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On the job in environmental and planning law
Jennifer Hughes studies Bachelor of Science / Bachelor of Laws at University of Sydney and now is a partner at Baker McKenzie.
What’s your role?
I’m a partner at Baker McKenzie, where I lead the national Environment and Planning division of the Environmental Markets team. I’ve been a partner for four years and was previously a special counsel.
Where did you study?
I completed a combined degree at the University of Sydney that comprised a Bachelor of Science, majoring in ecology and genetics, and a Bachelor of Laws.
What attracted you to those fields of study?
I loved science at school, and I always received my best marks in science and maths, so it’s been a passion of mine for a long time. I chose biology out of interest and genetics because it drew upon the mathematical part of my mind.
My love of law developed during high school, at Loretto Girls, when I had the opportunity to enter a mock trial competition. Law wasn’t on my radar at the time - there were no lawyers in my family and I didn’t know much more than I’d learned from television. So I entered the mock trial competition on a whim and, coached by a really great barrister, my team actually won the grand final.
What was your first job after graduating?
I got a job in a small law firm called Bamford Terrett. It was really interesting. There were just four us: two partners, a mid-level lawyer, and me. The clients were fantastic, and our focus was primarily on intellectual property suits.
How did you end up in environmental law?
I knew that I wanted to put my science skills to use, and it felt like the best way to do so would be through pursuing a career in intellectual property or environmental law. So I found a directory of lawyers and contacted everybody who worked in those areas. That’s how I got my first job at Bamford Terrett. However, after about eighteen months, I decided that I wanted to focus more on the environment, so I moved to a firm called Phillip Fox (now DLA Piper) and then to Baker Mckenzie.
What does your current role involve?
My practice is broken into three areas. First, we do a lot of planning work, which involves advising developers and companies on how to navigate the planning process to either build new facilities or change processes at existing facilities. Second, we advise several global corporations with a presence in Australia on how to comply with various environmental regulations. Third, we assist companies when something goes wrong at a facility and they require representation. I’d say that we spend about ten percent of our time litigating, which involves making development applications and defending clients.
What’s the most challenging thing about your current role?
Well, I work part-time, which brings with it some challenges. However, my eldest boy is fourteen, so I’ve been working part-time for about fourteen years, and I like to think that I’ve got it down pat. I choose to work from home occasionally, because it makes things easier, and I take advantage of periods when work slows down a bit.
What’s the most rewarding aspect of your role?
I love it when clients come to me with a really tricky problem that requires me to sit down and think creatively until I’ve come up with a solution. In environmental law, we have the added satisfaction of doing work that’s good for the planet, good for the environment, and good for generations to come.
Do you have advice for graduates who are worried about the workload?
Partners probably worry as much about time and task management as graduates – after all, we don’t want to see our staff members burning out or feeling overwhelmed. So it’s really important that graduates develop a good relationship with their colleagues so that they can speak candidly if they do start feeling burnt out.
Which personal qualities are required for success in your position?
You need good problem solving skills, a good technical understanding of the law, and attention to detail. The people who end up doing really well are also proactive, confident in sharing ideas, and committed to being team players.
Do you have any advice for current law students?
- Don’t specialise to soon. Environmental lawyers need to understand property and commercial law for example. Experience in these areas is really valuable and will make you a better lawyer in the end.
- Be persistent. Your chosen area might be hard to break into. Explore alternative options to get there by different means. A non-legal job in a similar field or in government might give you valuable experience and get you there via a different route.
- Be flexible. We’ve seen many lawyers do a rotation through an area they didn’t think they would like, only to find that they love it and they stay!!
Learn more about working in this field, jump to Environmental and planning law overview.