PALAWA woman Leah Cameron (Brown) have fond memories of Tasmania. But she knew from a very young age that things were different.
All throughout her childhood Ms Cameron felt that she would have to do something with her life that would change things for Aboriginal people and her community for the better, and for good.
“I grew up with my community in Tasmania, near Hobart, and from a young age mob encouraged me to get out there with protesting and advocating on issues that affect our people,” Ms Cameron said.
“I had a wonderful experience growing up with my community. We are one big family and we are all very well connected.
“Those connections are still there today, stronger than ever, and we are still very supportive of each other, particular my generation.
“A lot of us came from very low socio-economic backgrounds but I always say to people that I was fortunate to grow up with my mob, and for the most part, the things we were doing were very much political, and we were always trying to find ways to better the situation for our people and our communities.”
Ms Cameron told the Koori Mail that it was her uncles and her dad who provided opportunities for her when she was younger, encouraging her to stand up for her rights and what she believed in.
She said her father and uncle took on their leadership roles within the community without a second thought, and now as founder and principal solicitor of Queensland-based Marrawah Law, Ms Cameron is following in their footsteps and opening doors for the generations to come.
Last month Me Cameron accepted the Women In Law Excellence Award at the annual Lawyers Weekly Women in Law Awards on December 10.
Now in its ninth year, the awards program recognise the outstanding women shaping and influencing the legal profession, acknowledging executives, barristers, academics, students and other legal professionals.
Thirty-five individual and group winners were named at the awards event, with recipients dialling into the ceremony at Sydney’s Star Casino via Zoom to a combined live and virtual audience of more than 750 guests.
Much to her surprise, Ms Cameron almost fell off her chair when she was also named at the awards ceremony as the 2020 Indigenous Lawyer of the Year.
“With everything going on, 2020 was a tough year for so I was completely blown away by the announcement that I’d won the Women in Law Excellence award,” Ms Cameron said.
“it’s predominantly Indigenous women who work with me as part of my business and I just thought it was such great recognition of the team work that we have been doing.
“I actually didn’t realise I was in the running for the top gong until after I had received the first award.”
During the award ceremony Zoom session, Ms Cameron received a text from the organises saying, “Leah please stay logged in to the Zoom because there is something else that will be presented to you.”
“I was sitting with my partner eagerly waiting to find out why I had been asked to stick around at the ceremony and could hardly believe my ears when I heard them announce that I had also been named the 2020 Indigenous Lawyer of the Year”, she said.
“I was gobsmacked and so I had to quickly think on my feet to come up with a small speech thanking everyone involved in the process, and as soon as the Zoom session ended, I fell into my partner’s arms and just burst into tears!
“I felt a little overwhelmed being named as the recipient of two such prestigious awards, and just didn’t expect it to be me, especially when you’re up against some of the staunchest Indigenous women in law.
“I just keep thinking to myself how wonderful it is that our firm has been recognised for all the hard work we do.”
Marrawah Law was founded in 2013 and has their head office in Cairns and a separate office in Brisbane.
The firm has now expanded to Tasmania and a new office is set to open in Melbourne in the near future.
“After completing my studies in law at the University of Tasmania, I felt I needed to branch out and so I began working in native title law and Aboriginal heritage law,” Ms Cameron said.
“This was a massive leap of faith for me because I had to move away from my family, community and homelands in Tassie and relocate to Cairns to take on these new roles.
“I didn’t know a soul in Cairns when I moved there, but ended up staying there for 13 years and have made a lifetime of friends and connections since.”
Ms Cameron recently moved back to Tasmania, where she will be closer to Victoria to set up the new branch of her law firm.
“It was only when the coronavirus began to shift our interstate borders that I felt I needed to be closer to home, so I moved home towards the end of 2020,” Ms Cameron said.
“I’m fortunate in that COVID provided me wan opportunity to move back to country, and it’s been an amazing feeling since I got back.
“we are eager to expand our footprint so with the new Melbourne office, we are just waiting on the COVID-19 virus to settle down a but and then work will begin.”
In the initial stages of setting up her law firm, Ms Cameron said her drive was being frustrated and angry about the quality of law services that were being provided to Aboriginal people in the law world, and sadly this included lawyers who were meant to be helping them,” Ms Cameron said.
“I thought to myself, ‘Hold on, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have a right to these service, and a right to receive proper information from lawyers, and a right to making informed decisions, and so I stopped at nothing getting the business up and running.
“At the end of the day we know that Aboriginal people have a right to self determination and at the time I could see a lot of Aboriginal people weren’t being afforded the right information form their lawyers.”
Another reason Ms Cameron started Marrawah Law stems from Aboriginal communities needed to be able to connect with big business and professions in the cities.
“There is so much cultural misunderstanding and frustration happening in this industry from both sides, and so I felt that without this type of law firm, Aboriginal people would be missing out,” Ms Cameron said.
“At Marrawah Law, we have a unique skill set because as Aboriginal people, we are able to walk in two worlds, and we always strive to represent mob in the most ethical way possible.
“We want to be able to assist companies to ensure they are doing business with Aboriginal people the right way, not just the easy way.”
Ms Cameron said when it comes to business operations Marrawah are just like any other law firm, but what differentiates them, is that they add more of a human elements.
“We aren’t afraid to get out on country, and get out hands dirty, to see what’s happening on the ground in our communities,” Ms Cameron said.
“Unspoken or spoken, as Aboriginal people we know we are excellent communicators, so we really understand what’s going on, in all the different contexts that affect Aboriginal people.
“We are very serious about the work we do, but the difference between us and other law firms is that when you step into one of our offices, you really feel at home because it’s less of a law firm and more like family environment.”
Ms Cameron said that having to engage a lawyer can be a daunting experience.
She said it was really the wider experience of seeing what her family and community had gone through that spurred her interest in law.
“I could see that most of the law services that were provided to family and friends weren’t really tailored to their needs, and the outcomes they received made me think that people weren’t actually fighting to have their voices heard,” she said.
“So we want our clients to feel comfortable enough to speak to our staff in away where they feel no shame.”
Published in the Koori Mail, January 27, 2021