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Q&A with new special counsel Bridgid Cowling

Native Title & Public Interest Law
BridgidCowling article
Newly appointed public interest & native title special counsel Bridgid Cowling explains how she landed her "dream job" and the qualities needed to thrive as a public interest lawyer.

The initial leap from working as a lawyer for community organisations in the NT to working for a commercial firm in Collins St must have been quite dramatic. Why did you make the move?

My partner and I left Melbourne after university and spent nearly a decade in the tropics before coming back to Melbourne six years ago with our three children to be closer to family.  As for coming to work at ABL - that felt like a natural fit because of the firm’s commitment to its native title and land rights practice and to Indigenous Australians more broadly.  Public interest partner Peter Seidel had a formidable reputation, so I contacted him and, by serendipity, a conversation about the current legal landscape in Melbourne turned into a job interview. 

The contrast between working for a land council and a commercial firm like ABL was not especially dramatic.  Both are full of interesting, warm, generous and committed people.  However, the difference in access to resources is profound.  For example the library at ABL is a joy!  Having this access for the first time in my career reinforced how deeply impressive the outcomes that lawyers in land councils and community legal centres can achieve on a shoe-string.  

Given how many lawyers are drawn to public interest work, yours is the dream job. Is that how it feels and how have you managed to achieve it when these roles are so scarce and sought after?

It certainly is the dream job.  I think I was successful in landing it initially because I had the rare combination of skills ABL needed at the time: commercial and litigation experience combined with a passion for charities law and tax.  Peter had also worked (and still does) with lawyers in native title representative bodies and recognised that they have to be agile, self-sufficient, dedicated and interested in technical law.  I was fortunate that he had that insight into the contribution I could make as part of his practice.

To thrive in this role, you have to be absolutely committed to excellence. Public interest clients at ABL expect and receive the same quality of service as fee paying clients – they expect and receive top advice from us, and from whichever lawyers across the firm have the expertise to provide it.  You also need to understand the political and social context of your work.  This is true for all lawyers, but the context and the drivers can be quite different in our practice.

ABL’s public interest practice is renowned, particularly for its work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations and communities. As someone right in the thick of it, what is it about our approach that differentiates us from other firms?

ABL’s commitment is firm-wide and runs really deep - from the leadership provided by senior partner Mark Leibler, right through to the enthusiasm of our seasonal clerks, and across professional and support staff. 

The length and depth of relationships we build with our clients and the passion we put into our advocacy is unparalleled. 

Peter has been working with the Yorta Yorta people for almost 30 years, representing a relationship not just between a client and ABL, but between the Yorta Yorta and an individual partner within ABL.  Mark has been a non-Indigenous leader of the reconciliation movement for more 20 years.  And I have relationships with clients that started when I joined the firm. We stick by our clients and their communities for as long as they need us, and we go where the clients want to go. Having worked in native title representative bodies for years and seeing the frustration caused by the revolving door of new lawyers, I know that longevity of relationships is precious.

We stick by our clients and their communities for as long as they need us, and we go where the clients want to go.

You and Peter have been very active in pointing out the dangers of proposed changes to regulation governing charitable organisations. How much of your work is focused on policy and how do you see the next 12 months playing out in terms of your work program?

Like every practice group in the firm, we advocate on proposed legislation where it is likely to have a big impact on our clients.  The proposed changes you mention, to ACNC Governance Standard 3, are a prime example of that.  ABL represents scores of charities, not just the public interest team but also the commercial team and across the firm.  The changes initially proposed to Governance Standard 3 would have been catastrophic.  So of course we used our skills as technical lawyers and advocates, and we advocated.  As it stands a revised set of amendments is set to be considered by Parliament.  We are reviewing them closely.

Over the next 12 months, I expect there will be a raft of changes to the regulation of charities as the government moves to implement its response to the review of the relevant Act.  Some of these changes will be uncontroversial, but others will require close attention. 

If the changes introduce a lot more red tape, as is currently anticipated, our work will necessarily include assisting our clients with the increased compliance burden. 

One of the great things about being in the public interest law team is that you never quite know what is around the corner!

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