Elizabeth O'Shea
Tuesday, December 14, 2010
Justinian in On the Couch

Lizzie O'Shea is the face of Maurice Blackburn's social justice practice ... It's been a big month, what with her High Court victory in the Aid/Watch case ... And her work in gathering a mass of signatories for an open letter to the PM in support of Julian Assange ... The lawyer who collects electronic gadgets in the shape of animals is on Justinian's couch

Lizzie O'Shea: in possession of a top rank contact listElizabeth O'Shea commenced her articles at Maurice Blackburn in 2007, working in employment and industrial relations.

After stints at the ILO in Geneva and working with indigent prisoners on death row in Louisiana, she's back in Melbourne running the firm's social justice practice.

Earlier this month the High Court upheld an appeal in Aid/Watch v Commissioner of Taxation, which had been one of Maurice Blackburn's social justice cases.

Aid/Watch's charitable status had been withdrawn by the ATO in 2006 - for being too politically outspoken.

The High Court reinstated its charitable status, noting: "the generation by lawful means of public debate ... concerning the efficiency of foreign aid directed to the relief of poverty, itself is a purpose beneficial to the community." 

Last week, Lizzie and writer Jeff Sparrow co-authored an open letter to Julia Gillard about Julian Assange and Wikileaks.

Nearly 200 signatures were collected, including luminaries such as, Noam Chomsky, Peter Singer, Bob Brown, Christos Tsiolkas and Helen Garner.

Since the letter was published, over 5,000 signatures have been added on the ABC website. This is the biggest response the broadcaster has had to a story, the sheer quantity of traffic causing technical problems for Aunty's website.

Despite all pressure and excitements Lizzie found a moment to climb onto Justinian's couch - where she availed herself of the opportunity to get a little bit personal.

Describe yourself in three words.

Determined, hard-working, spirited. (I am known around the office as "Cyclone". I'm still unclear if it is intended to be affectionate.)

What are you currently reading?

"The Tall Man", by Chloe Hooper. I came to this late, but it is an amazing read, beautifully written.

What's your favourite film?

I could watch "Rushmore" any time, any place. I don't think I could ever watch "The Wind that Shakes the Barley" again. They are equal favourites.

Who has been the most influential person in your life?

Both my parents. I am different from them, but they are reflected in me. They are always trying to make me better, through both encouragement and criticism.

 If you hadn't become a lawyer what occupation would you like to have?

I'd be Wonderwoman. You can dispense justice without any pesky drafting of writs.

What is your favourite piece of music

"The Internationale."

What is your most recognised talent?

I used to sing a lot of classical music. It is not much of a talent, but people kindly recognise it. Especially when they are getting married and need some music during the ceremony.

What words or phrases do you overuse?

"Whereby ... pursuant to ... in respect of." Apparently, that's called legalease.

What is your greatest regret?      

Agreeing to come up with witty answers to these questions – oh the pressure!

Whom do you envy and why?

Howard Zinn, who is unfortunately no longer with us. A wonderful combination of activism and academia, his opinions on history and modern politics were always dead on. I wish I could have his sage judgment, fierce commitment and dignified wisdom.

How difficult is it to run a social justice practice in a large law firm?

Less difficult than running a global whistleblower website.

 What effect do you think the Aid/Watch decision will have on Australia's foreign aid program?

Organisations such as Aid/Watch shine a light on aid spending, an issue about which very little is known in our society. Allowing Aid/Watch to continue their work will mean that it is more likely that taxpayer dollars will be spent on programs that promote community empowerment and environmental sustainability. Sunshine is the best disinfectant.

What is your most disturbing personal obsession?

I've developed an uncontrollable habit of buying any gadget in the shape of an animal. I have a rabbit radio, a dog shaped bag and an elephant crumb vacuum. I've spent a lot of money on things that I have to hide when guests visit.

What's your most glamorous feature?

I received an email from Noam Chomsky last week, who signed our open letter to Julia Gillard. I now have a number of excellent email addresses in my contact list, but it is more to do with WikiLeaks than anything to do with me!

If you were a foodstuff, what would you be?

A homecooked lasagne. I like to think I'm warm and down to earth. I also have a habit of taking over all your senses, in a good way.

What human quality do you most distrust?

Unbridled confidence. Everyone should be a little insecure. It keeps us on our toes.

What would you change about Australia?

The racism ... and the heat! My ancestors are from a peat bog in Ireland somewhere, I don't deal with warm weather very well.

Whom or what do you consider overrated?

The billable unit. It doesn't encourage efficiency and worse, it focuses every activity of a lawyer on money. There is more to law and there's more to life.

What would your epitaph say?

"A lawyer who never lost her appeal."

What comes into your mind when you shut your eyes and think of the word "law"?

The words of the wonderful Frederick Douglass: "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will."

Article originally appeared on Justinian: Australian legal magazine. News on lawyers and the law (http://justinian.com.au/).
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