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From data entry to a top lawyer: Leah’s career tips

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Leah Cameron is a Palawa woman and the award-winning Principal Solicitor and owner of Marrawah Law. She spoke to the First Nations Foundation about her first job, her advice to young Indigenous people building their careers and what she’d tell her 20-year-old self.

How did you get started in the workforce?

My first job was data entry and I was processing fishing permits one school holidays. I was terrified. I didn’t know what to wear or what to do and I was so shy. It was really foreign to me.

Did you always know you wanted to be a lawyer?

It didn’t come to me until quite late in my schooling, but I must admit it was still quite a challenge to my confidence. My parents weren’t university educated or anything like that, so it was new for all of us and it was a steep learning curve. We talked about it and said ‘I’ll give it my best shot and try my hardest, but nothing’s ever locked in’. If you don’t like it, don’t feel like you can’t get off the bus, but give it a red hot go.

When you’re there, as hard as it is, there is a lot of support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. I made the most of that. There was a place where everyone could meet up, there was support you could get with your subjects and I used all of that.

What was your pathway from uni into the legal profession?

I had a cadetship and that was great. It was partially funded, I got a small income so that I could focus on my study during the semester and then during the holidays I worked.

What advice would you give someone who was starting out and trying to build their career, whether it be in law or another field?

One thing I would say is get as much practical experience in the workforce, even if it’s not what you want to do in the long run. As an employer, that’s one thing I always look at. Even if it’s McDonalds, if you’ve had a bit of go, that’s terrific. It doesn’t even have to be paid work, if it’s community service, volunteering, that goes a really long way as well.

Do something where you’re building your confidence and your skills, while planning what to do in the world.

You’ve been an advocate for both women in law and tackling Indigenous legal issues. What inspired you to make that a core focus of your firm’s work?

I think in the area in which I practice, there aren’t a lot of women. I just went ‘there’s a huge gap here’. This year even, I turned up to court and a senior practitioner asked me to put his tie on him. That sort of stuff still goes on. It’s not very supportive still in the commercial space, for our Mob as lawyers, particularly for women as well. We struggle with negotiating to get ourselves higher up the ranks and we’re often overlooked. The workplace isn’t always great and if we have families or other community commitments, that’s not always embraced. That’s what I’ve been really passionate about and had to navigate myself.

You’ve got to demonstrate that it can be done, but there’s still a way to go in showing people how it can be done. I think it’s important to show that it’s okay.

What achievements are you most proud of?

I’m really proud of my team of lawyers and administrative staff. They’re amazing. I see them grow and push themselves. We’re all learning together.

Also, the fact that my daughters can see that mum’s equal to dad and there’s no gender divide in our household.

What advice would you have given yourself as a 20-year-old?

In hindsight, I would have said be more brave, but it was very different back then and I needed to take baby steps. I think I did the right things at the right time. I think I would have said you don’t have to fit the mould, just be comfortable in yourself.

Leah’s top career tips

 

  • All experience counts: Whether it’s paid or unpaid, having some work experience on your resume stands out to employers.
  • Nothing’s locked in: If you enroll in a course and you don’t like it, you can always change it.
  • Make the most of support: Leah said support services at university were very helpful when she was studying to be a lawyer.
  • Values come first: Make sure whoever you work with aligns with your values.

This is an edited transcript of an interview with Leah Cameron.

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