Q and A with Dalit Kaplan

An LLB graduate (Hons 2007), Dalit Kaplan did not expect her career to turn out the way it has; she has practiced in Australia, worked with immigrants in New York, and has now taken a step back from the law and into motherhood, as well as producing a weekly community radio show focusing on gender issues.

Dalit Kaplan
Dalit Kaplan 

What interested you about studying law?
I was passionate about human rights and also loved politics, and I could see that there was a lot of power in law. So I thought that studying law would provide me with the tools to affect change. I also believed that it would provide a certain degree of job security, which is just as important.

What do you think has been the most significant impact of new technologies on the legal industry?
By the time I began to practice, new technologies were fully integrated into legal practice. My husband's grandfather, who trained as a lawyer, has a library filled with about a century's worth of law reports. Once, when we were visiting his house, he was trying to recall the details of Donoghue v Stevenson. He walked over to his bookshelf, picked a volume from the bookshelf, flicked through it and then shouted, "Ah, here it is!". It seemed so quaint. I don't think I've been inside a law office with physical law reports. In terms of other new technologies, I know that people are practicing differently. You don't even have to have a physical office anymore - you can conduct all client meetings through Skype and work from home. This is especially great for people with families or other responsibilities.

How important do you think it is to have an international outlook when studying and practising law?
It depends on your practice. The practice of "international law" seemed very sexy from a student perspective, but few people actually practise in that area exclusively. From a policy perspective, it is always good to be abreast of international practices, to see what is working and what is not.
Also, I studied Civil Law and the EU with Professor Martin Vranken, where I was privileged to gain a very general overview of the civil law system; having that background has proven to be really useful as I encounter different societies.

What inspired you to work and live in New York?
My family immigrated to Australia from Europe after WWII, but most of my relatives had ended up in the US. I visited them when I went on exchange in 2005 and fell in love with New York. As someone with a passion for human rights, New York seemed like a hub, and therefore an important place for me to pursue opportunities. It was a wonderful experience, but incredibly competitive. I actually think much of the more interesting human rights work is outside of New York.

How would you describe the professional culture and legal community in New York?
In some ways, the legal profession in the US feels less like a profession and more like a business. It's also a lot more stratified. The status of the law school you attended determines the course of your career. I feel like the playing field is more level here. The general public is much more engaged with the law in the US as well. The courts seem to be much more politicised, and key decisions get a lot of publicity. Certain judges have an almost celebrity-like status in the US. You don't see that here, which has its advantages and disadvantages.

You were admitted to practice in New York in 2011, what have been the highlights and key challenges involved in this?
I worked with African and Caribbean immigrants - most of whom were undocumented - in Harlem with a local NGO. Many of my clients were HIV positive and survivors of female genital mutilation, and some were in situations of domestic violence. They were the most resilient people I've ever come across, and I continue to draw inspiration from their stories. It was a privilege to meet them. As is the case in all community law contexts, the greatest challenge was dealing with the lack of resources.

You have professional experience in private and non-profit law. What would you say are your key learnings from this experience?
There are wonderful lawyers across all parts of the law and I found great mentors everywhere I went. In a way, you have to be a bit more resourceful in the non-profit sector because you don't have the same support. I'd often have to file documents at the courts on my way home from Harlem and I always posted my own letters.

You have had a strong human rights focus in your career, including immigrant rights, gender rights and corporate accountability. How did you find working in community law around these issues?
It took me some time to realise that face-to-face client work is the most gratifying. It's also more stressful, but I loved having the opportunity to form personal relationships with clients and to learn their remarkable stories. Immigration law and gender law (usually family law) were therefore the better fit. Most corporate accountability work takes place on the policy and political level. You can rub shoulders with lots of influential people, but there is a lot of office work and not much of an opportunity to work with the people you are trying to help.

How have your perceptions and goals about a career in law changed?
I think my definition of 'success' has changed a lot. I recently had a baby, and I can see that it's difficult to be at the top of your professional game if you also want to be heavily involved in family life, and to have good health. This is experienced more intensely by women but I think it's an issue for all of us- men and women. A career in law can be so all encompassing that, before you know it, you could have missed so many other things that were important to you. Unfortunately, there seems to be a correlation between doing interesting work and living an unhealthier lifestyle.

Did your career evolve as you expected it to?
Not at all. I've dipped out of law for now. Since returning to Melbourne, I've been working in community radio, where I produce and host a radio show called 'The Gender Agenda'.  But I draw on my understanding of law and policy in all of my analyses of relevant issues, as well as my experience in community law. I also spend a lot of time hanging out with a fourteen-month-old playing games.

What drives you most in your work?
My answer to that question is still evolving. I used to just look for whatever seemed exciting but what's most important is that you can feel proud of your effort and have worked with integrity with others. Ambition is less important than it used to be for me. And I try to bring more humility into everything I do, and to avoid being driven by ego, but that's a life's work.

What would you like to do next in your career?
So many things. I hope go back to community law at some point. But I'd also love to start my own non-profit in gender rights, or a social enterprise that promotes a family-friendly working model.  And I'd love to teach law, and I love working in radio, so I want to keep doing that, and have more babies- life is too short. u