Gratitude led to giving back
(Words by Jerome Doraisamy, photograph by David Field)
While the United Kingdom is as much a melting pot of culture and race as Australia, the disparity in living conditions for our indigenous populations versus that of urban dwellers was a stark reality that spurred Brooke Massender’s desire to do more to address societal inequity.
This drive was coupled with a sense of gratitude, as an economic migrant from Britain, for her fortune to have access to the opportunities that came with such standing.
“I think I felt more conscious than ever of inequalities – here I was arriving in this country where there were these people who had been in Australia all along, who hadn’t had access to some of those opportunities, and that really sharpened my focus on what I could do personally, through the networks and connections I had in my firm, and in the sector,” she said.
“It took me a while to orient that to be my full-time career, following my time as a disputes lawyer who was interested in pro bono matters – there was just a sense that I couldn’t just come here and take this opportunity, there had to be more even balance to the society.”
That realisation has since turned into expertise for Massender, who saw it as an area where her firm, Herbert Smith Freehills, could make a tangible difference.
One big step forward was to develop a reconciliation action plan and formalise accountability and targets, to strengthen the framework of such pro bono projects, which took the firm’s commitment to another level.
As a result, rural individuals started seeing them as lawyers who were willing to roll up their sleeves and actually help, rather than as just part of the system. The willingness to partner with clients and advocate for them was an unusual experience for the communities, she noted.
“I think they felt that their experiences were validated and respected, and that was far more important than any financial aspect of the process to most of the clients,” she explained.
This was a crucial learning curve, she said: to put the relationship first and legal work second, as it allows the lawyer to act with trust and integrity in the process.
“I’m really proud that the firm and the people who work here have made a genuinely transformational impact on the clients, whether it is through a case or a project,” she said.
“In all of those instances, it’s been because we’ve taken the time to really listen to the client, to their needs, whether it’s an individual or a charity or a community legal centre, and to then partner with them in a way where we’re always learning and evolving.”
As a result of her efforts, and those of others, work in indigenous Australian communities has become one of the more visible projects of Freehills’ pro bono operations.
This is aided, she commented, by the “formality” around the reconciliation debate in Australia, and subsequent accountability that comes with such a prominent broader issue. But the unyielding passion for those issues, being driven by lawyers like Massender, has proved significant.
It’s an area of law she didn’t see herself in, but six years on, she can’t see herself anywhere else. And she is happy going on the journey with what has become as aspect of her life that brings tremendous purpose, just as her partner, son and beloved Sydney Swans do.
“Because I sort of fell into what I do, I never had a plan that got me this far, so I don’t intend to plan from here,” she reflected.
“I think I’ll just try to be open to possibilities and opportunities – certainly there’s a lot of work to do exactly where I am, in terms of building the global pro bono picture, so there’s plenty on my plate to look forward to.”
Brooke Massender is the head of pro bono and citizenship for Herbert Smith Freehills in Australia and Asia. In 2016 she was a finalist in the Partner of the Year – Pro Bono category for the Lawyers Weekly Awards.