Georgia Dawson has worked at some of the world’s leading law firms, but it was a legal aid role early in her career that changed everything for her.
“Vietnam was shifting to a more open economy, and I was selected to advise on a legal education and law reform project,” says Dawson. “It was so invigorating, to be in this completely different culture, trying to navigate the system. I was energised by it.”
It was an energy that permeated Dawson’s career trajectory. While she worked at Herbert Smith Freehills in Sydney after graduation from the University of Sydney (BA ’98, LLB ’00), following her stint in Vietnam, Dawson heeded the call of foreign adventure, and has now worked in London, Hong Kong and Singapore.
“I love travelling and experiencing new cultures, seeing people live their lives in different ways,” says Dawson. After Vietnam, she completed a Master of Philosophy in International Relations at the University of Cambridge, then joined Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer in London, where she is now Senior Partner, which makes her one of the most prominent Australian lawyers in the world. She is the first woman to take up the post.
Dawson comes from a family of lawyers – her father is a solicitor, as is one of her siblings. But her decision to go into the profession was led more by a sense of opportunism than anything else.
“I honestly didn’t know what I wanted to do after high school,” says Dawson. “I did a few sessions with my careers advisor, and she thought I’d suit the law. I thought, even if I don’t love it, it’s a good, broad degree.” It turned out that Dawson did love it, characterising her time at university as “the best of the best”.
“You always felt that you were learning from the best and being pushed to be at the cutting edge,” she says.
When you see women in those roles, it reinforces that the right culture exists for you, and you can see a pathway forward.
As a leader now, Dawson is keen to use her position to ensure that the legal profession, not always known for its friendliness to women, becomes more welcoming.
“I’ve been incredibly fortunate in my own career,” says Dawson, “to learn from incredibly successful female partners. When you see women in those roles, it reinforces that the right culture exists for you, and you can see a pathway forward.” But she understands this is not every woman’s experience in the law.
At Freshfields, Dawson is known for championing diversity, which she says is born of seeing friends and family in the LGBTQI+ community facing inequality. “Firstly, it was driven by a concern for people close to me,” she says. “Then that went to a wider view of diversity.”
She has set clear, ambitious targets at the UK-based firm: at least 40 percent of new partner cohorts are to be women; all key leadership roles should include ethnic diversity and, again, at least 40 percent should be women. Dawson aims to double the number of black associates by 2026, and wants 5 percent of partners to be from the LGBTQI+ community by 2026. For a firm of Freshfields’s size and revenue – more than £1.7 billion pounds in 2022 – this has the potential to be truly impactful.
While Dawson’s appointment made headlines for its groundbreaking nature, she insists it was not something she focused on prior to her appointment. “Being the first woman in the role was certainly not the motivation,” she says. “But it is nice, I suppose, to potentially start conversations within the profession about women in leadership and to have an effect on other law firms. The fact that it might help others to see opportunities that they didn’t think existed, that it might ultimately help to change the make-up of leadership … well, that’s a net positive. If I can play a small part in that, I’ll be delighted – but I’m not particularly focused on being a poster child. I’d just like to be good at my job.”
Nora Takriti doesn’t come from a family of lawyers. “My parents are refugees. They fled wartorn Iraq with nothing but the clothes on their backs to build a new home in Australia.” If those beginnings sound inauspicious, they were formative; in fact, it was the stories Takriti was exposed to from a young age that pushed her to pursue the law.
“I was always hearing family members tell stories about injustice, repressive regimes, and the failure of legal institutions back in the homeland. I started to wonder how the law could be used to both destroy and balance the scales of justice. It didn’t make sense to me.”
It is this question that has driven Takriti to her law and arts degree. She chose the University of Sydney in particular, she says, on seeing its “manicured lawns and famous Quadrangle”.
“I wanted to know, how many other people have walked along the same path before me? What layers of stories, history and experiences are hiding behind these walls?” Takriti entered the University through the E12 Early Offer and Scholarship Scheme. “On my application, I wrote that I am not afraid to challenge or be challenged in my pursuit for justice. That outlook still resonates with me today.”
Her studies at Sydney have seen Takriti collaborate on various projects with Sydney University Law Society (SULS), including a domestic violence panel discussion, a juvenile justice mentoring scheme, and a social media campaign to elevate diverse voices during COVID-19 lockdowns. She has also volunteered at the Welfare Rights Centre and worked as a legal research assistant on campus.
Takriti also thrust herself into campus life as the Law School’s women’s officer, “a huge highlight”.
Crossing paths with so many incredible women in law and celebrating their achievements has been a genuine highlight.
“My goal was to advocate on behalf of female law students and to facilitate meaningful opportunities that would empower their professional and personal growth.” That goal was met in mentoring programs with law firm King & Wood Mallesons, and through a law conference with Clayton Utz, with the proceeds going to the Women’s and Girls’ Emergency Centre. “These events really contributed to instilling a genuine sisterhood within the Law School. I think that’s really important.
“Crossing paths with so many incredible women in law and celebrating their achievements has been a genuine highlight.”
Over the course of her degree, Takriti has come back to the notion of justice time and again. “Watching the Me Too movement gain steam in Australia, as Chanel Contos, Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame spoke out about their experiences with alleged sexual assault, for example, has made me aware that gender-based injustice continues to prevail, in spite of legislative reform – which is quite ironic when the power of the legal system is embodied in Lady Justice,” says Takriti.
She isn’t sure what she’ll do after graduating in 2024 – she’s keeping an open mind for now – but Takriti is firm on one thing: that the law matters and must be upheld with compassion.
“The law permeates every aspect of our lives, from the air that we breathe to the food that we eat. A lot of the time we forget that the law is more than just robes and wigs. It’s a human response to the world around us. Learning about the law can shock us out of our cocoons of comfort; it has done that for me.”
Written by Lauren Sams for Sydney Alumni Magazine. Photography by David Woolfall & Louise M Cooper.