Fiona McLeod

Fiona McLeod

“Advocacy, Compassion, and a Gendered View from the Bar”

In Conversation with Fiona McLeod AO KC (LLB 1987; LLM 2012)

“I think there is joy in service, in knowing that you are contributing your skills in improving the lot of a person, community or country. Making that contribution allows you to feel that you’ve found your place.”

Before my interview with Fiona McLeod on a cold winter afternoon, I diligently researched her career to-date. I learnt that Fiona is a Senior Barrister who has worked on an impressive range of Royal Commissions, she is Senior Counsel of the Yoorrook Truth and Justice Commission, and she has led organisations including the Law Council of Australia, the Australian Bar Association, the Victorian Bar and Australian Women Lawyers. I also discovered that Fiona was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia for her service to the law.

Yet my research failed to prepare me for the down-to-earth and personable nature of Fiona, who welcomed me into her family home for our interview. In our conversation, we traced Fiona’s career from an unenthusiastic law student to a Senior Barrister and delved into her history of advocating for the underrepresented. Most importantly, I was deeply struck by Fiona’s compassion, vulnerability and warmth  qualities I didn’t quite associate with being a good advocate, but now do.

Law School and Early Career

Our conversation began with Fiona’s experience at Melbourne Law School (MLS). Somewhat unexpectedly, she was initially a reluctant law student who struggled with purpose and motivation in her law degree. Then, in her third year, Fiona studied international law with Professor Gillian Triggs, who “turned the lights on” for her. She was inspired by the power of international legal mechanisms, especially in cases of human rights abuses. Once Fiona had her “lightbulb moment”, she became engaged in her studies and found her passion for the law.

Fiona competed in mooting and witness examination competitions at MLS, which sparked her interest in the bar. After her law degree, Fiona worked as a solicitor at Cornwalls for a few years. She was sometimes sent to court as an instructing solicitor, where she watched the barristers in action. This experience encouraged her to take the plunge and join the bar herself.

Being a Female Barrister in the 90s

Fiona joined the bar in 1991 and has become a leader in the field, working across both public and commercial law. Throughout her career, Fiona has long advocated for gender equality in the legal profession, so I was curious about her experience as a woman in chambers.

“Growing up, I didn’t really have an awareness of gender differences. I went to an all-girls school and grew up in a professional family.” Fiona is nostalgic as she recounts her adolescence, but her tone shifts to one of frustration as she describes her early experience in the legal profession, “I was shocked to get into the workplace and discover that so few women were partners in law firms, and at the bar, women were almost absent.”

Fiona details the structural gender inequality that she both experienced and witnessed at the bar in the 90s. “There was this assumption that women weren’t good advocates whereas men were. I used to be told, ‘I wanted to brief you but the client wouldn’t brief a woman.’ There was also this expectation that if you had children, you leave the bar; if you had children, you can’t work on a long case.” I shake my head in disbelief at the blatant sexism Fiona had faced, yet she persevered. Here she was, 30 years later, with a celebrated career as an undeniably good advocate.

Fiona had two daughters early in her career at the bar. They smile at us from photos on the wall, affectionate anecdotes about them slide seamlessly in and out of our conversation. It is clear that Fiona’s family means everything to her. Yet being a mother also took a toll on her career. As a young barrister, Fiona felt she had to re-build her career after each child, a struggle she mostly kept to herself:

“The bar is a place where you never say you’re struggling for work because people assume you’re failing; so it’s a self-perpetuating loop where you have to pretend you’re doing really well in order for people to think you’re competent. It’s a dynamic career where there are times you’re up till three in the morning with adrenaline, working on a case. Then there’s the downtime where you have no work and think you’ll never get another brief.”

When I asked Fiona how the position of female barristers have changed in her time, she smiles knowingly. “People have an entrenched idea that a good barrister is someone masculine and blustering. That idea is slowly changing as people are beginning to realise that you win cases by persuasion rather than by having a particular demeanour.” As president of the Law Council of Victoria, Fiona helped introduce equitable briefing schemes. She played an instrumental role in persuading law firms, corporations and government bodies commit to a briefing target for women barristers, which helped counter the structural inequalities that she herself had faced.

The Emotional Toll of Advocacy

Fiona is incredibly open about the personal and structural challenges she faced as a new barrister. As she progressed in her career, she took on cases that had a deep emotional effect on her. I quickly learnt that Fiona is a compassionate person. Her empathy for victims of injustice is what motivates her to advocate for the most vulnerable, but that work also takes an emotional toll.
Fiona worked on the Royal Commission into Bushfires and the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse. In these roles, she heard testimony about people’s most traumatic experiences, which affected her in the form of lateral trauma.

“Cases come up and grab you sometimes. Doing this sort of work requires you to take on an emotional burden. At some point, you get to saturation, and you just need to have a cry, you need a safety valve.”

Similarly, in her current work on the Yoorrook Justice Commission, Fiona hears testimony about intergenerational trauma that continues to affect Victoria’s First Nations peoples. When I ask her about her coping mechanism, Fiona says:

“I try to turn that into a motivator for myself, to do more research and to help these people find justice. Some of the most satisfying work I’ve done at the bar is pro bono work that helps people find pathways to justice, and hold someone to account for what has been done to them.”

Pursuing a Masters of Public and International Law

In 2009, Fiona enrolled in a Masters of Public and International Law at MLS. She decided to pursue further study to expand her knowledge in a field of law she was passionate about, “I think I had always wanted to do some further education, just to expand the brain.” Fiona’s eyes light up as she talks about the subjects that she studied as part of her Masters degree: human rights and the environment, climate change law, humanitarian law and the War on Terror.

Two weeks after she signed up for her Masters, Fiona received the brief for the Royal Commission into Bushfires. She describes the process of juggling study and work at this time as “mayhem”. We share a chuckle over an anecdote about Fiona sitting at the back of her environmental law lecture while skyping the junior barrister who was in the Royal Commission.

Fiona’s focus on human rights and climate change in her Masters degree has continued to guide her work in law. She describes human rights as “a natural lens that I apply to everything I’m doing.” She is especially proud of The Justice Project, which the Law Council of Australia undertook while Fiona was President. “We picked 13 vulnerable groups who were identified because they have very limited access to justice. For each of those groups, we did a deep dive on their ability to access justice, and I travelled all around Australia and sat in bush courts, aged care homes and refugee advice centres. We did this amazing report and the human rights of those groups was the narrative, even though it wasn’t overtly expressed that way.”

Experience in Politics

In the 2019 federal election, Fiona ran as a Labor candidate for Higgins. She was driven to venture into politics by both frustration and hope: frustration at the parliamentary inaction on issues that she cared deeply about, and hope that politics can be marked by optimism, generosity, and inclusivity.

“I thought, maybe if I’m in Parliament, I can support evidence-based, equity-driven policies that deliver services for the needed.”

Though she was not successful in her campaign, Fiona used her political platform to shine a light on issues close to her heart. “During the election, I was asked on TV about the one thing I would like to achieve if elected. I said I wanted an Indigenous Voice to Parliament.” Eventually, Fiona was invited to assist the design of the Voice with Aboriginal leaders, which she describes as “an incredible privilege.”

“These Aboriginal leaders from around the country just swept me into their embrace and called me sister. It was fantastic. I had this hope that when you’re doing something that’s bigger than politics, it can work in a non-partisan way. I had hope that policy can be marked by generosity and optimism. We can have conversations that include people and we can provide services that address their needs.”


My biggest takeaway from my interview with Fiona is that caring deeply about people, their communities, their trauma and their experiences makes her a stronger, bolder and more motivated advocate. I learnt that you can find success in the law by staying true to your inherent qualities and values, by letting them motivate and drive you. Fiona’s compassion and vulnerability have guided her in forging an impressive career in a male-dominated field, and it’s inspiring to see that she has remained true to these qualities throughout her time in the legal profession.

At the conclusion of our interview, Fiona explains that her career as an advocate has been deeply rewarding:

“I’m constantly reminded of how privileged we are to be educated, to live in this country, to not have the fear of a war on our doorstep. I feel that the education that has been offered to me is an obligation of service that I embrace wholeheartedly. I think there is joy in service, in knowing that you are contributing your skills in improving the lot of a person, community or country. Making that contribution allows you to feel that you’ve found your place.”