Pauline Wright – Professional Excellence
Pauline Wright


ALUMNI FOCUS

Pauline Wright – Professional Excellence

March 16, 2021

2020 Alumni Award Winner – Professional Excellence

BA/LLB 1985

We often hear about sliding door moments, but when you’re on the threshold of university, and your life is opening up before you, the choices you make – or indeed, those that are thrust upon you – can have a lifelong impact. For Pauline Wright, a bright, creative student, the closing of the art school she had enrolled in – just three days before university began – has meant the legal world, and the many people and causes she has had an impact on, have benefited immensely from this unseen turn of events.

Luckily, Pauline had also been accepted into a combined Arts/Law degree at Macquarie, which she says was the right degree for her. ‘I did criminal law and environmental and planning law, which I combined with an Arts (Mass Communications) degree, majoring in film-making, plus politics and philosophy.’

Pauline has continued to be involved with the theatre and writing, and says of her arts degree, ‘It has very much informed me as a human being.’ Still, it is her level of excellence in the field of law that defines her professionally.

Elected president of the Law Society of New South Wales (2017), president of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties (2018–19), where she was the second woman appointed, and then president of the Law Council of Australia in 2020, where she was the fifth woman in 87 years, would be significant achievements for anyone. But to Pauline, these positions hold meaning as they reflect the recognition and trust of her peers in the profession she has dedicated herself to: ‘It’s been my life’s work,’ she says.

‘As my life unfolded, my passions and interests drove me in a unique direction. Everything I’ve achieved has been through perseverance, hard work and dedication – and I’ve put myself in the right place at the right time because I felt passionate about certain issues. It’s been a long journey.’

Indeed, it was one that began at a very young age. As a child, respect for being fair was instilled in her by her parents, who cautioned her to always ‘be the most reasonable person in the room.’ The timing of being a student in the seventies and then at university during the eighties was no less formative.

‘Throughout my high school years, I was conscious of the injustices around me. I’d been blessed with an intellectual or academic bent at school but hung around with kids who didn’t; I could see how they were treated differently. I was drawn to law because I thought it was a way of doing something practical in your life to combat inequality.’

And there’s no doubt she’s made good on that conviction in a career as varied as it is interesting. From protecting pygmy possums in a case that went all the way to the High Court to getting an acquittal and compensation for a client who had been wrongly charged with murder, Pauline says, ‘I have been particularly interested in achieving justice.

‘One of the most rewarding things as a lawyer is when you successfully defend someone who you know has been wrongly charged – who should never have been charged – and they are ultimately acquitted. That’s when you feel you’re making a difference in people’s lives.’

As Pauline talks, you begin to understand how her commitment to certain ideals has underpinned the threads of her working life to form a rich tapestry of legal service, many of which were ignited at Macquarie.

She recalls, ‘It was the early eighties, and the threat of nuclear war was real; everyone was very conscious of that and banning uranium mining. I wanted to save the environment and had a sense we needed to protect the planet.’

Her timing was on point too. ‘The Environmental Planning Assessment Act came in to play in 1979. The environmental planning course I did at Macquarie was one of the first environmental and planning law courses in Australia, if not the first.

‘I ended up specialising in this area and have come to understand that the way we plan our urban environments affects us as human beings; the environment we live in is what makes us thrive.’

With such steady determination, it’s no surprise Pauline still has a long list of things she would like to achieve before she hangs up her hat. ‘I’m on the executive of LawAsia and am excited about doing more work with them. We’ve been particularly engaged in looking at the Hong Kong national security law and its impact on the rule of law in Hong Kong.

‘There have also been extrajudicial killings in the Philippines and elsewhere. We’re very concerned about the risks to lawyers, especially the arrest and detention of lawyers just doing their job in certain places around the world. Defending the defenders is something I’m particularly interested in pursuing on the international stage.

‘I’m also on the governing board of the Union Internationale des Avocats (UIA). International human rights has been a particular interest, and one I have pursued throughout my career, as have civil liberties. In the late 1980s, I got involved as a young lawyer after seeing the level of injustice in the police force.

‘I feel very passionate about these roles, and am very proud of my work with different organisations, furthering the things I believe in. If you’re inspired, as I was, to make a difference in the world, having a law degree and practising law gives you a tool to do that.’

Pauline says COVID placed limits on some of her work in 2020 – she was invited to speak at the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva that was held online instead, and there was a major symposium in Townsville involving a confluence of Aboriginal leaders and Aboriginal lawyers that became a series of webinars.

‘I continue to be passionate about equalising the rights of Indigenous people in Australia; I’m still working very hard on that. We’ve got another symposium coming up, and I’m hoping we’ll come up with a blueprint for action. We know it will include continued support for the Statement from the Heart, but there are all sorts of measures that can help; community engagement and justice reinvestment are critical.’

Talking to someone like Pauline, it would be easy to get disheartened by just how much there still is to do in the world, righting wrongs, achieving justice and upholding democracy. They’re lofty ideals, but they’re won one battle at a time. ‘It’s what makes my heart beat,’ says Pauline. ‘It’s incredibly rewarding.’

Pauline Wright graduated from Macquarie University with a BA LLB in 1985 with a double major in Law and Mass Communications. The 2020 president of the Law Council of Australia, she is a partner/principal of PJ Donnellan & Co Solicitors on the NSW Central Coast and an accredited specialist in environmental planning and development law.

Previously, Pauline was president of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties (2018–19), and president of the Law Society of NSW (2017). She was appointed as a director of the Law Council of Australia (2016), and was president of the Urban Development Institute of Australia Central Coast Chapter (2010–16). She is a past vice president of NSW Women Lawyers and a former board member of Legal Aid NSW. She continues to serve on Legal Aid’s Human Rights and Monitoring committees.

Words: Megan English


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