Thank you for making time to speak with Hearsay.
10 Minutes with… Kathryn McMillan KC
The editor chatted with Kathryn McMillan KC, the most senior woman silk practising in Queensland.
You know I always enjoy a chat with you.
You have enjoyed a glittering career. You were admitted to the Bar in 1987 and took silk in 2006. You practise across a raft of legal spheres, public and private, but in particular you are known for your expertise in child protection and family law. You have appeared as counsel assisting or representing substantial parties in no less than seven commissions or inquiries. In 2019 you were Lawyers’ Weekly “Woman Barrister of the Year”. Despite all that, how is it that you are able to maintain such a pleasant approachable disposition?
That’s kind of you – not sure how glittery it is! Our occupation is stressful and challenging enough and if you can pick up the phone with your opponent – all the better. I like to think many of our colleagues at the Bar in Queensland would do that.
Do you feel the weight of those who would seek to characterise you as a yardstick for, and mentor of, only women barristers?
I wouldn’t see myself as a yardstick for anyone – more of a rare species these days! I try to offer practical and “moral” support to our younger colleagues – male and female. It is probably one of the most satisfying parts of practice to watch their development through the profession and I have been lucky enough to work with them!
Family responsibilities – whether they are caring for children, a relative with disabilities or elderly parents still disproportionately affect women and I expect that will continue. However, many of my male colleagues today, as opposed to when I started, are much more actively involved and want to be in family life. Also to have equitable opportunities we must take everyone with us, not just preach to the converted. I know various Chambers and Lists are heading in that direction.
In your various practise spheres, is there one for which you have a particular liking, and if so why?
I really enjoy Inquiries and inquest work. The former often involve topical social, legal and political issues and you hope the reports will make a difference to legal and public discourse. The strategic decisions are very different from those made during a trial for instance and you often work alongside other Counsel who you may not come across in day-to-day practice.
Specialisation has become de rigueur at the Bar. Do you foresee that further specialisation – in the sense of micro-specialisation – will ensue?
I think that is likely, however I am not really in favour of specialisation particularly when you are very junior at the Bar. I think to develop your skill set, everyone should undertake at least one jury trial and appear in as many different Courts and Tribunals as they can. It also gives you a broader perspective of the community – particularly in spheres where the work is not well remunerated and the impact on clients is very significant eg crime, migration and child protection to name but a few. Also, undertake pro bono work – even if it’s not within your comfort zone. There is always someone to ask for guidance.
In your view is further judicial specialisation – in the sense of more specialised lists – on the cards?
I think that is also likely – the Federal Court obviously has delineated practice areas and I note the recent expansion of the judges in the commercial causes list in the Supreme Court. I think given the greater specialisation at the Bar and in solicitors’ firms will inevitably flow onto those elevated to the Bench.
How has the Covid19 pandemic changed – if at all – Bar practice?
Clearly it impacted disproportionately the junior and the criminal Bar, although I acknowledge the hard work of the Courts and senior members of the Bar to alleviate it. On the upside, there is more flexibility as to where one can appear and the costs are less if the client is not paying for travel or time waiting at Court. The disadvantage is that our colleagues I perceived felt isolated and missed the support and camaraderie of Chambers. In Victoria, I read there is a call for the senior members of the Bar to physically get back into Court. This is important for issues of perceived accessibility of the Courts for the public and opportunities for juniors to observe and meet others.
Is the traditional chamber model under threat?
I wouldn’t say threat – but there needs to be more flexibility. It is very difficult during maternity leave and then paying (even part-time) child care costs to meet overheads. At the other end, if colleagues want to undertake less appearance work over time, it is desirable for everyone to retain their experience and expertise. I know, Richard, you will continue on forever, but it is a real thought as I approach the latter part of your career. Where do you get the energy!
Your father Bill was a well-known, and highly regarded, barrister. How did that pedigree resonate, if at all, in your decision to come to the Bar?
Dad decided one of his children could do anything but it had to be law. What I didn’t know was that he would apply the cab rank rule and as I was the eldest … I didn’t plan on coming to the Bar, but as my husband tells me I would not be suited to life as a solicitor (I am sure he is being supportive!). I left Crown Law and just thought I would have a go at the Bar and see how it worked out ….
How do you achieve a work-life balance?
The answer is it is never quite balanced. At times it all just seems relentless – the workload and in particular trying to have enough time with your family.
I am better now at taking proper holidays and if a trial finishes earlier I will spend more time at home with the family. I still wish I worked less on weekends.
What is your favourite legal movie, and why?
“The Castle”? I have heard many submissions over the years based on the “vibe”. I actually prefer TV series – “Silk”, “The Split” … although it always looks more glamorous than it is! When I have a bad day in Court I love to watch a good Scandinavian murder …. Very satisfying ….
Are you a marathoner, a runner, a walker or a couch potato?
As you well know I am not a runner! I exercise as a means to an end – realising one of the most neglected areas of our lives in practice is mental and physical wellbeing. For relaxation I squeeze in reading, cooking, sewing, piano (played very badly) and find them quite meditative. That sounds more serious than it is … I find it difficult to switch off. I am very fortunate to have wonderful family, friends and colleagues and eat and drink more than I probably should.
What do you say to the Queensland rugby league diehards who are calling for Jonathan Thurston to make a cameo comeback in 2023 to the State of Origin side?
Who? I watch rugby …
What is your advice to those who are fresh in the ranks of the Bar in the last 12 months?
I would say look after yourself – physically and mentally. I wish I had known at 23 that sitting at a desk for many hours, poor posture and irregularly exercising was not a good idea. Also, take holidays regularly! There will be another brief…Be realistic about time and cost estimates in taking work on. I was terrifically bad at it…
Thanks for speaking to Hearsay.