Skip to content

Careers guide

Public Interest Law Careers Guide - Judy Small Testimonial

judy small

Public Interest lawyer: Judy Small

Organisation: Federal Circuit Court of Australia (Formerly Federal Magistrates Court)

Short biography: Judy Small was appointed as a judge of the Federal Circuit Court of Australia in March 2013, and sits in the Family Law jurisdiction of the Court.

The law is her third profession. Judy first trained as a psychologist, and worked in the area of drug and alcohol counselling with addicts and their families in the community health setting. After about 5 years of practice, and having begun her law degree, Judy, then in her late twenties, decided to try her hand at her first love, folk music, and spent the next 16 years singing her songs of people, power, politics, love and laughter at festivals, concerts, folk clubs, peace rallies and community gatherings all over the English-speaking world. In the June 2013 Queen's Birthday Honours List she was awarded Membership in the Order of Australia (AM) for her significant contribution to folk music.

Judy began the study of law part time in 1980 and believes that she might hold the record for the longest period of time between beginning law school and being admitted to practice - 19½ years. She completed her law degree in 1989 in between touring nationally and internationally, and was admitted in 1999 after ceasing her full time music career and completing articles at Slater & Gordon in Melbourne.

She has practised almost entirely in the field of Family Law and is passionately committed to protecting children from familial conflict, neglect and abuse.

After 6 years at Slater & Gordon, Judy returned to the public sector as Managing Lawyer of the Family Law Service at VLA's Melbourne office in 2004, before being appointed as Director of Family, Youth & Children's Law Services in 2010.

Law: Where did you start?

See above. I got to the stage in my psychology career where I realised I would need a clinical Masters degree to "get on" in the field (my Masters is a Research degree). I had a rather unsatisfactory conversation with the admissions officer at the Psychology School, and decided on the spur of the moment that I didn't want to be a psychologist anyway - what I really wanted to be was a lawyer. And yes, it was that immediate, and no, I have no idea where it came from. I literally left the Psychology School, went down to the Law School and got the enrolment forms. Best decision I've ever made!

I decided to practise law about 6 years after I finished the degree and was fortunate enough to persuade the Western Suburbs Legal Service to let me work for them as a volunteer law clerk for 2-3 days a week for about 10 months so that I could get back into the way of thinking and discipline of the law. That was invaluable experience, and I would certainly encourage young lawyers and law students to get involved with their local CLC to get an idea of how the law works at the community level.

What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced during your career?

Well, trying to get Articles as a 45-year-old woman was a bit of a challenge. I had a very good academic record, and sent out about 50 applications. I got 2 interviews and one offer, and I have always had an enormous respect for and gratitude to Slater & Gordon for being willing to take me on.

The other major challenge was becoming Director of FYLS at VLA. I had to learn a whole new skill set (executive management and policy development) in my fifties, which was quite daunting, especially as the other directors were (and are) a young, incredibly bright and extraordinarily talented group.

How did you deal with these challenges?

I have always been a fairly transparent kind of person - what you see is what you get - and I took the view in both situations that I was there to learn and that there was no better way to do that than to be open to the ideas and advice of others. I have always thought that being defensive in the face of not knowing was a self-defeating position to take, and while I tend to think about decisions and issues in a fairly solitary way, I think it is a really positive thing to seek the guidance and counsel of colleagues. That's how I've learned.

What advice do you have for lawyers and law students wishing to pursue career paths focusing on positive social change? Is there any other career path for lawyers?

I think the only advice I would have is to follow your passion. You may not get rich, but the personal satisfaction I have gained from working with our community's most vulnerable people has not only given me great job satisfaction, but has taught me some of life's most important lessons. And another piece of advice is that you never have to decide what you want to do with the rest of your life - you only have to decide what you want to do next. That view has served me incredibly well for more than 30 years and has led me down paths I would never have followed if I had set myself on an unyielding career/life path in my twenties.

What do you find most rewarding in your work?

The connection and interaction with people has always been the most rewarding aspect of any job I've ever had. At its highest, it is the satisfaction of knowing that the interaction between us has helped them in some way. In my new position as judge, I find it very rewarding to have people trust me with decisions about the future relationships they will have with their children for instance, although they might not see the interaction in that way. It is a great privilege to be able to assist people at times of crisis in their lives, and I am always mindful that with every privilege comes responsibility. I take that responsibility very seriously and I find it very rewarding. 

 Castan Centre logo    Progressive Law Network logo

Victoria Law Foundation Grants logo