Carmel Lee
07 March 2018

Pathway to the Bar: Interview with Carmel Lee

Published on 07 March 2018
Carmel Lee knew she wanted to become a barrister before she studied law. Now a barrister with a thriving practice encompassing equity, commercial, public law and human rights, Carmel has reason to be proud of what she has achieved, though it was a career path that required planning. Insights spoke to Carmel about what inspired her to go to the bar, what she enjoys most about being a barrister, and what advice she might have for those who aspire to her role.

“I enjoyed advocacy. Throughout university and high school, I was heavily involved in mooting and debating. Following some years in practice, my reasons for joining the bar developed. I realised I wanted to be at the ‘coal face’ of litigation. I wanted to develop strategy for litigation and be able to make decisions around how a matter should be run, as well as forming the most efficient and cost effective ways to achieve the best outcome for my clients.

“The bar also offers practitioners a unique opportunity to actively participate in development and changes in law, which I found attractive.  It is a profession that requires one to keep learning and to stay up to date with developments in the law and to advise on those changes.”

The freedom to accept and pursue work that interested Carmel – both personally and professionally – attracted her to the bar.

“I enjoy the independence of the bar and the variety of work that I am exposed to. I am able to work with a variety of instructing solicitors and clients and I enjoy the challenge and responsibility which all counsel have in running litigation and during oral advocacy. This can make the job quite stressful at times, especially if and when matters do not go according to plan, however you certainly don’t get bored in this role!”

Carmel’s favourite matters are often those that challenge her to think outside the box. 

“This could be dealing with multiple jurisdictions in a conflict of laws matter, or finding the best way to resolve a complex dispute between family members regarding equitable interests in land.”

One challenge Carmel encountered early in practice was striking a balance between her commercial and pro-bono practices. 

“I was inspired to develop a practice in public interest and human rights litigation due to the significant contribution made to these areas by colleagues, including those at the commercial bar. In Australia, work in these fields is generally undertaken on a pro-bono basis. I sometimes found it difficult to say ‘no’ to some work, especially in my first year. This is a challenge that many barristers face as a barrister’s practice is both a profession and a small business. I now have a successful commercial practice that incorporates and allows me to pursue public interest work, but there was a learning curve.”

For those considering the bar, Carmel advises planning ahead.

“Have at least a few years in practice prior to coming to the bar. Starting a practice at the bar is akin to starting any small business, and it helps to have some experience in the industry prior to ‘going it alone.’ Finances should not be a barrier. That said, the venture to the bar should be planned, as you are effectively starting a small business. Prior to coming to the bar, I wrote a business plan, and I’m glad I did so. You could consider relevant questions to the career move. What resources – both in savings and in workflow – do you have available to get through the first couple of years? What strategies will you have to overcome or avoid obstacles in your career? It is also possible (and advisable!) to keep your overheads low in the first few years. For example, some floors, such as Greenway Chambers, offer accommodation to readers in their first year at the bar at no cost. This can equate to a saving of thousands of dollars.

“Planning and going to the bar can take a couple of years. Some floors select readers 18 months in advance. This means the first step in planning could be finding the floor you want to read at. Talk to the floors that interest you, including speaking to members of the floor and the clerk to determine what their readership arrangements are and what the floor is like. Don’t be afraid to seek advice and ask questions! This will help you to determine what areas you want to practise in, what chambers you wish to practise from and who you want to read with. A chambers will also be attracted to a candidate who can demonstrate a clear and realistic vision for their practice.”

Recently, Carmel has often found herself asked what advice she would give female lawyers wanting to go to the bar. 

“I tend not to give gendered advice to those wanting to go to the bar. Like many women at the bar, I don’t see myself as a “female barrister”, I see myself simply as a barrister. During my time at the bar I have had great support from both female and male mentors who want to see more women join the bar, so whilst I am flattered that I’m frequently asked to be a mentor to those looking to join the bar (and happy to do so), by no means are women limited to only seeking advice from a female mentor or from the formal and informal networks of support offered by other women.

“Further, I don’t think discussing the challenges of a work/life or family/work balance for barristers always in the context of women at the bar assists the profession to change the outdated stereotypes of women in the law. Ultimately the challenges of juggling a practice with family commitments and the advantage of having a supportive partner whilst doing so is a parental and small business issue that is an issue for all barristers, not a ‘women’s issue’.”