“I recall a very interesting case where a funeral parlour was being operated from a home.”
I am a senior instructor and course leader for legal practice at Victoria University, director on a Victorian government board, law author and run my own law firm.
I was born in Fiji. My father grew up in a very poor rural farming community, he was very studious and bright, which saw him cross the ocean by boat to England, where he studied to be a lawyer through London University and the Middle Temple. He instilled in me the value of education and hard work.
Tragically my father passed away a few days before my tenth birthday in Fiji. It was a very difficult time and my mother made a lot of sacrifices as a young widow and we moved to Canada soon thereafter when I was a teenager, and I finished high school with first class honours, despite being a migrant in a faraway new country.
At the age of 16 I won a scholarship for my pre-law studies at the University of British Columbia, and then went to New Zealand to study law at the University of Auckland.
I enjoyed university and hoped to study further later on.
I finished law school, finalised my arts major and practical training then graduated with a BA, LLB and started my first year in Auckland City as a property lawyer. After many months of daily leases, tenancies and land transfers I felt unchallenged and decided to make the trip to Fiji to experience being a courtroom lawyer.
Many lawyers were eager to specialize in the booming property law market but I wanted to experience the courtroom. In law school, I had read all these cases of courtroom battles and here I was doing land transfer forms. I was hoping my trip to Fiji would change that.
Fiji was so very exciting and vastly different!
The shock of coming from a smooth commercial legal system in Auckland to Fiji, where people did not have efficient access to law, very old paper-based transactions, waiting years for cases to be heard, drawn-out appeals dragging cases on and dealing with a very slow bureaucratic civil-service.
And it was really hot. But it was thrilling.
I started as a litigator – a courtroom lawyer.
By doing many small cases in the lower courts, I slowly built a career and a reputation. I won a very minor fraud case for an insurance company, who being a little impressed, started giving me a lot of their smaller claims litigation files, so my practice branched out into insurance and more commercial law. I loved arguing cases and would attend court most mornings. I slowly mastered the art of drafting legal forms which serves me to this day.
From there, I started getting involved with New Zealand again. A lot of New Zealand investors were doing business in Fiji, particularly purchasing land near beaches and setting-up small businesses. In this way, I started building connections with NZ again, making me miss Auckland and I decided to move back there to practice for a few years.
At the time in-between Fiji and New Zealand, I still wasn’t certain of my direction, all I knew was that I wanted to grow my career and experience more law.
I saw an opportunity in NSW for an environmental planning solicitor-advocate. I already had the property law experience from Auckland and the advocacy experience from Fiji. I applied for the position from Fiji and was invited to fly to Sydney to sit an interview.
After a long flight, very tired, my ears aching from air pressure, I went straight to the interview from Sydney Airport to find that all the candidates had to sit a long multi-part written exam! The exam included writing a case note, theory, listening to a court attendance summary etc. I somehow made my way through it, but I didn’t hold much hope as there were many applicants.
After the morning exam, I was having lunch nearby, when I got a call advising I had scored the highest mark on their exam and the position was mine if I wanted it.
Moving to Sydney was tough.
There were subtle, but crucial differences between Australia and Fiji/NZ laws, legal systems and jurisdictions. There was a lot to relearn, plus I didn’t know anyone so it was quite a lonely experience to start with. I had to wake up at 5am and be in the office before 7am everyday so that I could be on top of practising in a new country in a new area of law.
But I really enjoyed the work. I got to work on environmental damage and pollution, how it affects communities, evidence briefs, planning law and architectural designs, and appearing in NSW Land & Environment Court proceedings. The importance of gathering and presenting evidence in court was drummed into me for which I am forever grateful.
I recall a very interesting case where a funeral parlour was being operated from a home.
The neighbours complained to the council as there were funeral hearses going up and down their street every weekend. We hired an investigator who staked out in their car taking videos and pictures of bodies being moved in and out and funerals being held from a residential home. We took the matter to court and had successful orders made ending the unlawful business.
Then, in early 2009, the constitutional crisis and control by coup escalated in Fiji.
I had made my mind to return back to Fiji and although tough, I missed Fiji and I wanted to be involved in working and practising law with the community that had given me so much enjoyment of my profession. I had learnt a lot in Auckland and Sydney and it was a great time to take that experience back to Fiji.
I didn’t regret it. I relished working in Fiji and this time around I introduced into my practice many improvements from my time overseas. I was working on mainly commercial cases, government, banking, personal injuries and commercial law.
I also kept up strong links with New Zealand and Australia, frequently travelling for cases that involved international clients.
My work included being briefed by a Canadian Queens Counsel, acting for a major New Zealand “Big 4” firm, tourism land estates and insurance and banking matters.
I was back in Fiji for 5 years and the urge to learn more new law and take on more challenges started to take hold again. I always felt a pressing ambition, a desire to do and achieve more. I never liked being in a comfort zone and wanted another challenge in law. I think many lawyers may have been happy with the usual luxuries, a nice office and regular work. But I always yearned for more.
So, even though I’d never worked in Melbourne, I felt it had the best opportunities in law for me if I moved over and worked hard.
My family and friends were aghast that I wanted to give up my successful practice and go somewhere we had no contacts or experience and start from scratch.
For 3 months, I had no luck at all. Only interview after interview.
Most of the law-firms and recruiters would keep emphasising that I was in my early 30s or with Fiji/New Zealand experience and it was too late to start as a lawyer in a competitive place like Melbourne.
Friends and family in Fiji and New Zealand were calling for us to come back. But I was determined to succeed in Melbourne. I wanted to be a lawyer in Melbourne. And I wanted to be a good lawyer. The challenge of coming in winter and job hunting was exciting.
I kept going, and at the end of the third month, I was offered not one, but two jobs in the same week.
Both positions and offers were great but ultimately I decided to join CECA. Luckily I had clerked in immigration law during my law school days and had a good knowledge of the field. They were in the heart of Collins Street, and were planning on opening a law practice to cater for their expanding immigration business and were hiring lawyers.
They started me off very junior. It was a bit tedious, but I was determined to prove myself. After a few months, they started realizing that I was capable of much more legal work than what they were giving me. I moved to being an in-house counsel, then joining their law firm -Astral Legal.
Over the next year, I was promoted to a director at Astral, helping the firm grow and branch out into commercial and family law.
I was enrolled as a solicitor of the High Court of Australia. We expanded and hired more lawyers. I also grew my networks, made contacts in the industry, and got myself noticed by the larger firms in Melbourne.
So when an opportunity arose at Hunt Migration, a very large global practice, I went for it very determined, and got the job.
Hunt Migration was very different to CECA-Astral. They were global, with beautiful offices in every city and a very polished corporate culture. I was in charge of the Melbourne Office. My picture was coming in the papers and on the web.
It was a great job.
I flew between Brisbane and Melbourne every week, stayed in hotels, I worked on bigger cases and higher profile clients. Best part was having my own secretary to manage my diary and a beautiful rooftop bar for winding down after hours.
The next big break arrived when I was contacted by a partner of Piper Alderman, a top Australian commercial law firm. The partner told me she was working on a legal research project for LexisNexis for the Jurisdiction Guide to Australia, a very important publication in legal circles, and wanted to know if I would be interested in working with them to write the immigration law section.
It was a dream come true to be offered an opportunity to contribute to the guide as a credited co-author.
Through that exposure, I was able to finally secure a university teaching position. It has always been my intention to enter law academia and research if a rare opportunity came up.
With my position at Hunt Migration as head of the Melbourne practice and my LexisNexis expert authorship, I was invited to be interviewed by the university panel and it was a gruelling experience. But my application was successful. I was offered a position as instructor in the legal practice program.
The university has been great.
They made me a fabulous offer that allows me to teach, research, study and also maintain my own law practice.
I have my own beautiful office on campus. I get so many holidays, attend law conferences, take my students to court, and work on interesting law projects. The university has an excellent free staff study program and I recently completed my university teaching qualifications. I have also published under my name the university legal practice manual and delivered training to external clients.
After leaving Hunt Migration and joining Victoria University, I had set up my own practice as ‘Donald Gordon Lawyer’. I initially had difficulty getting clients for my new firm as most days I was teaching or researching at the university.
However my prior networking and mentoring efforts paid off.
A former colleague of mine from Astral who I worked with and had mentored had also opened up her own practice, doing conveyancing, immigration and family law. She was doing really well and reached a point where she was struggling with the workload and needed another lawyer to handle more complex legal matters. We now have a very busy law firm that operates both morning and evenings and we have a large expanding client base.
Another great opportunity arose from the LexisNexis authorship, was being approached by Thomson Reuters, a LexisNexis competitor, to write for them. One of the articles I wrote received a lot of attention and was republished and rebranded as a UK Global Guide.
The university is very supportive of my skills and intellect, encouraging me to further my law research, so I applied and was awarded a Master of Law Scholarship at Deakin University.
My plan is to then continue on with further higher research in law. I hope to continue to inspire and encourage young women and men to work hard and study further. I’m forever lecturing my students to read more, aim higher and not to give up.
It’s ironic and a bit amusing as now I get emails from law firms in Melbourne making me offers to join them.
And I can remember not too long ago coming to Melbourne and looking for a job.
A recent achievement I am very proud of is being appointed a Director and Board Member of Australian Public Hospitals by the Victorian Government. My first appointment is to Colac Area Health including their hospital and cancer treatment centre; it’s a great honour and an opportunity to give back for all that I have been given and achieved in this great country.
I aim to continue further in law, serve my community and my country.
The path to this is through being a great lawyer, a dedicated scholar and an influential teacher. I intend to be all of these things.
It took a lot of hard work, struggle and sacrifice but I am excited at what the future may now hold.
My advice to someone seeking a career in law is the learning never stops and neither should you.
And I’m still searching for the next challenge.