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Where are they now? with Paula O’Byrne

The CIJ catches up with former RMIT Juris Doctor student Paula O'Byrne to find out what she's been up to since graduating.

Paula O'Byrne graduated from the RMIT Juris Doctor in 2015.

When did you graduate, what have you been up to since then?

I graduated at the end of 2015 after studying part-time for five years. As I was juggling study, work and young kids, it was an awesome feeling to finish. At the start of the course I was unsure whether I’d go on to practice as a lawyer. However, by the end I figured I might as well complete my practical legal training (PLT) and then decide. While completing the PLT, I organised a 12-month secondment with the legal services division of the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP), a state government department. During my secondment I was exposed to planning and environmental law matters; I also got the opportunity to spend five months with the Victorian Government Solicitor’s Office assisting with DELWP-related matters.

The secondment was excellent because it helped me to decide that I should leave my town planning world – my old profession – and move into law.

Tell us a little bit about your career journey and why you decided to pursue a law degree?

Before starting the JD, I’d worked as a town planner for many years – firstly, in local government and then in state government. When I started the JD in 2010, I was working in a senior legislation role (developing and implementing planning legislative proposals) and dealing with a lot of lawyers. I was itching to study something and thought law would be a good fit, particularly as I knew of other planners who’d made the leap to law.

Planning is a hugely interesting area – it’s very topical and throws up lots of interesting issues. So, I wasn’t necessarily thinking about changing careers. But once I got to the end of the course, I knew that I needed to give law a crack, particularly as I was well-placed to practice in planning law.

In 2017, after my PLT-secondment, I returned to my old planning job for about six weeks. But I quickly landed a permanent solicitor role with DELWP’s legal division, in a team that specialises in administrative law, broad environmental law and statutory interpretation. My first 12 months in the role was heavily dominated by litigation (public interest environmental litigation), which was a huge learning curve but also super interesting and very dynamic. I got lots of exposure to civil procedure, the ins and outs of legal strategy and forestry regulation. As well as litigation, I also provide legal advice to various parts of DELWP on planning, forestry, water and land matters.

Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to undertake a three-month secondment with the Heritage Council of Victoria, as the hearings coordinator. I was keen to get experience in drafting decisions in merits review-type proceedings. On my return to DELWP, I was promoted to Senior Solicitor and have been in that role since.

I’m thoroughly enjoying my new career and have no regrets (yet!) about making the change.

How did the RMIT JD prepare you for your career?

There is the obvious benefit of getting a qualification that allows you to change careers – but you can get that from any JD/law degree.

What I particularly found valuable with the RMIT JD was the opportunity to do practical placements with the CIJ – not only a great way to get a taste of the ‘real’ legal world but also to break up the ‘theoretical’ side of the course. Also, the flexibility of the JD Program – after hours classes, summer semesters etc – is great for someone who is working and wanting to keep their existing career ticking along while studying.

The RMIT JD also really honed my writing and research skills – which are enormously important when doing legal work. Word limits imposed on assignments might seem annoying – but they help you to become a clear communicator and to write with purpose. In my current role, I frequently get praised for my written advice work and I owe some of that to the JD.

Critical problem-solving is also a crucial skill in the law. I’m constantly dealing with new areas of the law that I don’t have much knowledge of. The JD has given me the know-how and confidence to approach problems in a methodical way and to be resourceful in finding answers to things.

What involvement did you have with CIJ while studying?

Although I was always working to a pretty tight schedule, I made time to get involved with things offered by the CIJ. I participated in fortnight-long placements – at the Supreme Court of Victoria and the Victorian Coroners’ Court – which were both excellent. I also attended several career speed-dating sessions to hear first-hand about possible career options – also very helpful.

If you had one piece of advice to give law students, what would that be?

I have three pieces of advice:

  • Doing a JD is a big commitment. Family and friends will be interested in your studies for about five minutes – after that the novelty wears off. Be prepared to have your ups and downs – it’s worth it in the end but you need to hang in there.
  • Read books, cases and everything else with purpose. Approach it as though you’ll only be able to read something once. Don’t expect to have the luxury of being able to read things again and again.
  • Pace yourself! I started the course slowly to make sure I could manage the workload with my other commitments. Once I got the knack of research, citations, exams, study notes etc, I cranked up my course-load.

Is there anything that surprised you about working in the legal sector?

I work in the government law sector, which I love. Initially, I was itching to specialise in planning law but have since been exposed to other areas and found (to my surprise) that there are lots of other equally interesting areas to practice in. So, it’s important to have an open mind and be prepared to work in areas of the law that may be outside your comfort zone.

I’ve discovered that the sector is very collegiate, and people are more than happy to share their knowledge and time.

The legal job market is very competitive – there are lots of law graduates out there –

so use any previous work experience and the opportunities offered by CIJ to make connections with people and to suss out possible career paths.