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This year has been a challenging one and Lauren Davies has taken it head on. In March, she commenced her new job as a paralegal/graduate lawyer at the National Justice Project (NJP), right at the start of the COVID-19 lockdown in Australia.

Unlike many organisations, the NJP has found its profile expanding during the pandemic. The not-for-profit legal service works in the area of human rights, with a particular focus on issues such as First Nations deaths in custody, refugees and asylum seekers in detention and First Nations justice health. Lauren says her appointment coincided with the global rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, leading to increased support for the NJP. 

Needing to hit the ground running wasn’t too much of a stretch for the lawyer, given her biggest challenge is often in switching off. Lauren has found that while working from home this year her drive to help NJP’s clients can sometimes mean looking after herself takes a backseat. “Given we’re a charity, it can be difficult to prioritise your mental health because there is so much urgency in the work, so you think, ‘what’s another hour?’ And so your boundaries get blurred because you want to do better for the client.” 

She says she’s learning to redress the balance a little and is now going into the office more often to ensure a physical separation between work and home life. Emotional separation is harder though. Lauren hasn’t directly experienced the death of a friend or loved one in custody, but the impacts of these cases do weigh on her. “I’ve been confronted consistently and constantly by the ongoing oppression that our people have been facing since colonisation,” she says. “And then I go home and it’s all over social media. It does have a vicarious effect on me.” While frequently describing herself as ‘fortunate’ and ‘lucky’ regarding her own experiences through a legal career and the mentors she has known, Lauren still admits to feeling almost overwhelmed by the enormity of the work that needs to be done. “At times, you just think, ‘What can I do?’ It’s exhausting.”

Lauren is cautious to speak in detail about her experience with First Nations deaths in custody and the inequity endemic in the justice system for First Nations peoples as she has concerns about “overshadowing what other families are going through”. 

“Their pain, their grief and their anger is justified,” she says. “And I feel some of those emotions, but the families’ voices are the ones who need to be heard, but who aren’t being heard.”

This is where her legal training is the one true positive, she believes. Being able to understand the way in which a system is oppressive and, most importantly, how to change that is what fires her. “The reason I have been blurring those boundaries and working until late in the evening is because I want to see change. I want to ensure these violent acts stop happening to my people.”

It’s clearly an area of frustration for her and many others that in the 30 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and the various inquiries, so many recommendations and policies regarding how to effect positive change are still not being implemented. “You ask yourself, ‘Why aren’t they?’… the change needs to happen and the only people who can really understand those lived experiences are the people who are living them. You can argue that those conversations haven’t been had with the First Nations communities on a fair and respectful ground.”

Keeping her going are the wins – both big and small. Winning a settlement or a court matter is on the greater scale, but Lauren’s first definition of a successful day is a positive story from a client. It could be something as a seemingly minor text from a proud mother about her son’s achievements. “It brings a smile to your face,” she says. “It’s incredible. When you know the racism and trauma their families had to and continue to endure.

“Our clients are the reason I continue to want to do the work that I do. Their successes are the driving force. My work only exists as a result of our clients’ lived experiences of racism and injustice, so for me my success will always be measured by the clients and communities I work for.”

Maternal motivation

Lauren credits much of her personal success to date, along with her formidable work ethic, to her mother, a single parent who had three jobs, but did everything possible to ensure university was an option for her children. Born in Sydney, Lauren grew up in the pretty seaside resort of Ulladulla, 250 kilometres south of the NSW capital. Charming it may have been, but Ulladulla was not exactly known for its diversity. A Gomeroi-Ngarabal woman, Lauren says, “My father is black, so my identity was obviously confusing growing up with just my white mother, she was aware that just because of the colour of my skin and the fact that I was coming from a single parent home, the statistics were against me and my brother.”

For a while, she thought that sport could be her outlet and future, with swimming, water polo, touch football, Oztag (the non-contact version of rugby league) and netball her favourites. Unfortunately, the latter resulted in an injury and knee reconstruction, so she needed to consider an alternative career. An interest in TV crime shows and an early entry program at Macquarie University saw her quickly move from international studies to arts/criminology and law. 

This in turn led to a cadet role in the Police Accountability Practice at Redfern Legal Centre and an internship at Herbert Smith Freehills. She was drawn to the firm for two reasons. First, she was aware of its status as a global leader. “If I’m going to be the best, I need to learn from the best,” she says. But she was also impressed by its commitment to CareerTracker internships. “Representation within an organisation is incredibly important and I haven’t always had that,” she says. “Knowing that Herbert Smith Freehills was open to the idea of encouraging and supporting Black students was something that I was really interested in and really admired.”

During her time with the firm she gained valuable networks, experience and knowledge, including transferable skills in subjects such as research and contracts. It also helped her realise that her interests lay in the area of social justice rather than corporate law. During her internship, she worked at Shopfront, which Herbert Smith Freehills operates with The Salvation Army and Mission Australia, to provide free legal assistance to homeless youth in inner city Sydney.

Her experiences there and at the Redfern Legal Centre were compounded by volunteering at the NJP before taking up the full-time role this year. And all of this was achieved while still studying for her degree. When asked about the best piece of advice she has been given so far, Lauren believes it was being told not to rush her time at university. She took seven years to complete her studies, travelling frequently to a range of countries, including Cuba, Mexico and Nepal.

She says she’d encourage everyone to do the same, as well as taking a gap year before university. “Because you sometimes don’t know what you want to do at high school and you need that break to find out who you are and what you want to do.”

As for the future, she acknowledges that there may come a time when she considers becoming a magistrate, judge or barrister, but she’s in no hurry. “I’m someone who really just wants to do the best I can do in the current space as a solicitor; that’s where my passion is at the moment.” And while the work at NJP can be confronting, it remains something that is vitally important to her personally. “To say that I can distance myself from these issues is just not true,” she says. “I can’t walk into a room and people not know my identity. It’s written on my skin.”