Future Women NSW Rural Scholarship WinnersLeadership
We’d tell you to write down Azmeena Hussain’s name but hell, who actually uses a pen these days? Suffice to say you can record it in the Notes app on a smart phone or send yourself an email. It’s 2019 and technology means the workplace doesn’t look like it used to. There are other changes too. A fairer and more equal society means that women and people of colour are a growing number of the workforce – and at increasingly higher levels of influence. The first muslim woman partner of law firm Maurice Blackburn, Azmeena Hussain is one of those women – and hers is a name you’ll want to remember.
Born and bred in Melbourne, Azmeena knew the law was her goal from childhood, after watching her mother rely on legal aid to achieve justice. Her relentless pursuit of fairness, combined with a sharp mind and killer wit, has made her a formidable lawyer. She’s one of the younger people to be made partner and while the honour was overwhelming, Azmeena isn’t daunted by the task. Quite the opposite, she’s buoyed by the possibility her new position brings. In fact, Azmeena intends to use her elevated influence to advocate for others not only at the individual level but more broadly as well. She’s fast emerging as an agenda-setting voice on equality in Australia.
On her roots: Mum migrated to Melbourne with my dad from Sri Lanka in the late 1970’s. My two older siblings and I were born in the 1980’s and grew up in the south east suburbs of Melbourne. Mum raised us alone after my parents split when I was quite young. Coaching the kids forward: Mum has been a coach in every facet of my life. On the sporting field, I remember her telling me: “See the girl who is coming first? When she takes a step, you take a step.” It was simple advice, and I managed to nab two state gold medal cross country titles. They’re still on proud display in her lounge room. Lessons from mum: To this day I know when things get tough, we can call her and trust that she will be a pillar of strength. She showed us resilience by persevering through unimaginable adversity. Her lessons were mostly taught by her character and behaviour than by her word. On always coming back to one question: The day I was admitted as a lawyer after graduating, my mum was in tears because deep down, I think she knows her life challenges inspired my career path. To this day, whenever I face a setback I think, “What would mum have done?” On family pride: I’m a super proud sister, and sometimes I slip up and let my brother [comedian, Nazeem Hussain] know.
“It’s easy to get out of bed in the morning when you know your firm has a genuine commitment to helping everyone access justice. It’s 2019, women at work should not feel they need to conform to a particular image or speak in a certain way.”
The legal dream: I’ve wanted to be a lawyer since I was about three. It has been the only career I’ve ever considered. Did you always have a sense of justice/fairness? Mum immersed us in volunteering and giving back to the community. In our primary school years, mum would take us to the local meals on wheels and aged care facilities on weekends and during school holidays. I remember Nazeem and I reading books with the elderly and serving plates of food. That sense of giving back to community was something we grew up doing. Access to justice: Growing up, my mum had a difficult journey accessing legal representation when she had to wade through the aftermath of a divorce. I grew up witnessing first-hand how difficult it can be to navigate our legal system without expert guidance. I also vividly remember the ultimate relief my mother experienced when she met people who were able to assist her legally and put her mind at ease. On being made partner: Thinking back to how I found out still makes me laugh. Liberty Sanger, principal partner, came into my office and said, “I don’t know what to say or how to say this but…” and then yelled at the top of her lungs, “YOU’RE A PRINCIPAL”. She yelled so loud that a lawyer I supervise in the office next to mine heard and started bawling her eyes out. I called my mum first.
On wearing hijab for the first time: I made the decision to wear hijab when I commenced University. I remember being really nervous about how my old school friends (I’m the alumni of a Catholic girl’s school) would react when they now saw me wearing a scarf. Reaction of friends: Surprisingly enough, none of my friends batted an eyelid. But on reflection, that was probably because they knew me and were able to see beyond the scarf. For those who didn’t, well, it was quite a bit of an adjustment for me… It was the start of a new identity. I have some hilarious experiences and stories. It sure was the start of my ‘normalising different’ life. Applying for jobs: When I first applied for a job as a lawyer at another firm, I was told at the job interview that by wearing a hijab, clients would not trust my advice, “because they would perceive a conflict of interest”, and that I would not be good for business. I still see that lawyer, and he and I are on better terms, but I think he needed to see the proof in the pudding, and I guess I’m proof that clients are smarter than what he thought. Finding her place: At Maurice Blackburn, I have been very fortunate in that I have been able to bring my whole self to work. I don’t need to hide aspects of my cultural or religious identities. It’s easy to get out of bed in the morning when you know your firm has a genuine commitment to helping everyone access justice. It’s 2019, women at work should not feel they need to conform to a particular image or speak in a certain way. What’s next for you? I’d really like to help grow our national practice at Maurice Blackburn and play an active role in mentoring and developing aspiring women and lawyers. If I can help to make it easier for other women to reach their goals that would be a dream.
What makes a good lawyer? An alignment to the social justice values is so important, and never losing sight on the core values of equality and fairness (this includes for your people). When leadership stems from that, you’re able to engender a strong social justice culture which has an impact. In my experience, this has made good lawyers and leaders. Law is still, predominantly, white and male: Australia has a long way to go in creating a level playing field for both women and people of colour, in being able to reach positions of influence, whether in media, government, or professional life. I do think a shift is happening within the legal profession, and it’s something we should celebrate as a society, but with any cultural change, there’s always going to be resistance, and that resistance can be quite ugly. Role models? Steve Walsh, former chairman of Maurice Blackburn and Liberty Sanger, Principal Partner. Pride in her work: I’ve been fortunate to be able to fight every day for the rights of ordinary Australians; winning cases for victims of terrible injuries and injustices, helping them get their lives back on track and seek access to justice. Standing up for others: It’s not easy to assert yourself in traditional industries. That was certainly the case for me with the legal industry when I first started. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel knocked around. I tried to view my setbacks in context.
If you’re not a member, sign up to our newsletter to get the best of Future Women in your inbox.