Kerry O’Brien is a proud Koori man and Senior Associate in the Employment Relations and Safety team at McCullough Robertson. He holds a Master of Laws from the University of Sydney and is Chair of the Board of Redfern Legal Centre. O’Brien tells FLOYD ALEXANDER-HUNT about his career and passion for helping vulnerable people.
Why did you pursue a career in law?
From a young age, I wanted to be a judge. In my first year of high school, all the Aboriginal kids were gathered together for a careers session. I remember saying, “I want to be a lawyer” and the liaison officer’s response was, “Oh no, Aboriginal kids don’t become lawyers. Maybe consider an apprenticeship or something sports related.” I thought that was so rude. It was an offhand comment, and it wasn’t said in an unaffectionate way, but it was perpetuating ideas about what Aboriginal people can and can’t do. It really put a fire under me to pursue the career I now have.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I get into work super early before anyone can call or email me with questions. My practice involves mostly litigious matters, working with the wonderful team at my firm. If it’s a weekday, I will probably go to Barry’s Bootcamp in the city. It’s a cult and I am very much indoctrinated into that. Then I will head home and do something boring like binge watch Netflix.
What is your role at Redfern Legal Centre?
I’m the Chair of the Board of the Redfern Legal Centre (RLC), the oldest community legal centre in NSW. My role is to lead the board and the centre by supporting the CEO and management in the work they do. We’ve got seven directors, including myself, that sit on the board. A lot of my role involves conducting typical board functions – board meetings, facilitating the implementation of our strategic plan and supporting the team.
Why is the role important to you?
Access to justice is absolutely critical, and community legal centres, particularly the RLC, have a vital role to play. I’m not alone in volunteering time to a community legal centre or doing pro bono work. I’ve been on the board for a number of years, and I’ve come to see how our assistance deeply affects people on a day-to-day level. I am also the first Aboriginal Chair of the RLC. Being a young Aboriginal man who is able to be in that position is something I don’t take for granted.
Have you experienced any challenges in your career?
I think in the legal profession there are elements of real elitism. I went to UNSW; I got my masters from Sydney but I’m also an Aboriginal gay man from the Central Coast who was the first in my family to go to university. I have observed in my time as a solicitor, and more broadly, that the law has real issues with classism and elitism, and I think that is something that will be part of a broader reckoning in the profession in the future.
Do you have any advice for young lawyers seeking to pursue a similar path?
If I was hiring a junior lawyer or graduate, I’d be more interested in their personality and interests over any medals or citations they have. I’d say to them to choose an area of law you find fun rather than what you think will make you money. Also, don’t be in a rush! Take time to live your life outside the law.