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In-house lawyer Tayla Cunning, a sixth-generation local of Port Macquarie in NSW, is discovering the benefits of practising law in her own regional community.

Tayla Cunning is the sixth generation in her family to call Port Macquarie home – but it wasn’t the 29-year-old lawyer’s intention to settle down in her regional community so soon.

In 2012, Cunning relocated over two hours down the NSW coast to attend the University of Newcastle, and hoped to build her early career away from her hometown. Initially heading down a path towards human resources and management, she was completing a Bachelor of Business when a unit on business law, she says, “ignited my interest in the legal field.” This propelled her future in a new direction.

“I sought practical experience during my university breaks by working full-time in different industries … [including] roles at a real estate agency and a steel manufacturing construction company. Although I found these experiences enjoyable and fulfilling, I soon realised that my true passion lay in the legal profession,” Cunning explains.

A Juris Doctor immediately followed, which at the University of Newcastle included an integrated Graduate Diploma of Legal Practice, a combination that Cunning attributes to “facilitating my prompt admission as a lawyer upon graduating.”

As if law school wasn’t demanding enough, Cunning simultaneously studied for a Diploma of Languages in Japanese and Mandarin, to realise a passion for languages that first manifested in early high school.

“Undertaking a diploma of languages while studying law definitely had its own set of challenges,” Cunning reflects. “However, engaging in language studies provided me with a refreshing and stimulating diversion from my law subjects, which helped to balance my academic workload.

“I believe the unique combination provided me with a competitive advantage when I sought employment immediately after completing my law studies.”

Carving out a legal career

Whether it was her educational achievements, passion or demonstrated work ethic, employment did come easily for Cunning.  She completed clerkships with the Australian Taxation Office, University of Newcastle Legal Centre and Hunter Community Legal Centre while studying. Then following her graduation, she joined Hicksons Lawyers in 2018, progressing from Graduate Solicitor to Associate in four years.

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"I soon realised that my true passion lay in the legal profession." Tayla Cunning

Several career-advancing opportunities marked Cunning’s time at the mid-tier commercial law firm, including preparing and instructing junior and senior counsel in various court matters, such as the District Court, Supreme Court and Court of Appeal, and the “invaluable chance” to contribute to the lodging of an appeal to the High Court of Australia.

Cunning says the principles taught in law school – which, thanks to her enthusiasm for learning, she found “very enjoyable” – laid the groundwork for transitioning into her legal career, but the practical skills and experience acquired from working in the sector offer “unparalleled” value.

“Law school equips you with the essential foundations such as research techniques, case law analysis and familiarity with legislation,” she says.

“Subsequently, refining your understanding and honing [your] practical application skills in real-world scenarios as a working lawyer completes the holistic development necessary to become a well-rounded lawyer.

“I believe a combination of law school education and on-the-job training plays a crucial role in shaping a truly competent and versatile lawyer.”

Moving back home

Just as Cunning was embarking on her early career, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and sparked a reconsideration of her priorities. Separated from family, she decided to move back to her Port Macquarie home earlier than anticipated – a decision that has reaped surprising rewards.

Cunning now works as an in-house lawyer for Birdon Group, a global company servicing the maritime, military and resource sectors. The role, which she has held since early 2022, requires both her business and law expertise, with responsibilities including providing legal advice, education and strategies as well as overseeing dispute resolution, compliance and risk management.

“The uniqueness of residing in a regional area while working for a global company with extensive influence in the maritime sector is something I consider myself extremely fortunate to experience,” Cunning says.

“Coming from a business degree background, I was particularly drawn to the prospect of working within an organisation. This has allowed me to gain a comprehensive understanding of the business, provide advice and witness the practical implementation of my advice.

“The commercial aspect of being an in-house lawyer was also highly appealing. Understanding the risks associated with the different divisions of the business, particularly concerning Birdon’s comprehensive maritime services, offering cradle to grave solutions in the defence, resources and broader maritime space, has been very stimulating.”

A byproduct of this experience has been the formation of a strong and collaborative working relationship with her manager, General Counsel Cicely Sylow, which Cunning credits to their both specialising in different areas of the law before commencing in-house positions. “This dynamic allows us to serve as sounding boards for one another, providing valuable input, and providing the business well-rounded advice,” Cunning explains.

But Sylow is not the only person to have made a mark on Cunning’s career; she also acknowledges the mentorship of “exceptional individuals”, including Larry King SC and barristers Terry Rowles and Simon McMahon. “They graciously took me under their wing and played a pivotal role in shaping me as the lawyer I have become today,” she says.

Cunning is grateful for the strong work ethic instilled by her parents. An insightful quote her father shared – “it takes 10,000 hours to be good at anything” – has become, she says, “a principle that I apply to various aspects of my life.”

Cunning says she has had “a lot of satisfaction from my journey as a lawyer”, but practising in a regional setting is not without its challenges. In particular, she notes the limited availability of resources critical to aiding her early career, including access to colleagues working in specialised areas and extensive legal libraries.

But there are distinct advantages too: being exposed to diverse experiences; the closeness of the legal community in small towns; and the creation of a healthy work/life balance, which for Cunning includes snorkelling and surfing with her husband – also a Port Macquarie local – as well as hiking inland trails and walking her dogs.

“Living in Port Macquarie brings me great joy,” Cunning reflects. “It has stunning beaches, beautiful waterfalls in the hinterland, and is evolving into a regional hub.”

Looking to the future

Five years into her career, Cunning says her professional experience has “exceeded all expectations,” but while she is “grateful and fulfilled”, she is craving more.

Hoping to continue her professional g­­rowth, Cunning plans to specialise in the same industry as Birdon Group’s operations, by developing a deeper understanding of current regulations, trends and challenges in the field. She is also committed to driving process improvements within the company’s legal team and to enhancing her mentorship skills so that she can eventually assume a leadership role.

“The work I have undertaken and the experiences I have encountered have surpassed my initial expectations, granting me opportunities I never thought would come my way,” Cunning concludes.

“I am always looking to expand my knowledge and skillset. I want to continuously seek opportunities to broaden my understanding of different legal disciplines, allowing me to offer well-rounded and comprehensive advice to my clients.”