The call of the country

By Roselina Press

Working in the Australian outback means Rhys Aconley-Jones (JD 2014) never knows where his day will take him.

Aconley-Jones lives in Yuendumu in the Northern Territory, where he works as a Mediation and Justice Coordinator at the Central Desert Regional Council. Yuendumu, located 290km north-west of Alice Springs along the red and dusty Tanami Track, is one of the largest Aboriginal communities in central Australia, home to roughly 1000 people.

In his role, Aconley-Jones works with elders to reduce family violence and provides support to members of the community experiencing legal issues and criminal matters. But life in remote Australia moves to an irregular beat, and he often finds himself in unpredictable situations.

“I love that I have no idea what my days are going to look like,” he says.

“Just the other week I observed an Indigenous land rights negotiation – I was the only whitefella there. They pulled me in at the last minute because they wanted someone to record the proceedings.

“I also had to drive four hours out bush for a mediation meeting recently. It was important to meet at that spot because it had cultural significance for the parties in dispute. When I came into the office that morning I had no idea that I’d be driving out to a sacred site. My days are completely unpredictable.”

Call of the Country
Above image: L-R: Freddy Williams, Rhys Aconley-Jones and Valerie Martin. Credit: Rhys Aconley-Jones

After graduating from MLS, Aconley-Jones considered finding a job in Melbourne but couldn’t find the meaningful work he was looking for. Hoping to make a difference in people’s lives, and avoid an urban ‘nine-to-five’ role, he was drawn to remote Australia.

“In terms of opportunity for both meaningful work and career advancement, out here in the outback there’s nothing else quite like it,” he says.

“It’s a lucrative place to be if you’re looking for a meaningful career and want to be in an environment that is chaotic, where you’re learning a lot of skills and advancing quickly.”

But working in the outback is also tough. Change happens slowly, and requires hard-won trust and collaboration between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous members of the community.

“Sometimes there is a sense of hopelessness among non-Indigenous and Indigenous people, and to stay buoyant in that is the biggest challenge,” Aconley-Jones says.

Remote Australia is a place that tests your mettle. For people who want that challenge, it’s fantastic. Working alongside Indigenous people in a remote community is also an amazing experience that will teach you a lot about yourself.

Hans Bokelund (MCommrclLaw 2010, LLB 2003) was working as a barrister at the Victorian Bar when he was approached by an independent recruitment agency to consider a job in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia. Bokelund accepted the role, becoming CEO at Goldfields Land & Sea Council, the peak Aboriginal land and heritage body for Aboriginal people from the Goldfields-Esperance region.

“I decided to take the CEO role in Kalgoorlie as the position allowed me to assist Aboriginal people directly in this region to gain native title rights and interests, which had previously been denied in the Wongatha case (a 2007 case where a native title claim in the region was dismissed),” he says.

“Since taking on this role, the organisation has achieved two landmark Native Title determinations, and a third (is) on the way later this year.”

Even though the isolation can be challenging, with Perth more than six hours drive away, Bokelund says working in a regional community provides valuable experiences that can’t be found in city centres.

Personally, I think it should be mandatory for all new law graduates to undertake a two-year stint in a regional community, to grow, learn and develop their own life experiences and open their eyes about other opportunities that lie outside the big cities.

Joanne D’Andrea (LLB(Hons) 1995, BA 1995) knows what it’s like to discover the opportunities found in regional Australia. She has been living in Geelong for nearly 10 years, after moving from Melbourne with her family.

D’Andrea now works as General Counsel to AWH Pty Ltd, a Geelong-based logistics and warehousing company, but she initially planned to commute to Melbourne for work. She soon discovered, however, that Geelong law firms were “keen to employ Melbourne-based lawyers who are looking for a sea-change”. D’Andrea worked as a Senior Associate and then Principal at Harwood Andrews Lawyers for eight years, before taking up her role at AWH Pty Ltd. She is also on the board of the Geelong Chamber of Commerce.

D’Andrea says one of the benefits of working in a regional area is being able to actively support the local community.

“There are many opportunities to join local boards and committees in Geelong,” she says. “This is seen as an extension of legal practice and is an excellent way to make a significant contribution to the business and general community.”

D’Andrea believes employment in a regional area shouldn’t be seen as a ‘second best’ option.

“Regional law firms are becoming an attractive alternative to the city experience. It can also be an excellent way to develop a broad range of skills without being prematurely pigeon-holed into a particular specialty.

If a law graduate is keen to experience a wide variety of hands-on legal work and client contact, a regional law firm is likely to offer this.

James Flintoft (LLB 1987, BSc 1987) is the Chief Executive of government agency Regional Development Victoria. He is based in Melbourne but spends several days each week travelling across the state, from Mildura and Portland to Wodonga and East Gippsland, working with communities to drive economic growth and improve regional liveability.

“When asked where I work, I say, ‘in a Ford Territory’,” he jokes.

Flintoft agrees that regional Australia offers law graduates the chance to broaden their legal skills.

I have friends from law school who joined country practices. They say they get work that is much more hands-on with clients – whether civil, commercial or criminal – than those who practice in the city.

Back in Yuendumu, Aconley-Jones doesn’t hesitate when asked if he recommends working in a remote community to others who are curious about a country career.

“It’s an incredible experience. If you feel the pull, go for it.”

Banner image: Paul Dymond, Lonely Planet Images

Credit: Getty Images

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 17, May 2017