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The Secret Lives of Lawyers: Interview with Sarah Zeleznikow, Graduate Lawyer

Sarah Zeleznikow

Law is undoubtedly a demanding career path, and having a hobby outside of work or study is essential to maintaining a sense of balance. For Sarah Zeleznikow, a graduate lawyer, that outlet is singing opera and performing in musical theatre.

Like so many others, Zeleznikow’s love of music started young: “I’ve always loved performing, ever since I was a two year old. My family had real issues at dinner parties because I would just stand up and start performing,” she laughs. In high school she began singing lessons and participating in choirs and school musicals. It was also when Zeleznikow first discovered opera. “My grandparents took me to my first opera when I was in year eight and I just immediately fell in love with it. As soon as I started singing lessons I began singing classical music and that turned into singing opera when my voice got mature enough that that was a possibility.”

Continuing her involvement in musical activities throughout high school, Zeleznikow says choosing her post-schooling path was not easy. “I had a very difficult decision at the end of year 12 as to whether I was going to go into music or not,” she recalls. On the basis that she would have to wait until her late 20s or early 30s when her voice would mature before she could really make a career out of opera, Zeleznikow decided to first enroll in an arts degree at Melbourne University, leaving open the option of becoming an opera singer once she had completed her tertiary education.

A year later she transferred into law and discovered a new passion. “I remember sitting in principles of public law and learning about the Australian legal system, and about the High Court and thinking, ‘this is the absolute coolest thing ever,’ which is a really nerdy thing to say but I did actually think that. So there was never any doubt after the second or third week of law school that law was definitely what I wanted to do.”

Despite the new career direction Zeleznikow continued her singing lessons and performing in shows throughout her degree. Her advice to law students is to ensure that you make time for your interests outside your degree. “The study of law can be all-consuming and there’s a lot of pressure on students to spend every spare minute of the day studying, but I think you get a lot more out of uni, and you come out of uni a much more balanced person, if you try to maintain the things that you love outside the law.”

Now a graduate lawyer at Mallesons Stephen Jaques in Melbourne, Zeleznikow is enjoying her role, completing her first rotation in the firm’s property group and now working in dispute resolution. One of her highlights at the firm to date has been attending a special leave application at the High Court. “Even though we weren’t successful in the application it was a pretty fantastic experience, and everybody thought it was very sweet that I was as excited as I was, despite having lost.”

Despite the excitement of her new career, Zeleznikow continues to make time for regular singing lessons. “It always provides me with 45 minutes or an hour where I’m doing something completely different to what I do in my day job,” she says, adding that the hobby has taught her many skills that assisted her in competitions at law school, and now as a lawyer. “I think that being confident, being able to perform in front of people… thinking about things in creative ways and not necessarily getting stuck in the same thought process over and over again are all useful things that I’ve learnt through performing.”

Although her love for music remains unchanged, these days Zeleznikow’s career aspirations are squarely focused on the law. “I think in the very unlikely event that I’m doing a show and the director of La Scala or Covent Garden sees me, says I’m amazing and wants to whisk me off to London or Milan, I probably couldn’t say no,” she laughs.

“I’m really happy practicing law and I think that you’re in such a privileged position to have a law degree and to be able to use it to achieve good in the world. I love the law, and I can’t imagine not being a lawyer.”

To students considering a career in private practice, Zeleznikow says, “I’ve found that law firms are incredibly supportive of people who keep up non-legal activities outside of work.”

“I think the main pressure on students to give up things they love is often internal pressure. It’s a great idea to try to maintain those sorts of activities because ultimately they’re the things that make you happy and make you a well-rounded person.”

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