Anne-Marie O’Neil: “I set a goal and took steps to get there”

Anne-Marie O’Neil graduated as the mining boom ended, but that couldn't stop her passion for justice and desire to be a lawyer.

Everyone who knows Anne-Marie O’Neil knows she loves justice, the community and her dog, Neo.

Every day she is working hard to be the best lawyer she can be. Like all of us, each day she is getting better.

Anne-Marie graduated in 2014 just as the mining boom ended, when firms were reducing graduate roles and when there were record numbers of law school graduates.

But Anne-Marie, and everyone around her, knew she was destined to be a lawyer.

She now works a lawyer for Legal Aid in the Pilbara, and previously for them in the Kimberley and Perth. She has worked in private firms and the community legal sector.

We have been asking different lawyers about their experiences graduating in tough economic times. You can read our interview with barrister Linda Black, who graduated during the 1991 recession here.

Piddington PLT is a high-quality, work-ready practical legal training course that focuses on The Piddington Society’s values of access to justice, ethics and collegiality.

Learn more about it here.

Describe the economic environment you started your career in.

In 2014, the mining boom came to an abrupt end. For months people were losing their jobs and businesses were getting smaller. This meant firms were taking on fewer graduates.

The places I wanted to work had stretched resources, which made it hard to get my foot in the door.

At the same time, there were about 600 law school graduates each year.

It was both the depths of economic gloom and the peak of law student numbers. Not the best combination.

How did you get your first job in law?

I was in my 3rd year working at a bar for a function at the UWA Baseball Club an attendee worked for the Department of Justice and he told me to send me his resume.

I never thought anything would come of it and then I got a phone call a couple of weeks later from someone from offering me a job at another court. Because of that job I had so many opportunities open up to me then enabled me to be a legal secretary, paralegal and eventually a lawyer!

It was a sliding doors moment which has changed my life. My biggest regret is never saying thank you in any substantive manner to that person.

It was a great example of a person who was on the ‘inside’ who used there position to try and help someone who was not and that is something I have tried to do myself.

What did you do to stand out from the crowd?

I stand out from the crowd generally because I am the loudest in most rooms — but that is not always perceived as a good thing.

I do not know if I stood out from the crowd compared to anyone else at uni or when applying for jobs. My grades would have stood out from the crowd for the wrong reasons!

I think I would have stood out because I have genuinely been interested in every job I have had and been willing to learn.

I am also very passionate about the things I care about and I think being brave enough (as such) to be open about the things that you care about brings a level of authenticity in an industry that teaches us all to be the same.

In law school we are taught to use our voices and how to be advocates for change but then when we actually do that we can be criticised for rocking the boat.

I think you have to back yourself and make the call to be who you are, authentically and that will make you stand out to the right crowd for you. You will no longer stand out alone as something different but be with people and an organisation that values what you can bring.

How were your first few years in law?

I have honestly enjoyed all my years in law so far. Parts of it were definitely hard but I have learnt so much from those experiences.

I think I thought at the time the thing that was hard was that you constantly have no idea what you are doing and are like one of those ducks on the lake, looking calm on the surface and your feet are going mad underneath.

I thought that would change and that after a couple of years I would know what I was doing.

Turns out I will always be like that duck, faking it, panicking and feeling like I don’t know what I am doing.

But I also now realise that that is a great strength. When you are not nervous and feel you know it all that’s when you become the biggest risk to yourself, your organisation and most importantly: your clients.

Who were you turning to for professional and career advice when you were starting out?

This is not a sponsored post but honestly I do think I was lucky to be involved in Piddington as soon as I finished uni.

I have had ethical issues pop up in the past and everyone says when you have an ethical issue you need to go a Silk but I didn’t know any, how was I going to find one. But because of Piddington I had that gateway in and it meant I was comfortable enough asking for help.

I was then really lucky to have been employed by an organisation with lots of senior lawyers so I could always call people for help.

I met a new friend the other day who is a lawyer with lots of regional experience and trial experience and I basically said: “I have your number now I am going to hit you up for help!”

I think a lot of the time we know the answer, we just need to find someone your comfortable enough with to ask your questions and don’t feel like you are being judged.

I have subsequentially spoken to supervisors saying “did you know I thought I had no idea what I was doing, how did you give me that work when I was so junior” etc. and they said we knew we could trust you to do it because you did ask so many questions. They knew I would ask for help when I needed it and that’s why they thought I could do it.

What advice do you have for current law students and grads starting their careers in uncertain economic times?

I am no oracle and I think the first thing about any advice is to take it or leave it. Don’t take advice from people on the internet that have no idea about you or your situation!

However what I can say is what I did was set a goal and then take small steps to get there.

If you want to work at a particular place and they not hiring or are and didn’t hire you, look at the people that they did hire what are there common characteristics (job background/experience) and try and build that for yourself.

Like what I did, take the job as a legal secretary in that organisation, even though you are admitted as a lawyer and had a job offer to be a lawyer, meet the people so when opportunities come up you are well placed to be considered. There were times I was working on month-to-month contracts, but I knew this was the work I wanted to be doing.

If you cant get a job and it is not working out do something that makes you happy.

Don’t pick a job that destroys your soul just to be in the law.

Take care of yourself and know that you are so much more than what a recruitment process can make you feel like. I know what that feels like because I have applied for my own job several times and on one occasion didn’t get it. But again, I had someone who championed me, encouraged me to apply for a job as a paralegal and I stayed employed in the organisation.

During those six months I learnt so much from that role it has honestly made me a better lawyer. I learn more than if I had been a lawyer for those six months.

What does collegiality mean to you?

Collegiality means being colleagues first and opponents second.

Collegiality means passionately advocating for your client/position but not judging the other practitioner for being on the other side. It is knowing that we all have a role to play and we can know what it's like in someone else shoes.

Collegiality takes many forms, including senior lawyers mentoring junior lawyers. Just as importantly, it is junior lawyers mentoring senior lawyers.

I had a senior lawyer call me the other day because he had been told I was the go-to person on a particular subject of law from someone else I admired, you could have knocked me over with a feather and you bet I told everyone I knew that this person called me with a question (that’s a joke, but also not).

But through that person calling me I was empowered because I felt like I had value and something I could add. I think that’s how as practitioners we should try and make each other feel, that is what collegiality is about.

I think collegiality must also mean creating space for people in the room who aren’t there. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, People of Colour, people who live with a disability, people who identify as trans, non-binary and the list goes one.

Collegiality has to be inclusive and it also has to acknowledge when we should step out of the room and leaving the space for other people.

I’ll give the last word to my girl Michelle:

When you have worked hard and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity, you do not slam it shut behind you, you reach back and you give others the same chances that helped your succeed.

— Michelle Obama.

Lawyers promoting collegiality, seeking access to justice.