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Acting up

Some dreamy kids, who spend hours with their nose in books and happily absorbed in their own imaginary worlds grow up a little and explore the world of theatrical performance and harbor dreams  of being a great actor. Then sometimes they dump that idea and decide to study law, fight human trafficking and slavery in their spare time, do stints in leadership positions in the legal world, and then get a gong on the Victorian Women’s Honour Roll. 

In 2014, in the lead up to International Women’s Day on 8 March,  20 women were inducted to the Victorian Honour Roll for women. One of them was Fiona McLeod SC, who was Chair of the Victorian Bar in 2013, and currently holds leadership positions at the Australian Bar Association and the Law Council of Australia.

(Others included Sally Walker AM, the Hon Nicola Roxon (Australia’s first Federal Attorney-General) and Dr Helen Durham and Moira Kelly AO (Children First Foundation), among others – read the full list here.

It’s true that McLeod wanted to be an actor, but sometime during law school at University of Melbourne two things happened – one she realised she wasn’t the actor she thought she might be and two, she was exposed to President of the Australian Human Rights Commission Professor Gillian Triggs who was lecturing in international law (you can read more about this, including her appearance on the Channel 9 Hey Hey It’s Saturday program as a clown, in the ‘When Law and Comedy Collide’ blog post).

As far as lawyers go, it’s fair to say McLeod is somewhat unorthodox. It’s not that she decided to study law as a tiny act of rebellion (her family were more science / medical types) and because she had an idea in her head about ‘courtroom performance’.  But more because she seems to follow her nose – and her heart – on causes or issues that worry her. And sometimes she speaks so openly and fearlessly you wonder if she is a lawyer after all – a good example is her work in agitating for measures to increase gender equality in the ranks of the legal profession where the data clearly shows that inspite of a little more than half of all law graduates being women, by the time they reach 40, the numbers have dwindled significantly. (You can get a glimpse of this is today legal affairs sections of The Australian & AFR, and in Lawyers Weekly, where she is quoted at length discussing the findings of the National Attrition Study).

It’s probably her upbringing.

She grew up in a close family of mum, dad and four kids (two sisters – one is now a paediatric surgeon in Melbourne, the other a film and play director in San Francisco, her brother is a ‘solarchitect’ in Castlemaine) ‘and a perpetual stream of drop ins’.  Home was mostly in doctors houses in the grounds of psychiatric hospitals – Royal Park Melbourne, then in Auckland and back to North Carlton. School was Brunswick South West Primary, then a suburban Auckland State Primary School followed by State secondary school, also in Auckland (then back to Melbourne where she went to the University of Melbourne).

“I was a dreamy kid,” she said. ” Off in my imagination, mucking about outdoors or with my nose in books.”

She has devoted countless hours to pro bono activity to provide better access to justice for women in all walks of life, motivated by ‘seeing a need, the hurt or an injustice and feeling I might be able to assist.’

At the announcement of her inclusion on the Honour Roll, McLeod said she had been lucky to have been surrounded by many outstanding women throughout her life including her mother, sisters and daughters and her former school principal Joan Montgomery OBE  (also an Honour Roll appointee) who had encouraged her to make a significant contribution to others.

No doubt the experience of the diversity of lives lived, in all its complexions and with all its challenges, in the grounds of those hospitals has had plenty to do with it.

“It really is true that the greatest happiness in life comes from kindness and generosity to others,” she said. “From sharing ideas that fire the imagination and embolden us to take risks in pursuit of worthy goals and by simple expressions of friendship, community and love.”

McLeod’s pro bono work has been directed at some distressing areas of human existence:  She is recognised as a pioneer and a dedicated fighter in the field of anti-slavery and human trafficking in Australia, providing pro bono services to victims and pursuing the first compensation claims on behalf of victims of sex trafficking in NSW and Victoria. See the Australian documentary Trafficked – The Reckoning for some idea of what she works on, and the outcome she strives for in the story of Ning).

She has also negotiated significant legislative change on behalf of trafficked persons and amendments to providing greater protection for people with an intellectual disability. Other pro bono work includes environmental and discrimination cases, and participating in teaching teams in the Solomon Islands, Nepal, Bangladesh and Vanuatu over several years.

That’s with a full workload holding down a full time practice as a barrister, maintaining a relationship and raising two high achieving daughters (both rowers – although only one continues the sport now – McLeod is unfazed by phone or email conversations at dawn as she waits for training to finish before they both get started with the ‘real’ day).

She is a really interesting person (and you can follow her on Twitter at @FiMcLeodSC

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