Chat with Nilanka Goonetillake

8 mins

Nilanka is a classmate from law school who has been kicking a lot of goals during her time as a lawyer. She started at a law firm in Canberra and has since moved back to Melbourne. Recently, she was invited to join the partnership at her firm, Adero Law.

I suspect she might be one of the youngest law firm partners in Melbourne, if not Australia! She has some pretty wise and inspiring advice for law students.

LB. Hi Nilanka! I’m really glad that you could join us today at Legal Brew. Can you tell us a little bit about your journey before law school?

NG. My family moved to Australia when I was 15 years old. By that time, I had already been to a number of different schools in three different countries, so law was the furthest thing from my mind. I was very worried about starting a new school. But luckily for me, they let me skip a year. This meant that I only had to stay in school for less than two years in Australia. I managed to graduate when I was still 16.

LB. Wow that’s pretty young, I did not know that! So was it difficult making the transition from Sri Lanka to Melbourne?

NG. My parents moved from Sri Lanka to Sharjah and then to Abu Dhabi in the Middle East. I only went to primary school in Sri Lanka. I did my secondary school when I was in the Middle East. Then I moved to Australia when I was 15. The transition was hard. It was especially hard for me because I was very very shy—I was painfully shy at that time. I found the school that I went to was quite different as well. I went to quite a large school. It was a regional college with three other different secondary schools where people had already formed cliques and friendship groups. I did not enjoy school, so I was lucky that they let me skip a grade.

LB. Why did you choose law?

NG. That is a bit of a long story, but at the same time it is not a very inspiring one…

LB. It doesn’t have to be inspiring!

NG. I wanted to be a psychologist when I finished school. It was probably because I had such a miserable time at school, to be honest.

LB. A bit of self-help?

NG. Haha! Probably. I went to Monash and studied a double degree in Arts and Science. As with most Asian and South Asian parents, my family held hopes for me to be a doctor. And some of my relatives still ask me if I did Law because I couldn’t get into Medicine. I’m not sure whether I should be amused or insulted!

I eventually majored in psychology and biochemistry. I really enjoyed my time at Monash. I think it was because I loved the freedom and the fact that I didn’t have to fit in a certain kind of mould. And apart from my majors, I took a lot of subjects that I will probably never find any use for but were very interesting at the time. I did some creative arts, creative writing, and a lot of literature subjects. I even did lunchtime jazz dancing lessons.

And because I was so young, I always expected to do postgraduate studies. So that meant that I didn’t have the pressure of finding a job at the end of the day. I just enjoyed the moment while at Monash and that was one of the best times of my life.

Towards the end of my degree, my parents started to get worried that I wouldn’t do Medicine. I told them that I would do Law if I got into Melbourne Law School.

LB. And the rest is history…

NG. Yes, the rest is history. But I didn’t expect to get in to be honest. I put in my application for Melbourne Law School the day before applications closed and studied for the LSAT (Law School Admission Test) without any preparation. I remember ordering a book for the LSAT and the book came after I sat the LSAT.

LB. That is such a good story!

NG. I don’t know, perhaps they offered me a spot by mistake. I didn’t really have great plans to do Law ever, but once I started, I found real interest and enjoyment. It also opened my eyes to a lot of social issues and inequalities in the world that we live in.

LB. And you’re still in it obviously…

NG. Yes, obviously!

LB. So, what were your favourite subjects at law school?

NG. That is an interesting question because the subjects that I enjoyed at law school were not the ones I enjoyed in practice. That tells you a lot about the difference in what you actually study at law school and what you do in practice. For example, I did very well at Corporations Law at university and I enjoyed it a lot. But in practice, I worked very briefly in insolvency and it was very procedural and well—at least in my view—uninteresting.

LB. I think a lot of people would say that!

NG. Employment law and litigation are mostly what I do now. I did both those subjects at university. Dispute resolution was a compulsory subject in the first year of the Melbourne JD but I don’t recall being taught how to draft a statement of claim or even a simple affidavit.

I did employment law in my final year. But when I left university, I only had a vague understanding of what an enterprise bargaining agreement was.

LB. What are the essential ingredients for enjoying law school and do you have any advice?

NG. To be honest, I didn’t quite enjoy my time at law school. I think that’s because I bought into all the hype about how you had to get the perfect grades, have the perfect kinds of extracurricular activities and essentially be perfect. That was stressful and draining.

LB. Yes, it was very stressful. I was very stressed when I was at law school.

NG. I think we can do a lot to support each other at law school. So if I’m giving advice to law students today, I would say to look at the person sitting next to you as a colleague and a friend. As a supporter and not a competitor.

LB. You must be one of the youngest law firm partners in Melbourne—what do you think is the reason behind your success to date?

NG. I’m reluctant to define success as being a partner. The reason for that is because I don’t think there is a fair criteria in place for someone to become a partner. It tends to be skewed more towards men than women. Also, not everyone can afford to be a partner—whether in a financial sense or the time commitment, energy and drive it requires. It is not for everyone. So it is not fair to see making the partnership as the definition of success.

The reason why I think I was able to become a partner at a young age was because I work in a very niche area of law. Employment law funded class actions is a very new area. I happened to be there at the very start when we filed that very first employment law class action. And I took carriage of that file.

To sum it up, I think I was at the right place at the right time.

And the second reason is because our firm, which I’m proud to say I had a part in creating, don’t abide by the traditional idea of what a partner is required to be. It’s not just about the work that you bring in. To make the criteria for partnership fairer, I think we need to recognise that it’s not just about the money. It should be about the value that people can bring in—not necessarily more and more clients.

LB. Can you give us a peek into your typical (if this is even possible) day as a lawyer?

NG. I don’t think it is possible to be honest. I manage a lot of the financial and staffing aspects of the firm. A lot of it is not legal work. In terms of the legal work itself, a typical day depends on the deadlines we have and where a case is up to. I work very closely with a lot of counsel, funders and our clients.

It can be quite a stressful and demanding job. But I’m lucky to say that I have a very good team behind me. We work as a team and try to emphasise the team aspect of it, because we do need to support each other.

LB. I’m curious about how the legal scene is like in Canberra. How is it different from Melbourne?

NG. The ACT is a very small jurisdiction compared to Victoria. At least in my experience, I found that I did a lot more appearances in Canberra. In Melbourne, the work done by barristers and solicitors is more separate. In Canberra, legal practice is more fused.

The broader legal profession in Canberra has a different focus as well. A lot of the larger firms cater to government, at least from what I have seen. There tends to be a lot of firms around the mid-tier mark that are moving to Canberra for that reason as well.

In private practice, most of legal practice in Canberra is focused around personal injury. But despite this, my experience in Canberra was quite different. I started working in general commercial litigation and insolvency in Canberra. By chance I fell into employment and class actions.

LB. So you just never know where you’ll get to in your career. At least law school is not going to tell you that.

NG. Correct!

LB. Is there one thing you wish law school had covered about practising as a lawyer, but didn’t?

NG. I wish law school taught me a lot more than it did! First of all, I didn’t know how interesting employment law could be. But from a different perspective, as someone who is hiring graduates and junior lawyers at the moment, it doesn’t matter who we hire at that level—we expect to put a lot of training into them because they come so unprepared.

As for the basic aspects of private practice that we take for granted after working for a few years, such as time entries, someone who’s starting out has no idea how to do that. The GDLP (Graduate Diploma of Legal Practice) was intended to bridge the gap with the practical aspects of law, but it is just not specialised enough. Given that some of us spend five years in law school, there should be room to offer some kind of specialisation.

LB. Some of our readers might be feeling a bit overwhelmed by the pressure (whether overt or covert) to apply for clerkships at a big law firm. Do you have any advice about looking beyond the ‘Big Law’ paradigm?

NG. Yes, certainly. I think there is an industry bias towards Big Law. We somehow seem to think that the Big Law experience offers a universal standard for practising as a lawyer. And that is just not the case. For example, there are different sets of skills involved in practising as a plaintiff lawyer compared to a defendant lawyer. This is something that I have to convince a lot of people in the job that I do.

I would say that doing a clerkship has its advantages but this doesn’t mean that this is your only opportunity. I clerked at Maurice Blackburn and it is probably a different experience to being at a Big Law firm. There are also other opportunities like volunteering at a community legal centre. There are other experiences at smaller firms that you can look for. Any experience matters. It is just a matter of getting your foot in the door and trying different things to find out what you want to do.

LB. What are your secret (or not so secret) hobbies outside of the law?

NG. I have two beautiful dogs—a Russian wolfhound and a cattle dog cross. My cattle dog is really clever. At the moment, I’m trying to teach him how to find my phone.

LB. Maybe teach him how to check your emails as well—that might be a plus!

NG. It might one day! Yes, they are my hobbies at the moment. Before my legal career took over my life, I used to dabble in painting, watercolouring, creative writing… that kind of thing. I also trained in Jujitsu before moving to Canberra—it feels like a different lifetime ago now.  

LB. What might your alternate universe persona be up to, other than being a lawyer?

NG. I’m a fantasy nerd. I always wanted to write Harry Potter, just that JK Rowling beat me to it. So one day, I hope to retire to a farm with a minimum of five dogs and write a fantasy series!

LB. If you could turn back time, what do you wish you could go back to tell your past self about?

NG. That’s a good question! I don’t think I would change anything. I’ve had good and bad experiences working in the law. I’ve had wins and losses. I’ve had good bosses, not so good bosses. I’ve done interesting work, and not so interesting work. I’ve done rewarding work and not so rewarding work. A combination.

I think every one of these experiences ended up helping to get me to where I am today. So I don’t think there is anything that I would change. If I wanted to go back in time and say something to myself, I would probably remind myself to ‘enjoy the journey’. This is not something easy to do and I still need to remind myself sometimes.