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The new President of the Law Society of NSW sits down to discuss her goals for the organisation and membership in 2022.

Jo van der Plaat is wearing blue jeans, white Converse sneakers, and a t-shirt with faded, surfy text that says “stay golden” to meet me for lunch in Sydney. We perch at a booth at trendy Potts Point restaurant Ms G’s on a Friday in January and she begins lamenting that it’s not her first choice of outfit. Not because it’s too warm for the summer weather or too casual for a business lunch; she simply couldn’t find her favourite tee.

“My favourite one is a plain white t-shirt and all it says is ‘grateful’,” van der Plaat tells me. “There are two reasons I wear it. Sometimes I need to remind myself that it’s not really that bad – look how far we’ve come and look at all we’ve achieved. We have so much to be grateful for.”

She’s referring to the challenges of the pandemic and the impact lockdowns have had on business and livelihoods over the past two years. She recently brought it up in conversation with her in-laws, who grew up in The Netherlands during World War II and recalled resorting to eating fresh bitumen from the road when food rations ran out. Today we may be running low on toilet paper, van der Plaat says, but there’s still plenty to be grateful for.

“The other reason I wear the shirt is the amazing reactions you can get and the conversations it starts … Sometimes you don’t know the impact you can have. It’s one thing I can do in a day that might just make someone’s day a little bit better.”

The 2022 President of the Law Society of NSW has identified making life a little easier for NSW lawyers as a goal for her year as leader of the 30,000-strong membership. Providing members with practical, applicable information and services that will help them run their practices or move forward in their careers is her mission; as it has been for the Law Society since its inception 180 years ago.

Continuing professional development (CPD) opportunities, online events, thought leadership and policy work with government are all part of the fast-moving machine that is the largest legal membership organisation in NSW.

One simple service van der Plaat cites as a powerful example of practical help for lawyers is the weekly COVID-19 email update sent by the Law Society of NSW. It’s an email newsletter the organisation began sending out to keep members and subscribers informed about court operations and legal practice changes during the first lockdown in 2020. The newsletter has since become one of the membership’s most popular communications.

“Those COVID updates, I send them to my own clients, they’re so useful,” she says.

Shadows of the pandemic lurk at empty tables while our waiter buzzes back and forth to check if we’re ready to order. We keep sending him back for more time as we chatter – excited to be meeting at a venue in person and not through a screen.

The recent Omicron wave has not only impacted hospitality businesses, but the sheer number of cases and people in isolation has also forced most legal work back online. The NSW Local Court operated mostly remotely through January, and other courts have forecast ongoing remote hearing and online arrangements.

Law Society staff are working remotely where possible to reduce the spread of the virus. Law firms, too, seem mostly choosing to be keeping their staff working from home if they aren’t already isolating or sick.

As the legal profession enters a third year of adapting to the unpredictable U-turns COVID-19 has so far imposed, mental health and wellbeing is becoming a regular topic of discussion for lawyers. It’s another key area van der Plaat wants to focus on throughout 2022.

“There is an appetite to look positively towards our future and for the Law Society to lead the profession in modelling wellbeing …. Our individual and collective wellbeing in terms of what brings us joy, keeps us connected and allows us to remain engaged and thrive professionally and personally is something we now talk about in the workplace.

“I recall as many of us do, being told to ‘leave your personal life at the door’ early on in my career. I think if we’ve learned anything over the past few years, it’s that we’re all human and we should be authentic and genuine. I don’t feel it’s weak or I’m not doing my job if I say, ‘You know what, I have days when I don’t feel like turning up to work, too.’

“The three values I try to live by on a daily basis are being kind, being humble, and having a sense of humour. Having that direction and motivation keeps me feeling positive and purposeful.”

I think if we’ve learned anything over the past few years, it’s that we’re all human and we should be authentic and genuine.

Van der Plaat hails from Cooma in the NSW Snowy Mountains region, where she spent most of her childhood and has practised as a lawyer for the past 13 years. After starting her legal career in Sydney as a legal secretary and paralegal in city firms, she maintained a connection with the city by volunteering on Law Society committees including the Rural Issues Committee – which she chaired on and off until 2021.

For the past decade she has made the five-hour car journey to Sydney at least every month from her property in Cooma, where she has lived with her husband and two teenage children, to sit on Law Society committees, Council and more recently the board of Lawcover. She has become known as an advocate for regional communities; determined to put the needs of rural and remote lawyers and their communities’ access to justice on the membership’s agenda.

Improving awareness and perceptions of legal career opportunities in the country is high on her priority list for 2022.

As national Chair of the Rural, Regional and remote (RRR) Lawyers Committee at the Law Council of Australia, van der Plaat recently helped devise and launch the “Digital Treechange” initiative run by the Law Council, which introduces city lawyers to life at a regional firm via an initial remote work placement, which if successful, results in a physical move to that community.

“I think for whatever reason, there is a perception in some quarters, and it’s completely unfounded, that regional lawyers have it a bit easier, or you don’t have to be as clever because you don’t work in a Big Six firm. I obviously don’t subscribe to that view at all,” she says.

“I’ve had the privilege of working in a large international firm and it was an extremely rewarding and satisfying part of my journey. Having spent the last 18 years in a rural practice [five as a conveyancer then 13 as a qualified solicitor] I have a deep appreciation for the fulfilling and challenging careers to be built in the bush. Some of our finest leaders, magistrates and judges are from the bush.”

“There remains, however, issues in certain parts of NSW around recruiting and retaining talent, and succession, that I want to improve this year.”

Van der Plaat resigned her position as a Partner of Blaxland Mawson & Rose Solicitors, which has offices in Cooma and Bombala in southern NSW, before the end of 2021 and moved to Sydney for her year as President.

She might be the first President I’ve lunched with in sneakers and jeans. It’s a choice that seems a deliberate hint at the authentic leadership style she hopes to bring to the corner office at 170 Phillip Street.

When we finally decide on share plates from the extensive pan-Asian menu, she insists we order the cult classic that is apparently a must-try: Ms G’s cheeseburger spring rolls. What sounds like some bogan fantasy dreamed up on a late night out in Potts Point turns out to be a delicious surprise, and possibly our favourite above more delicate dishes like sashimi and roast cauliflower.

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The President with her family's pet sheep, the late "Casanova", at their farm in Cooma.

I think for whatever reason, there is a perception in some quarters, and it’s completely unfounded, that regional lawyers have it a bit easier, or you don’t have to be as clever because you don’t work in a Big Six firm. I obviously don’t subscribe to that view at all.

As we peruse the drinks menu another subject arises – van der Plaat’s choice of charity organisation for 2022. Each year, the new Law Society President chooses a charity to fundraise for through events and initiatives for members.

This year, van der Plaat has chosen national charity Sober in the Country, which is a rural organisation working to change the stigma around staying sober or simply saying “no” to an alcoholic drink. She reveals she has a very personal attachment to the charity’s goals, having grown up with an alcoholic father who was violent towards her mother when he was drunk.

“I was four or five at the time, and I had this special little hiding place. I’d go and hide under the kitchen sink when he’d come home,” she recalls.

Van der Plaat reflects that binge drinking cultures – which her father became familiar with when he worked as a policeman in Sydney in the 1970s – are uncomfortably common in the legal profession, and particularly in regional areas.

“This isn’t about being zero alcohol, and I’m not anti-alcohol, I enjoy a drink along with the rest of us. But I think we need to support people who say, ‘I’m just going to have water’. I see it a lot in the country – people tend to respond, ‘Go on you softie, have another.’ But some people can only have two or three drinks, and we need to respect that,” she says.

Almost two hours of chatter breeze by before I can get to van der Plaat’s final goal for the year: putting a legislated human rights act back on the agenda for NSW. It’s a milestone she hoped the state might achieve some time ago – after the ACT and Queensland passed Human Rights Acts, and Victoria developed its Charter of Rights.

“It should occur to anyone that we’re a democratic society that is probably one of – if not, the only – democracy left in the world that doesn’t have a standalone piece of legislation that deals with fundamental human rights,” she says.

If she doesn’t get it done, that’s fine. COVID-19 has taught most of us – van der Plaat included – to keep our chins up when goals can’t be met for whatever reason. The President reveals she’ll be satisfied with a very simple legacy.

“If I get to the end of this year and I have helped one person, awesome. I would love it. If I can reach just one lawyer, then my job is done.”