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Profile: Practitioner wellbeing tops agenda for 2021 president

Profile: Practitioner wellbeing tops agenda for 2021 president

By Karin Derkley

Legal Biography 

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New LIV president Tania Wolff is optimistic the profession can move on from a year that was laced with challenges.

Tania Wolff
  • Criminal lawyer
  • Director, First Step Legal; Mental Health Tribunal member
  • 2021 platform – mental health and wellbeing; advancing therapeutic jurisprudence; and specialist courts 
  • Interests – stand up paddling, snow skiing, yoga and reading. 

As the director of legal services at First Step Legal, Tania Wolff works daily with people who have been challenged by the curve balls life has thrown them. The St Kilda Health Justice Partnership in which her legal service is embedded caters to people with mental ill-health and addictions who have found themselves on the wrong side of the law as a result.

But Ms Wolff says even those who are “pretty grounded and sturdy have been challenged by what has been a horrendous year. You’d be hard placed to find anyone in the profession who hasn’t suffered to some extent". 

Criminal lawyers have had to adjust to dealing with their clients differently and adapting to online courts, while commercial lawyers have been impacted by clients whose businesses have been struggling. 

Ms Wolff’s year as president is starting just as the Victorian legal profession is taking tentative steps back to a kind of normality. “It will be much harder and much slower to do that than it was when we just had to suddenly pull up stumps and leave. There will be anxieties and uncertainties. What is uniform is that we need to find a way to recover and recalibrate in 2021.”

The experience may have given the legal profession and the general community something of an insight into the pressures faced by those who live daily with disadvantage, she hopes. “I think we have become more sensitised as a community to the fragility of life and our own wellbeing. There’s an opportunity to recognise that we are all sailing really close to the wind and that, but for a few bits and pieces, we’re still holding onto the sail rather than falling in the water.”

Ms Wolff’s tenure as president comes 23 years after she started as a commercial lawyer with Arnold Bloch Leibler (ABL). She had been accepted into the articles program two years earlier, but the firm allowed her to defer to travel. Intending to teach English in Seoul in South Korea for a few months, she stayed for two years. “I just loved everything about it, teaching, living there. It was so exciting.” 

Unable to shake the travel bug after she returned and completed her articles at ABL, she applied for an in-house counsel role with Norwegian engineering construction company Kvaerner, spending a few years in its Singapore office and travelling around Asia and Scandinavia as the company’s Asia Pacific legal counsel. She was then drawn into a two-year consulting project in relation to a 9th century Tang Dynasty shipwreck off the coast of Indonesia. “I loved the travelling and the expat life, but once I became pregnant I realised that wasn't going to work for me anymore, particularly as a single mum, and I was ready to come home.”

Having met criminal lawyer David Grace QC through a friend who had worked for him, she approached him for work on her return to Melbourne. “He took me on as a solicitor-advocate and I ended up doing a lot of his Magistrates’ Court work.” 

It was then she realised criminal rather than commercial law was her calling. “I realised that if I was going to pay a nanny it was going to have to be for meaningful work. And the essential human nature of criminal law really attracted me. After all, what inspires and captivates many of us who go into the law is probably the court drama, and the representation aspect of the law.” She recalls as an eight year old watching the 1957 movie Witness for the Prosecution with Charles Laughton and Marlene Dietrich “and from that moment I said to my parents I want to be a lawyer when I grow up.” 

Working for David Grace, what struck her was the stark difference between her clients and the services and supports she could offer them and other defendants who were either self-represented or only had the brief assistance of a duty lawyer. “They didn’t have any opportunities to show a magistrate any reason to give them a more supportive and less punitive disposition.”

The experience convinced her of the importance of dealing with the issues underlying offending. “It’s hard to work in criminal law without feeling we need to do something more about it because the systemic failures hit you in the face every day.” 

Some years later, Ms Wolff jumped at the chance (from the same friend who put her in touch with David Grace) to take over the legal practice she’d started at St Kilda mental health and addiction service First Step. “The clinicians were working with clients who’d be doing really well, and then charges would come in from six or 12 months previously when their clients had been in a really bad place. And that compromised their recovery. So it was helpful embedding First Step Legal as a health justice partnership into the service.”

From an initial one day a week, First Step Legal has grown to a full-time service, with two part-time criminal lawyers and a family lawyer in addition to Ms Wolff. Originally funded by philanthropic donations, the service now also receives funding as a community legal centre, and can provide legal help to people who might not otherwise be eligible for legal aid. 

“It’s meant I’ve been able to practise law in a different way, and also draw on the expertise of clinicians and therapists around me to work out how to do things a little bit differently and create a different outcome.”

In the past two years, Ms Wolff has also become a part-time member of the Mental Health Tribunal, which reviews patients diagnosed with mental disorders who are detained in psychiatric hospitals or under compulsory treatment orders. In this role she is confronted with what she describes as “the really pointy end of mental health in this state”.

“A large proportion of matters I hear concern people experiencing multiple complex challenges including social isolation, mental health, addiction and significant stigma. This work has only reinforced my view that mental health support needs to be better resourced and our response as a community to pain and trauma needs to become more sophisticated and nuanced.”

But, Ms Wolff is aware that mental ill-health is not confined to those on the margins. The legal profession has one of the highest levels of mental ill-health – unsurprising in a profession reluctant to reveal any vulnerability, she believes. 

“It's not part of our training or makeup to disclose weakness. We are used to preparing for battle and showing no vulnerability. But we really need to change that, and to understand that, though it may seem counterintuitive, showing our humanity is actually empowering.”

She is mindful of the need for her own work/life balance, ensuring she exercises and meditates regularly. “I have been a mad keen skier all my life. The snow is my happy place. I live close to the water so I am either walking on the beach, or in the water or on the water whenever I can be. I have become slightly obsessed this year with SUP (stand up paddling) which has been a life saver over COVID. It’s hard to describe just how amazing an experience it is to be out in the bay with four or five dolphins swimming around you.”

Another challenge this year will be to combat bullying, sexual harassment and overwork that she believes are also rooted in the culture of the law. “The law is particularly hierarchical and there are potential pitfalls about that structure that we have to be vigilant about. Bad behaviour and bullying and harassing behaviour is often learned. It comes from a culture at the top.”

However, she prefers education rather than shaming those who engage in such behaviour. “I don’t think you ever get significant behavioural change from shaming. It actually makes things become subverted, it isolates the individual rather than brings them in to change. We have to have conversations which educate, that allow the culture to change and help people regulate their behaviour with the support structures of the tribe.” 

She is also adamant that despite the smears cast on the legal profession by the Lawyer X scandal, the vast majority of lawyers are conscientious and ethical. “The reality is most lawyers support and act in the interests of their clients every working day. They act as fiduciaries and officers of the court and take those duties seriously. 

“We’re talking about one glaring exception, relative to the fact there are more than 19,000 lawyers working for their clients and for the proper administration of justice, and who hold the ethics that are part of our profession dear to their heart.” 

While acknowledging work may be needed to regain public trust in the profession, she believes 2021 should be focused on the profession returning to a “new normal” as the spectre of COVID-19 fades. 

“As a legal community we’re rethinking what it is to be lawyers. This process started before COVID with disruptive technologies and the challenges that poses to legal practice and business practice generally.”

Positive changes forced by the pandemic should be retained after it is over, she says, among them the fast tracking of technological changes that have enabled practitioners to keep working and servicing their clients despite the lockdown. 

Flexible working is another positive development that will pose its own challenges post-pandemic, she says. “How are we going to maintain the ability to work collaboratively and be connected with each other and manage this different way of working?” 

The role of the LIV will be to continue to help its members recover from a time of unprecedented upheaval, she says. “As an organisation we need to keep speaking to government and to the courts and others in the profession to make sure we are doing everything we can to facilitate that.”

“We’ve got real challenges, but real opportunities this year and I’m excited about that. I do sense a bit of a shift - an openness and a readiness in our community to look at things a little bit differently – because things that we thought were certain are no longer so certain. I think there’s an opportunity for new and challenging thoughts.” ■


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