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Commissioner aims to be good cop

Commissioner aims to be good cop

By Karin Derkley

Legal Biography Legal Services 


The new Legal Services Commissioner Fiona McLeay believes her role as regulator includes standing up for the profession as well as policing it.

New Legal Services Commissioner Fiona McLeay says she genuinely likes lawyers. “I’m a fan of the profession. I like spending time with lawyers. I have always found them to be fascinating and intelligent people who genuinely want to help and make things better.”

But after eight years of seeing the best of the legal profession as the CEO of Justice Connect, and before that the Public Interest Clearing House, she’s about to see lawyers’ darker side as she becomes the legal profession’s top cop.

She doesn’t quite see it that way herself. As the new Legal Services Commissioner and the CEO of the Legal Services Board, she believes her role as a regulator is not so much to police the profession, but to support it to be the best it can be.

“There is a policing element,” she says, “but that’s not the entirety of the role.

“I see this new role as an extension of what has always been my passion, the role of lawyers in making the world we live in work well.”

Still it’s a big shift from Justice Connect where she’s seen busy solicitors and sought after barristers ready to drop everything at a moment’s notice to help out with a desperate legal case.

There are far more good lawyers than bad, she says, and sees her new role as defending their reputation. “I think there is a role for the regulator to articulate why the sector is important and the value that it adds.”

She has a positive model for what a regulator can be in her work as deputy chair of the advisory board to the Australian Charities and Not For Profit Commission for the past five years, where she says one of the aims was to build trust in the charitable sector.

“Building the confidence of the public in the sector that you are regulating is a pretty good thing for any regulator to be doing.”

When lawyers go wrong, she plans to follow in the footsteps of her predecessor Michael McGarvie’s “proportionate and efficient” approach. “The heavy handed approach is not productive, doesn’t produce change or build confidence in the system.

“I want to continue the work of identifying where lawyers are getting into trouble and why. It’s as much about education and support as penalties.”

Ms McLeay’s optimistic view of lawyers is borne of her experience across a wide-ranging career in the profession. She originally had no intention of studying law, until a teacher urged her to add it as a second string to her arts degree. “I didn’t love it initially but then realised law could be an instrument of social justice.”

Her dream of getting a job in a community legal centre was stymied when she joined a glut of other law graduates, and ended up instead at Clayton Utz as a construction and engineering dispute resolution lawyer. “I went there thinking it would be a stepping stone to going to work at Legal Aid eventually, but I ended up staying because it was more interesting than I had expected and I got to work with interesting smart people who were willing to do their bit to make law accessible to everyone.”

That preparedness to help make justice fair and equitable is something she says is found right across the profession. “I could count on the fingers of one hand the lawyers who didn’t have some version of: ‘I went to law school because I wanted to help people’.”

At Clayton Utz Ms McLeay ended up running the firm’s pro bono and workplace giving program, before going to work as general counsel at World Vision and then taking up the role of executive director at PILCH (Public Interest Law Clearing House).

Four and a half years ago, PILCH was reborn as Justice Connect and Ms McLeay became CEO of both the Melbourne and Sydney offices, taking the organisation from 25 people and a $2.5 million budget to 65 staff and a $7 million budget across both cities, as well as in federal courts across four states.

Under her leadership the organisation has pioneered a number of innovative programs to meet unmet legal need, including health justice partnerships, homelessness lawyers, the Human Rights Legal Centre, Not For Profit Law and the Legal Help Gateway.

Becoming Legal Services Commissioner seems yet another right hand turn, but Ms McLeay believes there’s no inconsistency – especially given the other part of her role as the CEO of the LSB. She is responsible for helping distribute the public purpose funds the LSB grants to entities across the profession, including the LIV but also the many other legal education, legal research, law reform and access to justice organisations that rely on such funding.

It’s this aspect of her new job that she says was intriguing enough to draw her away from her beloved Justice Connect after eight years. She’s also interested in using her new role to look at the changes impacting the profession in recent years – disruption from technology and mental health of practitioners.

“The profession is undergoing significant change at the moment, and the question intrigues me as to what kind of regulator do you need to be when you’re regulating a sector that is under pressure.”

She won’t be drawn on the varied regulatory regimes in Australia, or the fact that regulating the profession in Victoria has been said to cost nearly 60 per cent more than in NSW. At the time of interview she had yet to start in the role and says it’s not appropriate for her to comment on that level of detail. But like most newcomers to a role, she is keen to communicate with the profession as well as consumers, and says it’s important to be open and accessible. “I’ll be doing a lot of listening,” she says.

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