A Top Honour

Sunday, February 1, 2009 - 09:43

Skills, dedication and commitment. Federal Court Judge Annabelle Bennett is an achiever in a profession where the stakes are high. By Georgina Jerums

The shimmering harbour view from the chambers of the Honourable Justice Annabelle Bennett - 22 floors up in the Federal Law Courts building in Sydney's Macquarie Street - is jaw dropping.

Yet the occupier of the room doesn't really do skyline contemplation, she's too busy. In fact, Bennett, the 58-year-old mother of three who was appointed to the Federal Court in 2003 after years as a barrister specialising in intellectual property, says being in law "is like getting paid to eat ice-cream".

What she loves is the intellectual rigour of each case, with some cases requiring up to four weeks of research. Primarily civil law trials rather than criminal or family law, Bennett presides over cases on everything from trade practices to bankruptcy, tax and immigration.

"As a judge, the work is endlessly intellectually stimulating. In virtually every case there are really good arguments on both sides. I love the interaction with counsel, asking questions and challenging. It is a wonderful system: to have an independent person apply an objective test for the resolution of problems."

The less-travelled path
Law runs in the family. Bennett's father was a lawyer and her husband, David Bennett QC, was the Commonwealth Solicitor-General for more than a decade. Both Bennett and her husband have received an Order of Australia for services to law. She was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2005, while he was awarded a Companion of the Order of Australia in 2008.

Given the legal history, it's paradoxical that Bennett could have chosen to spend her entire career in a lab. Her path to the judiciary is a less-travelled one.

"I always thought I was going to be a barrister," she says, "but I got talked out of it by my father. My parents always encouraged me and my sister to go to university; it was never a question of their attitude towards women, which was probably ahead of its time. But he thought law was a bad career choice for a woman. He thought you had to be better than the best to break even."

Heeding her father's advice, Bennett veered away from law, and completed her Bachelor of Science (Honours) and PhD in Biochemistry (in the Faculty of Vet Science) at Sydney University. But she couldn't shake the legal urge and in 1980, she read law at the University of New South Wales. In hindsight, Bennett comments, this broad-based education is something for which she is grateful, because it presented career opportunities where law and science merge.

For example, Bennett has been a member of the Genetic Manipulation Advisory Committee, the Biotechnology Task Force, the Pharmacy Board of New South Wales, the Eastern Sydney Area Health Service and the Gene Patenting Advisory Committee of the Australian Law Reform Commission, plus Director of the Sydney Children's Hospital and President of the Australian Academy of Forensic Sciences.

Ultimate manager
It was Peter Drucker who said, "Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things." A judge, therefore, could be viewed as the ultimate manager and leader, charged with interpreting the law, (not, it should be noted, making the law). He or she needs intellectual muscle plus the ability to make complex, fair decisions that alter people's lives and bank balances… without being unduly swayed. "The judicial oath is that you must decide cases without fear, favour, affection or ill will," explains Bennett.

As a judge, managing trolleys of litigation paperwork, managing arguments and rebuttals, managing feisty legal counsel when they infringe court process, managing deadlines to hand down judgements and managing associates is part of the job.

Management also extends to humanising the experience for those facing court. "As a judge, you have to try to understand that when people come to court, it's a difficult environment for them," observes Bennett.

"It's very draining. People don't go to court for no reason, definitely not with the expense involved, so one has to be conscious to treat them as well as one can in the courtroom."

Being media savvy is also part of the management brief: "When things are misreported, a judge can't go in and correct it. One must be very careful not to make comments in court that can be taken out of context. Some cases are so complex that it's hard, in a short time, for a journalist to get on top of a judgement. It is not easy. It takes me weeks sometimes to plumb myself into the depths of it."

Women on top
So has her father's comment about women in law proved true? Bennett says no, that things are different now. She has never felt discriminated against because she was female, although she would like to see more working women with children becoming their own boss and striving to the top of the law. They're still in short supply in the most prized law positions.

That's borne out in statistics. For 20 years, women have comprised at least half of the undergraduate and graduate law students nationally, and half of those entering the law profession annually. Yet they continue to be under-represented. The April 2007 edition of Australian Bar Gazette revealed that since 2006, only seven of 48 silk appointments were women. Likewise, a 2006 Australian Financial Review survey of 2006 partnership appointments suggest that on average, just 19.6 per cent of partners at leading law firms were women. Moreover, Bennett is one of only six female Federal Court judges, out of a field of 47.

Gender, however, is not an issue Bennett ponders 24/7. And anyway, personality and competence has a lot to do with success, she argues.
"Have there been occasions where one of the reasons why I didn't get work was because I was a woman?" she asks. "It's possible. But I may have got more work because I'm a woman."

Complex arguments
Although she has access to her small team, most of the work goes on in Bennett's head, sizing up the complex web of arguments. She cannot farm it out. In fact, it's a key issue faced by many in business: delegation is not always possible, or advisable.

"You can't delegate it," Bennett points out. "You wake up thinking about it, you think about it in the shower, when you go to bed. I'm working longer hours now than when I was at the bar."

And yes, verdicts do keep her awake at night. "Of course," she says, softly, claiming it never gets easier, no matter how many cases you have judged.

"Each case is another challenge. Because you have to write a judgement for every case, each one becomes, ‘Did I get that decision right?'."