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 Georgia. “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 her career trajectory. Following her work in Vietnam, Georgia continued to heed the call of foreign adventure.
“I love travelling and experiencing new cultures, seeing people live their lives in different ways,” says Georgia. “I have been very lucky to live and work in Hanoi, London, Hong Kong and Singpaore to date. My work has also allowed me to work on cases from around the world, including in Papua New Guinea, Ghana and parts of Central Asia. I think those experiences have taught me to never make assumptions about what someone means or how something ‘should’ be done.”
After completing a Master of Philosophy in International Relations at the University of Cambridge, she joined Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer in London, where she is now Senior Partner. She is the first woman in the firm’s history to take up the post, making her one of the most prominent Australian lawyers in the world.
While Dawson’s appointment made headlines for its groundbreaking nature, it wasn’t the motivation for accepting the role.
“I’m fortunate to be able to build on the work of many others in evolving our firm for the future while continuing to have a positive impact on the development of the legal profession,” she says.
However she does admit that seeing the conversations sparked about the future of the legal profession and women in leadership does feel positive.
“It is rewarding to be part of reshaping approaches to access to the profession, wellbeing and diversity, and I’m proud that my colleagues have an appetite to shift the balance and influence change in these areas.”
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 developed into a wider view of diversity.”
She has set clear, ambitious targets at the global 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 five percent of partners to be from the LGBTQI+ community by 2026. For a firm of Freshfields’s size and revenue – more than 1.8 billion pounds (A$3.4 billion) in 2022 – this has the potential to be truly impactful.
International moves can be both daunting and exciting. Having a community around you makes a significant difference to how quickly you will adapt and how much you will enjoy it.
Though she is now a leader in her profession, Dawson wasn’t always set on the law as a career.
“I honestly didn’t know what I wanted to do after high school,” says Dawson. “I did a few sessions with my careers advisor at school, and she thought I’d suit the law. I thought, even if I don’t love it, it’s a good, broad degree.”
As it turned out, not only did she love the law, but her education at the University of Sydney helped drive her interest in pursuing an international career. Many of her units hosted speakers whose careers had taken them around the world, and she spent a semester on exchange at Queens University in Canada.
“It reinforced the fact that we were global citizens and that there was a lot to learn from the world outside Australia,” she says. “It helped spark an interest in the wider world and made an international career seem achievable and exciting.”
This international outlook, combined with her early international career experiences, helped to shape her approach to the law and her understanding of how best to support clients around the globe.
“I love learning about the various differences and how the legal systems in different countries work and how they shape local dynamics,” she says. “Culture and customs, language and the business environment all play a role in influencing how you go about your work. Operating across borders hones your communication skills and drives you to be creative in finding solutions and mentally agile when grappling with any given legal issue.”
This open approach to communication is something she would also encourage in anyone considering an international career.
“International moves can be both daunting and exciting. Having a community around you makes a significant difference to how quickly you will adapt and how much you will enjoy it,” says Dawson.
“In my experience, people always enjoy helping where they can – so ask questions and take up their offers of help.”
Congratulations to Georgia Dawson, winner of the 2023 Alumni Award for International Achievement. Nominations for the 2024 Alumni Awards are now open. Learn more.