NSW Law Society President is one of our own

NSW Law Society President is one of our own

Q and A with NSW Law Society President and UOW Alumna

Born in Wollongong, Elizabeth Espinosa is the first graduate from the University of Wollongong to hold the position of President of the Law Society of NSW and the first member of her family to practise as a lawyer. Elizabeth took up the role in January 2019. As her one-year term draws to a close, Ms Espinosa has reflected on her time in the top job.

When did you graduate from UOW? Can you tell me about how your time at University shaped your career?

“My high school, St Mary’s at Wollongong, offered lunch time meetings for any senior student who expressed an interest in applying for law. I remember my Dad’s words, ‘If you want something you have to work for it’ so I did. I set myself the goal and to this day I can still remember my excitement at learning that UOW was offering me a place.

“Ultimately, I wanted to pursue a career path that would allow me to influence society for the better. I believed then, as I believe now, that you can’t improve the world without being involved and being an agent of influence. My parents taught me this.

“Once at Uni, I joined the Law Students’ Society during orientation and within two years I was representing the UOW Law School at Australasian Law Students Association conferences in Perth and New Zealand. I very quickly understood the value of lawyers across regions and countries sharing knowledge and experience and committing solidarity for the legal profession and our collective commitment to the rule of law.

“The University of Wollongong had a huge role in shaping my career as a lawyer. I often reflect on the many teaching staff who contributed to my legal education and who have continued to support generations of young law students to become solicitors. 

“While there are simply too many to name it would be remiss of me not to mention the late Judge Jack Goldring, the founding Dean of the Faculty of Law.  Jack, to anyone who knew him, had a great intellect and was passionate about social justice and law reform. His vision for law students was broad, inclusive and inspiring. Jack understood that as a profession, solicitors do not sit back, observe, and become mere critics. We get involved; in representing our clients, in protecting the rule of law, and in promoting access to justice.  Jack perpetuated the critical thinking instilled in me at St Mary’s. His connection with the practising legal profession was also invaluable for the burgeoning law school.”

What words of advice would you pass on to students, who are looking to follow in your footsteps and have a significant influence on legal networks?

“When you are admitted as a solicitor and you receive that practising certificate, value it and be proud of it. You are now a life-long learner. Value the knowledge and experience of others while remaining critical thinkers. 

“And, if you want to improve other people’s lives, and your own life, don’t sit on the sideline as an observer and critic.  You have to get in there and get involved. If you want something you can achieve it by working hard.”

Elizabeth with UOW Alumni and Professor Trish Mundy at a NSW Law Society dinner.

Can you tell me what you’ve enjoyed most about your role as president?

“It’s been rewarding meeting with so many hard-working solicitors around the state this year - from Ballina to Newcastle, Wollongong to Wagga Wagga, Parramatta to the Shire, and Dubbo to the Sydney CBD. A particular highlight was participating in the Society’s Regional Roadshows in Newcastle, Wollongong, Dubbo and Byron Bay with more than 300 solicitors.  During the many and varied discussions that I’ve had with solicitors what has struck me is that no matter where they work, the size of the firm or the type of law they practise – they all understand their position as a trusted adviser to their clients, their obligation to be of service to the community and their commitment to the rule of law. 

“In every region that I visited this year I also took the opportunity to meet with the local Community Legal Centre Principle Solicitor and Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service team to personally thank them for their passion and unrelenting dedication to supporting women to navigate through the administration of justice within the context of domestic violence. 

 “On a personal level, it was a joy to have my 90-year old father in the audience when I delivered my Opening of Law Term speech at Parliament House in Sydney –  to see him sitting there, along with my husband and children, his eyes welling with tears and a look of pride on his face is a moment I will always treasure.” 

What is your most proud achievement with the law society?

“I am proud to say this year, as in previous years, the Law Society has continued to serve the rights of the entire community and we have made advances in defending the rights of all, including securing an additional $88 million funding for legal aid.

“As President, I have sought to promote and celebrate lawyers in all their difference, knowing that we all unite under the same banner; defending the rights of all. My agenda has been guided by the desire to see more people of diverse backgrounds, whether it’s diversity of ethnic background, practice area, courtroom role, age and experience, or gender, thriving and succeeding in our profession. 

“I’m particularly proud of the Law Society’s efforts to raise awareness among the legal professional about the role of respect in preventing violence against women. I nominated the national domestic violence charity Our Watch as the 2019 President’s Charity this year because their message, “Doing nothing does harm” resonated with me. Our Watch, which stands for our women and their children, seeks to correct the abusive power imbalance that can develop at home, which leads to cycles of violence.”

You mentioned Indigenous justice, and the over-representation of Indigenous people in our criminal justice system as a major issue. Do you think there’s a need for more Indigenous lawyers in our community?

“The rate of Indigenous incarceration in Australia is shameful. Indigenous people make up only 2.9 per percent of the population in NSW, but 24.2 per cent of the NSW adult prison population. Between 2001 and 2015, the number of Indigenous Australians in NSW prisons more than doubled -  due to a combination of tougher sentencing and tougher law enforcement. What’s also concerning is the high number of Indigenous women in our state’s prisons and the fact that 80% of Indigenous women prisoners are mothers. More so when we know that the incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mothers is a key driver in the removal of Indigenous children from their homes.

“This year, the Law Society backed calls for a coordinated national response from Commonwealth, State and Territory Governments to address the over-representation of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system. This issue requires a coordinated, intergovernmental response backed by additional funding and underpinned with Indigenous community empowerment and principles of self-determination.    

“Unfortunately, indigenous lawyers are also under-represented in our justice system, in all Australian states and territories. Part of the remit of the Law Society’s Reconciliation Plan is to create and provide opportunities for Indigenous law students; lawyers; non-lawyers working in the legal context; and Indigenous enterprise. I believe, this also includes finding ways to provide support and a structured career path for Indigenous school students - so that they finish their HSC, succeed in their chosen career and become role models in their communities.”

Do you think you’ve been effective in lobbying government?

“The Law Society has campaigned vigorously for additional court resources to clear the ongoing delays and backlog of cases which are impacting victims, witnesses and the accused. The NSW Government’s announcement of a $148 million funding boost for the District Court during the reporting period, which included the appointment of seven extra District Court judges, was greatly received, and will do much to cut through the backlog and bring about faster trials. While the Law Society cannot take full credit for this funding, I believe our lobbying efforts on this front have played a part in obtaining these extra resources.

“Delays in our courts has been another key priority. This year we also welcomed news that the Chief Judge of the District Court, the Honourable Justice Derek Price AM will carry out a review of case management and jury processes, to reduce delays in criminal proceedings in the District and Supreme Courts. 

“The issue of adequate remuneration for private practitioners undertaking legally aided work in our state has been an ongoing concern. Private practitioners now undertake 70 per cent of legally aided matters and in regional areas that figure jumps to 80%. For more than a decade, the current rates and fee structures have not adequately reflected the time, effort and often long distances travelled to undertake legal aid matters. Many have been working unpaid hours to keep the system going. 

“As you can imagine, I was extremely pleased when the Attorney General recently announced an $88 million funding package for legal aid earlier this month. The package is a step in the right direction and will fund structural changes to pre-trial payments and hourly rates including an increase in travel allowances for practitioners driving long distances to court in regional areas. While the funding is welcomed it will only go some way to easing the demands on the system and so we have joined the NSW Attorney General in calling on the Federal Government to match these funding increases. In the meantime, we look forward to working with the NSW Government to ensure the legal aid package benefits those most in need.”

What are you working on now, that will be continued in future years?

“Providing solicitors with the resources, information and support to adapt to the technology and innovation that is transforming the legal profession and the way we provide legal services is something that will continue well into the future.  Our work in this area, known as Future of Law and Innovation in the Profession began back in 2016 with a groundbreaking report. Continuing the work of implementing the recommendations from that report this year has been incredibly rewarding – not only in terms of the support it has provided to our solicitors in helping them to future-proof their practice, but the capacity it has to help them deliver better and more cost-efficient services to their clients. It’s certainly been a huge year in this space, and I can certainly see this continuing well into 2020 and beyond.”