Megan Lawton, Principal Lawyer at VIVID Advice and former CEO of the Law Society Norther Territory, says she was proud to represent the Northern Territory as a thought leader finalist in the Lawyers Weekly Women in Law awards. Here, she ponders the future of the profession and tells us her biggest hope for the judiciary in the Northern Territory.
Crowd & Co: Can you tell me a little about the key milestones along your career path to date?
Megan Lawton: I had a varied career before studying law and part way though my degree headed to Canberra and ANU where I enjoyed some interesting subjects. While there, I had a job as a lobbyist with a boutique firm. I also worked in health professional regulation for some years and was a legal officer at the Australia Health Practitioner Regulation Agency. I then joined the Law Society as CEO, a position I enjoyed for five years. After that, I ventured out on my own, setting up VIVID Advice. I have recently joined a new firm of consultants which will allow me to specialise in employment law. The team is part of the Chamber of Commerce WA advising in the employment law space.
C&Co: Is it possible to single out a few career achievements you are most proud of?
ML: I’m most proud of the Reconciliation Action Plan at the Law Society Northern Territory. It has been the inspiration for the Aboriginal lawyers to come together and focus on what they wanted to do, and now they are doing it.
I am also proud of being identified as a thought leader finalist in the Lawyers Weekly Women in Law awards. Often lawyers from the Northern Territory don’t find their way to these awards, so I hope it showed that it’s possible.
I am also extremely proud of the Making Justice Work coalition being recognised with a human rights award here in the NT. When that idea first germinated success seemed so far off. It’s important to reflect on the wins when you are advocating for change – because often the end never comes.
C&Co: What has been the biggest challenge in your career?
ML: Judicial bullying has been a big one. Not that I experienced it in the courtroom, but certainly in my role as CEO I wish I had achieved a lot more in this area.
C&Co: What are the things that have been critical in growing your career?
ML: I have been happy to take the path less travelled. The most important thing has been the relationships I have built along the way. My first client at Vivid Advice was a personal recommendation from someone I had met. Being told I had a reputation as an “ethical lawyer” gave me a bit of a buzz.
C&Co: What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve received?
ML: Look out for yourself – your employer isn’t looking out for you. This was from my principal when I was an articled clerk. It’s good advice to remember. Often people turn down opportunities out of loyalty to their current role, not realising that there is a merger in the pipeline or other changes on foot. Leave while the party is in full swing.
C&Co: Our recent client survey results indicated that half of respondents think client expectations will be the biggest challenge in the future for lawyers. Your business, Vivid Advice, seems to be tapping into the way client expectations are changing. Can you tell me more about the idea behind your business?
ML: I want to provide solutions to business – not just legal advice. As an experienced manager I know that it’s hard to keep on top of challenges that emerge and it’s easier to put things on the back-burner. Outsourcing these issues to a trusted adviser prevents the pot from boiling over and allows you to keep focusing on your business. Businesses need legal assistance before things are at crisis point. Clients needs someone who is responsive and available, they don’t want to forever be waiting for their call to be returned by a partner in a large firm that’s too busy for them.
C&Co: What do you think will be the biggest challenge in the future for lawyers?
ML: Regulation of the legal profession doesn’t fit well with a more generalised service focused business model, but it needs to get there. Keeping professional standards and delivering what the market wants is the challenge. What the profession doesn’t need is lawyers becoming consultants and taking themselves out of the regulated space and still calling themselves lawyers as they are allowed to do.
C&Co: What are the key changes you see as necessary to help improve the specific experience of female lawyers?
ML: The Northern Territory does well with women on the Law Society Council and in positions of seniority across law firms, the Courts and public service. We need a judiciary that reflects the community it serves. I’m happy with quotas and I’m opposed to the merit-based rhetoric. In my experience, there are more male judicial officers that are accused of bullying than female – that is a result of the systems thus far.
I have reflected on how my own unconscious bias has featured in decisions about staff – we cannot have the old guard recruiting the new guard or they will look remarkably similar to the old guard. We need ‘bias interrupters’ as a friend of mine would say.
I also think that the regulation of the profession doesn’t fit well with part-time legal professionals. Staff returning to work part-time was a pretty big hurdle for my employer – the rent on my office was full-time and my professional indemnity insurance was also significant as we don’t have firm-based premiums. We are getting better at professional development requirements, but I think it is somewhat humiliating that you have to take advantage of maternity leave exceptions. We also need to keep people connected. After having three kids and working in a government role that accommodated part-time, to be honest I think some people thought I had died as they simply hadn’t seen me in forever.
C&Co: What do you think will be the biggest opportunity in the future for those in the legal profession?
ML: I’m not sure about opportunities. I see the emergence of the retainer and subscription-based model rather than time-based billing. I also see the emergence of new professional networking associations that offer different things to their membership that are competing with the societies. Opportunity or downfall of civilization I’m not sure. I am still very much committed to a society that has a voice for the community, not just the membership.
C&Co: What things do you think will define successful lawyers in the next decade?
ML: Successful is defined by the individual. Lawyers that get to be engaged parents and live balanced lives will be the winners of the next decade.
C&Co: What’s one piece of technology that’s changing the way you work for the better?
ML: My fitness watch. I used to be inseparable from my iPhone, using it for time recording, sending invoices etc. Having a fitness watch is a sign of real success for me. When it says move! Off I go.
C&Co: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
ML: I was lucky enough to graduate with a cohort of talented Indigenous lawyers who are having excellent careers. I am really excited to see Bilata Legal Pathways and Charles Darwin University working together to ensure that young Indigenous men and women choose a pathway to law. I only hope that the Northern Territory can appoint an Indigenous judicial officer in the next five years – the time has come.