Johanna Byrne
04 April 2017

Widowed mum of seven, florist, becomes National Indigenous Law Student of the Year

Published on 04 April 2017

Johanna Byrne is as remarkable as she is humble. Studying law as a mother of seven, widowed during the course of her degree, Johanna had many reasons to reconsider continuing with her studies. However, she made the decision to continue on with her studies and is now completing practical legal training with the College of Law. She spoke to Insights about what attracted her to law, what kept her motivated, and how she stayed on top of her studies while working full-time and raising a family. 

“I started studying law when my eldest son, who has an intellectual disability, got into trouble,” said Byrne. “I wanted him to be put under s 32 of the Mental Health (Forensics Provisions) Act 1990 NSW. However, I initially could not find a solicitor who knew about s 32, or who was willing to run an application given the extra work that was involved in dealing with the reports, etc.”

Johanna did eventually find a solicitor –on the condition she agreed to collect all relevant information, and do all the work to build the case. She did. Johanna impressed the solicitor enough for him to encourage her to enrol in law.

“I enrolled in 2014 at Southern Cross University as an undergraduate. I finished in February 2017 with honours,” said Johanna.

“On a day-to-day level it was not easy,” noted Johanna. Discipline and time management were essential. “I would study at night when the kids went to bed (usually from 9pm to 1am – 2am). On the weekends, I would take the kids to the beach or to the park, and bring along my laptop and text books and study.”

“I read a lot – on the train on the way to work and home from work. I got assignments done as early as I could so I wouldn’t be rushed at the last moment.”

Online study helped, allowing her to listen to lectures and participate in ‘Collaborates’, a web-based version of tutorials, supplemented by some compulsory-attendance workshops. During the busiest periods – honours and exams – all-nighters were frequent.

“It all worked for me because I didn’t want to upset the routine for the kids, and so I worked as much as possible when they were in school or in bed. My two girls, Maddy, 18, and Courtney, 16, have been fantastic support. They help get the two younger boys, aged 10 and 8, to school. I leave the house for work at 7am most mornings and do not get home until 6pm.”

As well as the help she received from daughters, Johanna credits the convenience of online study for seeing her through law.

“While there are some who say online study may not be as good as being an internal student, I don’t think it is any different,” said Johanna. “I would sit in my lounge room and listen to recorded lectures at night or on the weekend; I sat my exams at the same time as internal students via my university’s local exam centre.”

Logistics aside, Johanna’s efforts reflect a rare tenacity, driven fundamentally by her belief in what law can achieve.

“You can make a change, even if only small,” said Johanna. “If you can help one person make a positive change in their life, then it is all worth it.”

“The improvement in my results each session was very rewarding,” she said. “I began to realise that I could really do this; I might be able to achieve my ultimate goal of helping people overlooked in the system – particularly in the area of criminal law.”

Johanna Byrne’s journey has been nothing short of extraordinary. When her husband, Jamie, passed away suddenly, she pushed on to complete her subjects for the session. Once done, she moved to Perth, a place to which she had never been before. Family and furniture were loaded into a car and trailer and she drove over 4,000 kilometres to start a new life. She went from one side Australia where her old life was – 16 years as a florist, mother and wife – to start a new life.

Since then, she has been named National Indigenous Law Student of the Year and landed a graduate role at downtown Perth law firm, Lavan.

“You’re never too old to chase your dreams,” Johanna said. “The younger boys keep saying, ‘Mum, you are nearly a real lawyer!’”

“You have to be a good time manager, and you have to be prepared to put in some hard yards to achieve success. But if it is what you really want, then go for it. Take a risk. Live your dream. Make a difference.

“If I can do it, so can you.”