills
- knowing how to personal brand and being willing to do it
- successful at meaningful networking
- work–life balance, which gives the ability to rejuvenate and create success
- business skills know-how
- core values, such as integrity, honesty, collaboration, respect.
The lawyers that recognise that leadership is different to managing and what leadership skills mean, will recognise we are in the ‘people business’ and leadership is not based on a person’s position – this will set them apart. Leadership is based upon being truthful, speaking and expecting truth, not being power-hungry, not putting a person’s own goals above that of others so that they are not considered, emotional intelligence, including being aware of their own strengths, weaknesses and vulnerabilities, not being aggressive rather demonstrating assertiveness, willing to recognise others’’ contributions to success, practicing effective soft skills and keeping promises.
The lawyers and law firms that recognise the way of doing legal business is changing, with a willingness to change to meet market demands, including establishing how value can be added to clients will succeed. This includes practising with soft and leadership skills, these lawyers and law firms will be the most successful in the future, in my view.
C&Co: How can we improve the particular experience of female lawyers?
LM: That's a really good question, because there are groups for female lawyers that I believed were in support of women in law. However, generally speaking, my experience with other women in law, I have found them less than supportive. I have witnessed and experienced worse treatment from other women, to other women and myself, than from men, which I know is not a new problem. A genuine supportive mindset shift needs to be fostered and encouraged in women, to help and support each other, rather than view other females as the enemy, to be brought down. I believe I am eminently qualified to comment as I'm a twin to a sister. I've been brought up to support my twin, and by extension, other women. I say, in a general sweeping statement, I don't feel or see genuine female support from other female lawyers, which needs to change, so that it can be the foundation for happier, healthier more successful female lawyers in practice in the long term. We need to join forces to help each other succeed.
Whether this shift requires education or greater self-awareness or higher emotional intelligence, or a combination of all, I’m not sure. It does, however, require attention and focus.
C&Co: You brand yourself in a less traditional way compared with other barristers. Can you tell me about that and the general feedback you receive?
LM: I believe, people hide behind the professional mask called position: "I'm a barrister, I'm a lawyer, I'm a partner, or I'm a senior associate" and achieve their value and worth from their position. What is missing is the human qualities which they can gain value from being a human: vulnerability, authenticity, honesty and truthfulness. We're all humans, regardless of our position and we're all fulfilling our roles, let’s not forget we are humans first and foremost.
Clients do want a professional approach, but I don't think a professional approach is devoid of human qualities. When I wrote a blog about “My Story” on my website, I said that I had breast cancer in 2014 and told my story about my humble beginnings and life lessons learned. One barrister wrote to me, and he said, "Louise, I don't know whether the profession is ready to know us as human beings or only as barristers," It made me think at that time, "What a sad indictment on the profession if humanness, with all of its strengths and weaknesses, isn’t applauded and recognised.”
We're all human. The real question is, “Can I be proud of the human I am under this tarpaulin called ‘title’?”. It’s recognised there are many people in law who are suffering with mental health issues, and yet if they show their vulnerability, their career progression may either be slowed, or sidelined. It’s often impossible to show vulnerability in a lawyer’s career path and that's not a healthy space to practise in. We have to allow for human foibles, strengths and weaknesses and make allowances, not force perfection on all. That’s not achievable.
I regularly post and vlog on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. I have had a lot of positive feedback about the human elements I aim to showcase (including my own) and how it’s important in law to display these human qualities. People connect to vulnerability and human qualities, not technical skills. It’s the soft skills that connect us. In saying that, I am not minimising the technical skills as we all need to have the technical and knowledge skills, without a doubt. However, don’t underestimate the soft skills – that’s what will create connection and change and ultimate happiness and satisfaction.
C&Co: Okay, a final question. What piece of technology has made a positive difference to the way you work?
LM: I’m very fortunate in that my sister, who is an accountant/bookkeeper has advised me on the best business solutions and removed all of my business accounting worries, and she has signed me up to Hubdoc. I can then take pictures of receipts. Hubdoc is linked to my accounting software, Quickbooks, and it just makes it easy for me (and her) to keep track of my business receipts, even on the run.
As far as apps are concerned, I like the Thomson Reuters app, ProView, because I can download e-books, when I buy the hard copy, so that it’s on my iPad, which I take to court.
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