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Reflecting on her career with both candour and good humour, Dr Terri Janke addressed an audience that could be forgiven for being unaware of her latest achievement – one that carries global significance.

Janke, an international authority on Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property (ICIP) recently returned from Geneva, Switzerland, where she was intimately involved in the adoption of a new treaty on intellectual property for genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge.

The breakthrough followed more than 20 years of negotiations and the treaty will mean that patent applicants will have to disclose when traditional knowledge has been provided by Indigenous peoples or local communities. 

We used to be ‘at the back’

Speaking at a NAIDOC event hosted by the Law Society of NSW, Janke recalled first attending the World Intellectual Property Organization conference in 2000. 

“And we’d be all at the back and we’d wait for the government to speak,” she said in a conversation with Danielle Captain-Webb, the first Indigenous Councillor of the Law Society of NSW. 

The dynamic all these years later was totally different. Janke attended the conference as an advisor to Justin Mohamed, Australia’s first Ambassador for First Nations People. 

“And he had been talking to First Nations groups and they had been raising IP or Indigenous intellectual property as a very big issue for them,” she said. 

“And what was different was I was there in the meetings, not just with the delegations that were negotiating the treaty, I was there with their ambassadors … talking to them face-to-face about what needs to change.” 

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L to R, Brett McGrath, Terri Janke and Danielle Captain-Webb

A difficult journey

This was just the latest in a long line of career achievements, which have included establishing her own law firm. 

Asked about her journey into the legal profession, Janke said as a teenager, “I realised that the world wasn’t always fair … I was pretty shy and I experienced a lot of racism as a child. It really hurt me. I just wanted to do something that was different, that could make a difference in the world.” 

She said she didn’t actually know what a lawyer did at the time, but quite liked the clothes, cars and success depicted in the US TV drama LA Law. 

“And I thought, yep, I’m up for that.” 

Janke named Australia’s first Aboriginal Magistrate Pat O’Shane as an inspiration but said she was also inspired by her sister, who like herself studied law at UNSW, as part of the university’s Aboriginal education program. 

Racism then and now

But her trajectory was not without struggle and Janke quit her studies at one point. 

Janke recalled going into court and being mistaken for a defendant. 

“Hey, I thought I looked pretty deadly. I was wearing absolute power shoulder pads and had the file there, to make myself look important.” 

She can joke about it now, but Janke remains hyper alert about racism. 

Asked not only about attracting more First Nations people to the legal profession, but retaining them, Janke said perceptions of the law are often understandably negative. 

“The law is often seen as someone who takes rights away from Indigenous people.” 

The weight of responsibility

Janke said being in the profession comes with a great sense of responsibility. 

“We have been given the opportunity to work as First Nations lawyers in these spaces. We feel like we owe something, we have to make a difference and if we don’t see it happening… that is soul-crushing.” 

And she said Indigenous lawyers need to open up about the difficulties that can come with the job. 

“We need to be able to talk about it with each other.” 

Janke said she has been able to stay in the profession because she is fuelled by a sense of social justice and giving voice to the voiceless. 

“I have seen changes over that time… you’ve got to hang in there… it’s not for a quick response but it amazes me that I can hang in there for the end, to see the results and not leave. 

“My mum always used to say to me that when it gets hard, that’s when other people leave … For me, when it gets hard, that’s my space, that’s when I kick in.”