Professor Felicity Gerry QC originally thought she would be a journalist. Traces of this early aspiration can be detected in her work as a barrister, where her curiosity and instinct for speaking truth to power have defined a remarkable, international legal career. With over 25 years at the Bar, Felicity has accumulated extensive court experience in some of the most significant yet challenging areas of law; from terrorism to serious organised crime, sexual offending to the representation of vulnerable persons (just to list a few). Yet, tackling legal problems extends beyond the courtroom for the Silk, whose legal career is complemented by her career as an academic - a fruitful career that, when dedicated to writing a book on all sexual law since 1957, prompted her self-identification as a “frustrated academic”. For Felicity, the value of legal practice and research lies in the ‘opportunity to share knowledge’. It is this aptitude for knowledge sharing that Felicity revealed to us in our delightful conversation. And so, for aspiring and experienced practitioners, advocates and academics, Felicity imparts a number of important lessons.
Lesson #1 - “Diverse people make good decisions”
Diversity is a core value for Felicity, who firmly believes that “law, policy and research need to work together” in order to produce meaningful outcomes. It is a belief Felicity embodies through her “hybrid” career as a barrister and academic, as she deals with issues that cross disciplinary boundaries and engages in research across a wide range of areas, recently including genocide and torture. In so doing, Felicity also values diversity through teamwork. When working on any issue, Felicity encourages the contribution of a broad range of practitioners, academics, non-governmental organisations and policy-makers, finding that the assemblage of “different areas of expertise make for great advocacy” and positive change on any issue. Indeed, Felicity is also careful to suggest that her own emphasis on diversity should not discourage future advocates from focusing on one issue only. As Felicity admits, her “eclectic” career has meant that she does not reform nearly as much as she would like to. Nonetheless, Felicity explains that while diversity can be reflected in your individual practice, it can also simply mean listening to, and also working with, other professionals.
Lesson #2 - “Be furious...challenge the system, it might get better. It could get worse, but it might get better”
Felicity is furious, and she is unapologetic about channelling this fury through her practice. Indeed, this fury is at the heart of her success because without fury a practitioner’s drive can be subsumed in the conservative and pragmatic morass endemic to legal institutions. That is to say, political systems and legal institutions are not natural allies to the cause of advancing human rights, and the law is not always a safe haven for the work of human rights advocates. But going beyond legal institutions and mores, for Felicity, the law is a tool that when wielded well can provide a corrective to the legal system’s inertia and conservatism. This belief is well contextualised by the suggestion of Audre Lorde that “the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house”. While Felicity recognises the limitations of the tools law provides, she believes that by using them with fury she can at least temporarily beat the master at his game. This is because, as demonstrated by Felicity’s career, law can vindicate the rights of individuals in the moment and amount to a constant protest of oppression as public and loud as a demonstration in the street—even if the structures and systems of oppression are not, themselves, defeated in every fight. This is a form of what Felicity describes as “expert advocacy”. Through this and other processes, Felicity sees law as embodying the potential for more transformative change. So when generation after generation of furious lawyers take on the hard cases, we must, as Felicity suggests, challenge the system and seek to reform it from within while drawing attention to all its defects.
Lesson #3 - “When not to be noisy is as important as being noisy.”
Felicity’s self-described “noisiness” allows her to stand up against injustice. Using writing as a platform for her opinions, Felicity explains that “unless you are noisy, you don’t get invited to take part.” This attitude seemingly comes from Felicity’s experience as a woman in a male dominated profession where she has felt compelled to shout out about women’s experiences. This commitment is also evident in Felicity’s own advocacy work, fighting for vulnerable women and children. It is this passionate commitment to women and vulnerable people that enables Felicity to challenge societal inequalities and also pave the way for future female practitioners. Yet learning when not to be noisy is just as important for Felicity. When she first arrived in Australia she created an Indigenous Justice and Exoneration Project in Darwin with the help of an Indigenous steering group: a project that revealed to Felicity the importance of not assuming leadership or the correctness of her own solutions. During her time in Darwin, Felicity fostered relationships with Indigenous groups and advocates and in so doing, learnt the importance of staying quiet. In Melbourne where she now lives she is proud to be instructed by a family member in a Coronial inquiry into an Aboriginal death in custody and by the organisers of the Black Lives Matter march. As Felicity suggests, you need to understand your strengths and weaknesses and be prepared to listen. Your passion for a cause does not mean that you automatically have a leading role to play.
Perhaps Felicity’s greatest piece of advice is to not get disheartened when change doesn’t happen instantly. As Felicity reveals “the law is young, slow, and capable of change. Your role is to find the bits to change and the reasons to change it.” Examining Felicity’s unique and extensive career should provide hope to future practitioners that any change against any injustice is more than possible.