A Life in Community Law: Interview with Susan Bothmann
Susan Bothmann is a key figure in the development of Community Legal Centres (CLCs) in Australia. She started as a volunteer at Fitzroy Legal Service and then went on to work for the Aboriginal Legal Service, Prisoners’ Legal Service and Public Interest Advocacy Centre. She is currently on the Mental Health Review Tribunal and assesses offshore refugee applications as an Independent Merits Reviewer.
I recently spoke with Susan about her career and learned that despite her impressive resume, she remains incredibly down to Earth.
What do you love most about your work?
I continue to enjoy the feeling of helping others. It may sound clichéd, but I have always valued the feeling of going off to work with and fulfilling an objective that might benefit someone else… I believe our legal system is generally a good one but it needs vigilance to keep it that way. I have always been passionate about justice.
How did you become involved in the community legal scene? Did you ever consider a career in private law?
When I was living in Sydney, completing my law degree, I was a fish out of water. Then, it was the only law school in New South Wales, and there were not many women doing law. I arrived there on my 450 Honda with my bell helmet and leather coat in hand and felt like I was from another planet.
I learnt about the community schools movement that started in Victoria, which was part of the ground swell of new ideas at that time. I was already a rampant feminist. Joining the people who set up the Fitzroy Legal Service was like finding my natural home.
I have worked in private practice and had my own legal firm for many years in Vanuatu, but I’ve always been too counter-culture to join the commercial lawyers.
How did you manage to balance your many professional commitments with your personal ambitions? Is there any specific advice you would offer to students and young lawyers about maintaining a balanced life?
In Sydney in the 80s, when we were setting up the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, someone asked me what my hobbies were. I thought about it and discovered I had none. I had devoted myself exclusively to my work.
Vanuatu was my sea-change before they became ‘fashionable’. Some people thought I was mad. I have contemporaries who followed a ‘normal’ career path and are now high fliers in lots of fields of law and otherwise. I do not regret the diversity I have experienced in my life from having made ‘mad’ decisions.
My advice is: do what interests you most, take chances, have courage and don’t look back. We don’t actually make mistakes in our lives; we make choices. I have always happily lived with mine.
You first became involved in CLCs at a time when access to the law was difficult for many. Has this improved, and do you think more should be done to raise the public profile of CLCs?
I’m not so bright-eyed to think that things have changed significantly. There are too many dysfunctional families, too many people with untreated mental health issues, too many people in jail, far too many indigenous people in jail.
It saddens me that there’s more awareness now of what to do about these issues, than there was then, yet we do less to resolve them. There’s lots of noise, research projects, pilot plans and the like, but we need more real and sustained action. If we took half the money spent building prisons, and used it to provide support for the 12 year old boys who will be housed in them at age 18, soon, we wouldn’t need prisons. CLCs do their bit, but they need credit and resources so they can do more.
Why would you encourage law students and young lawyers to participate in a community legal centre, and what can they do to get involved?
To get involved: join up, do the hard yards and don’t mind a knock-back or two.
Why: to learn, to grow, to share, to make friends, to feel satisfied by a day’s work, to do something positive to equalise ‘the system’, to offer something to the community, to have fun.
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