Alumna ascends to top of bar association

President of the Australian Bar Association and MLS alumna Jennifer Batrouney QC is on a mission to improve diversity in the legal profession.

Jennifer Batrouney
Jennifer Batrouney QC. Image supplied.

By Rachel Hewitt

Jennifer Batrouney QC says the “exhilarating” nature of a career as a barrister is “the best kept secret on the planet.”

“I love the one-on-one contact, actually being able to help people,” she says. “I love the fact that I am my own boss – no timesheets or budgets. I love the excitement of going into court, dealing with judges and being surrounded by a fleet of wonderful juniors.”

It is fitting, then, that the MLS alumna (LLB(Hons), BCom 1987) now represents the nation’s more than 6500 barristers as the new President of the Australian Bar Association (ABA).

Batrouney is only the fourth woman to be elected ABA President in its 56-year history.

It is such an honour to be able to represent the Bar, to be able to advocate for the improvement of the law and the legal profession.

Batrouney has spent 28 years at the Bar as a tax and charity law specialist. She also teaches in the Melbourne Law Masters Program, and her extensive contribution to the professional community has included serving as president of the Victorian Bar Association, the Tax Bar Association and Australian Women Lawyers.

Batrouney’s interest in taxation was piqued when she undertook vacation work at Peat Marwick Mitchell (now KPMG) as an MLS student in the 1980s. It was there she was introduced to two of her great loves – tax law and her husband of 29 years, Steve.

“[Steve] was doing ‘sandwich year’ in the tax division, so we met there and tax became what we did. We have loved it – and each other – ever since.”

After university, Batrouney joined Blake & Riggall (now Ashurst), where she worked with Terry Murphy QC, who was recruited from the Bar to set up the firm’s tax division. The pair became friends and when Murphy returned to the Bar in 1991, Batrouney followed.

It just seemed like something that would be a new and exciting challenge.

Her mentors included tax barristers Greg Davies QC, the late Neil Forsyth QC and John de Wijn AM QC. Batrouney “hit the ground running” and was appointed a silk within only nine years.

“I had these wonderful mentors who fed me work and so I was very, very lucky to go straight into a full-on tax practice.”

Batrouney took the importance of mentoring to heart. She has since taken on “dozens and dozens” of mentees, including, in a poignant closing of the circle, Forsyth’s two daughters. She was named the 2014 Law Institute of Victoria’s ‘Mentor of the Year’.

In another closing of the circle, Batrouney is proud that her son James has also graduated from MLS, completing his Juris Doctor in 2017, and her younger son Mark is well on the way to completing a Master of Finance at Melbourne Business School.

In her new role as ABA President, Batrouney is busy organising its biennial international conference, to be held in Singapore in July. It is the first time the event has been staged in Asia.

Diversity is another key priority.

A member of the Victorian Bar Indigenous Justice Committee, Batrouney says the representation of Aboriginal people within the legal profession is “appalling”. Of the ABA’s 6500 members, just over a dozen identify themselves as Indigenous Australians.

“We need to work on that right from schools and law schools, to support Indigenous Australians to come through as barristers and members of the judiciary,” Batrouney says.

She notes that the Bar tends to be “dominated by white, middle-aged to elderly men”, and the statistics show women barristers are not getting the number of briefs they deserve.

“There’s still a lot more work to be done there.”

Women barristers make up only 11 per cent of senior appointments (or silks) and 25 per cent of practising barristers, according to the ABA. However, Batrouney notes that the number of women at the Bar is on the rise. For example, 41 per cent of the barristers who have been at the Victorian Bar for under 15 years are female. Under its Equitable Briefing Policy, the Law Council of Australia has set targets for women to be briefed in at least 30 per cent of all briefs and receive at least 30 per cent of the value of all briefs by 2020.

Batrouney says it’s important for young people to see women in roles like hers, as well as female judges and chief justices.

“It’s inspirational. They can think, ‘I can do that. It’s okay for me to do that too’.”

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 21, June 2019