Lee Carnie

Lee Carnie

You Have to Be Yourself

In Conversation with Lee Carnie (JD 2011)

I was sitting in the iconic Seven Seeds, heart pounding from the strong coffee I had in the morning and the nerves of meeting an accomplished legal professional. Last minute before leaving the house, I had quickly changed out of my red jumper into a tan blazer in an attempt to look more professional. I felt silly doing this, but I feared it might be a faux pas to wear a jumper.

I sent Lee an email about my location in the cafĂ© with a short description of what I looked like so they would know how to find me. They emailed back, ‘I’m 6 ft 1 wearing all black looking queer AF :P’. Nearly all of my nerves melted away when I read Lee’s email. There’s something so magical about the way that you can feel instantly comfortable in the presence of another unapologetically queer person.

Lee’s time at the University of Melbourne

Rocking up in a black zip-up, Lee was radiating cool from the beginning. We laughed about how I had changed into a blazer last minute. We discussed the law school and what has changed. I told them about the gender neutral bathrooms that we have now, which the law school didn’t have when Lee was a student. I also told Lee that students can study part-time now. They expressed how happy they were for this development, as they had struggled to juggle work and a fulltime study load during their time at law school.

Lee’s story about how they ended up at Melbourne was pleasantly familiar to me. We weren’t people who planned from high school that we needed to get into the JD at an elite law school. We bonded in the fact that both of us didn’t really know what we wanted to do, we just had lived experiences that made us realise the world is unjust and felt that surely getting involved in the law would be the way to fix this. Lee remarked about incredibly driven and passionate teachers who inspired them at Melbourne, but followed up with:

“Having said that, it did feel a bit isolating. I feel like a lot of the people that I was studying with had really specific corporate law goals in mind, and it took a bit of time to find some other folks who were social justice minded through volunteering.”

Leaning in close to the phone that was transcribing our conversation, Lee made sure to give Professor John Tobin a shout out, saying that they learned about the Human Rights Law Centre through a guest lecturer that John had organised to come speak at the school. Shortly after, Lee started volunteering with them.

Community legal centres

It was through this volunteering that Lee realised their passion and their skills were better suited towards a position with a community legal centre, as there is usually a combination of community legal education, representation, legal advice, legal service delivery, and policy involved with those jobs. Working towards reform became their passion because they wanted to focus on fixing the root of the problem. They made a really good point, saying, ‘Sometimes if you're just doing casework day in and day out, you can just feel like you're working in triage, and you’re just putting a Band-Aid on a problem that’s going to keep coming back.’ After much hard (unpaid) volunteer work with the Human Rights Law Centre, Lee secured their dream job working in a branch of the Human Rights Law Centre that focussed on LGBTQIA+ rights. They later worked with Anna Brown to set up Equality Australia, Australia’s first national legal advocacy and campaigning organisation focussed on LGBTQIA+ rights.

Despite all this incredibly inspiring work, Lee and I did discuss the reality of working with marginalised groups in the legal system. We discussed the ways in which the law functions to keep people in vulnerable situations. They said most of their young clients were people experiencing a number of social factors outside of their control – homelessness, family violence, alcohol and drug abuse issues, mental health issues, disabilities, being forced into debt, having rental issues, being discriminated against at their work, and not having their rights respected. Lee saw young, vulnerable people being fined and charged by government authorities solely because they didn’t have access to the mental health, housing, and other social support services that they needed. One thing that Lee said about this really stood out to me, as it is something I’ve always thought since I first started learning about the law:

“We often talk about it being a “broken system”, but I think that’s a common myth. My response to that is that it is the system working exactly as it should – punishing people for being marginalised, which is outside of their control, and asking you to favour people with privilege. Unfortunately, the legal system is engaging in active oppression of groups of people in our society, and we need to be actively trying to dismantle how the system is working to harm people who should be thriving and living their best lives in the community.”

Lee elaborated, telling stories of clients they represented who had no idea what was being discussed in the courts because of the barrier of legal technicalities, when it was their lives and their consequences at stake. They said this is by design to exclude marginalised people form the conversations regarding their own lives.

Advocating for the LGBTQIA+ communities in the courts

But it’s not all doom and gloom, as Lee has worked tirelessly in the Human Rights sector, and their hard work has paid off many times. For instance, they worked on the M106 High Court challenge to the marriage equality postal vote, which they said was one of the most professionally stressful experiences of their life. Despite the loss, this case was necessary to represent the voices of the LGBTQIA+ community in the High Court and show the community that there are powerful, committed people in the legal sector who care about their wellbeing. Lee said after the post-case press conference, their team immediately took off their jackets, put on their campaign ‘Yes’ T-shirts, and started handing out ‘How to Vote’ cards at the Flagstaff train station. This shows that, despite the legal outcome, Lee will never stop their advocacy in grassroots community organising. I think this is a valuable lesson for all law students pursuing social justice careers.

Lee also worked on the Re Kelvin case, which removed the bureaucratic and financial barrier of requiring trans youth to get court approval to access stage 2 and 3 hormone treatment. One of the highlights of all of Lee’s stories was hearing them talk about calling up the participating families about the winning outcome in the Full Court of the Family Court, and hearing them cry and scream in celebration with their families. Hearing reactions like that from real people with already difficult lives has to be a huge highlight of the job.

Beyond their career

In my interview with Lee, we talked about more than just their career. This was a really important area for me to discuss with them because conversations about the legal sector often focus on the grind of the career. Lacking from career conversations is any acknowledgement that we are valuable human beings regardless of our jobs. Lee and I discussed how to maintain your wellbeing when working in this space, especially when something like your right to exist is being debated. Lee shared that being attacked by conservative opposition in the media while you’re campaigning for change can be really exhausting – it would be for anyone! We only have so much resolve and resilience. Therefore, Lee said they are strict about taking care of themselves and have to keep in mind that their job cannot take over their life, regardless of how passionate they are about their work. They said they do a lot of energy-replenishing activities, and when I mentioned going to therapy, they said, “Yes! I didn’t know if I was allowed to say that, but lots of therapy!”

Finding the perfect balance without compromising yourself

During the interview, Lee struck such an impressive balance between being professional while also honest, warm, and insightful. As someone who feels like I don’t necessarily fit the mould of the typical law student, I was curious about their approach to maintaining that balance – how can you be a legal professional who also maintains your unique sense of identity? To which Lee said,

“You have to be yourself. If they don’t appreciate who you are, then they don’t deserve you.”

I’m certain a lot of law students, not only me, needed to hear this. Lee is a paragon of balancing your unapologetic identity with the professional requirements of their career.

I can only hope that my fellow law students who feel similarly alienated by an overwhelming corporate focus may feel as relieved as I was to know that there are stories like Lee’s out there. I approached my interview with Lee feeling anxious and overwhelmed, but I left feeling so much more confident about my place in the law school, legal practice, and beyond.

Prepared by: Paige Santelli
JD Student MLS
September 2022

A personal reflection

My hope is that this narrative will feel comfortable, relatable, and inspiring to law students, especially queer and gender diverse students. I aim to accurately represent how welcomed and safe I felt in the presence of such an accomplished Human Rights lawyer, advocate, and community organiser. My interview with Lee Carnie was a refreshing reminder that, as much as the legal industry tries to make us conform, we do not have to compromise our values or who we are to do something we love.