I thought about enrolling in medicine but felt I was too old at 41 to begin that long path. I knew nothing about law but it did interest me, so while working full-time as a medical practice manager, I dived in and gave it my very best.

“You’re too smart for this job.” Every now and then someone comes along who dramatically impacts our lives, and those words certainly changed mine.

After six years working as a medical practice Manager, I was employed in 2002 by a highly regarded Obstetrician/Gynaecologist, Dr Chris Bradbury at St Vincent’s Clinic in Sydney, where I remained for eight years. After a couple of years working with him, he spoke those fateful words, and went on to say, “Have you thought about doing some study as I’ll be retiring in a few years, and if you need some time off around exams I will assist you with that?”

I had finished school almost 25 years earlier and I had not started or completed any tertiary education in that time, apart from some TAFE secretarial/Microsoft courses and medical terminology and basic medical courses. Let’s be honest … I didn’t even finish high school!

I was filled with self-doubt. Could I do it? Did I have the brains to succeed or would I fail miserably? I thought about enrolling in medicine but felt I was too old at 41 to begin that long path. I knew nothing about law but it did interest me, so while working full-time as a medical practice manager, I dived in and gave it my very best. No matter whether the outcome was success or failure, I knew I could do no more than that.

My working career had begun in Woolworths after leaving school at 16, and I later moved on to a role in Westpac. Then in 1996, I had commenced working for specialist medical doctors in private practice. I had gone on to hold Practice Management positions in various medical specialities with some amazing doctors and health professionals, until 2002, when I met the doctor who was willing to provide the encouragement and support I needed to realise the potential I didn’t even see in myself.

When I decided to study law, I had to first sit exams to determine if I had the required mental aptitude. I achieved the necessary marks and enrolled in the Legal Practitioners Admission Board (LPAB – USYD) course. I took only one subject to begin with, still doubting myself. Ironically, I achieved fourth place out of 500+ students in my first subject, so that gave me confidence to continue, albeit slowly.

I once again took on one subject, then enrolled in two subjects at a time and worked full-time. In the last 18 months of the LPAB course, I was studying four subjects and worked full-time. (I placed first in Family Law and Trade Practices, fourth in Wills/Estates and fifth in Employment Law.)

The process of study did become easier! When studying I didn’t compare myself to others, as I believed we all had our own strengths and weaknesses: I could only compete with myself and do my best, and I continue that philosophy in my business today.

The LPAB course, although not considered prestigious in law, is regarded as a rigorous course to complete, and those who complete it have the ability to manage whatever is placed before them. Why? You had to be a self-starter, disciplined and self-sufficient to learn law and complete the course, with very little assistance!

After 14+ years in medicine, my first legal job was as a Judges Associate in the Federal Circuit Court. Then I worked as a solicitor for about 15 months prior to sitting the Bar Exams. I was naive prior to enrolling to sit the Bar Exams, and I didn’t know any barristers to chat to. I thought solicitors sat the Bar Exams and passed, (i.e. no one failed), and onwards and upwards they went, with their tutors ‘assisting’ them in their first year, establishing a successful practice after that. I did not realise what is involved at all.

I sat and passed all three Bar Exams in my first attempt. I moved into my first chambers as a barrister, not knowing one chambers from another, nor the reputation of one solicitor’s office from another. I am no longer naïve though.

Breast Cancer

In June 2014, two years after coming to the Bar, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was a shock, as no one ever thinks that something like that is going to happen to them. I had to take time off work to have multiple surgeries and extensive treatment. I underwent a mastectomy, then 18 weeks of chemotherapy, five weeks of radiation and then an 11-hour bilateral breast reconstruction surgery.

I was out of Elizabeth Street Chambers for 11 months. It was a tough time, physically! Some people in law advised me not to tell anyone I had breast cancer, as it would affect my legal practice negatively. I thought, law has to be more human and accepting of human frailties, so I continue to be honest and open.

I returned to chambers in May 2015 with the prospect of having to start again, and get my small business – that of being a Barrister – underway once more!

Last year, in 2016, I had my first full year back at Elizabeth Street chambers, post cancer treatments and surgeries. I have to credit the Directors of Elizabeth Street chambers (and members) with having exemplary humanity: they were very supportive of me during my time away from chambers and on my return, and for that I will always be very grateful!

Business Owner

My early naivety at how the legal world works meant that as a new-comer to chambers in my mid-40s, with no old-school network and connections built over years of practicing law, I received few briefs from lawyers needing the services of a barrister. In law I am ‘new’ – as if my previous 30 years of work and life experience had little significance.

Originally, I tried to make contacts and connections by cold-calling legal firms. I soon realised that I had to find another avenue; my best strategy was to attract lawyers. There are very strict guidelines in this field, and advertising is not an option, so I began studying and applying the best strategies of content creation and client attraction.

I am now very clear about my professional brand, and work consciously to build that in a way that is congruent with who I am and where I want to be. I now have a smart website as my online base, speak at webinars, write content regularly for other publications, blog on my own site, and take the stage when I am invited as a guest speaker at a Conference or other event.

I am now a trained mediator and family law arbitrator, providing opportunities to clients to resolve their disputes by a variety of methods, in addition to litigation. My business is on my own terms, and I am very proud to say I am not your typical barrister. I am driven to humanise law, accept human frailty, and generally treat others with dignity and respect, encapsulating emotional intelligence. I believe in leading by example, acting in a way you would like to see changes occur.

I also love tutoring and mentoring others, particularly young women starting out or and older women who are changing course like I did. I know first-hand what support they need.

I have been provided with wonderful opportunities in life by the kindness of others who took a chance on me and gave me my first medical role, and my opportunity to work and study law in a supportive environment.  We all need opportunities, regardless of career stage.

Let’s all think about how we can provide real opportunities for others who live outside of the usual stereotypes – maybe you can support someone in your office already, or someone applying for a job. Opportunities to help others are everywhere.

You may be surprised at how much you will undoubtedly receive in return.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Louise Mathias can be found at www.sydneybarrister.net.au