SARAH Atkinson has built her career in an area of law that requires thicker skin than most.
As a medical negligence practitioner and principal at Maurice Blackburn, Atkinson works to secure justice for those affected by sub-standard healthcare practice throughout Queensland.
Recently Atkinson received the Queensland Law Society's Outstanding Achievement Award in the 2015 Women Lawyers Association of Queensland (WLAQ) awards, in addition to working regularly with the Cerebral Palsy League and Maurice Blackburn's Women's Network.
Brisbane Legal sat down with Atkinson to talk about her journey into medical negligence law, how she copes with day-to-day work in her field and how she manages to keep a work, life and community involvement balance in check.
What inspired your passion for medical negligence law? How did you go about getting into it?
I completed my articles in a firm in the United Kingdom that had a medical negligence department, and as soon as I spent some time with that department and started doing the work I realised that I loved it.
Medical negligence is an intellectual challenge, because it's a complex area of law, along with the fact you also make a real difference in the lives of others when you manage to get your clients the compensation they need. For example, I sometimes deal with children who have developed Cerebral Palsy where the impairment is caused by a lack of oxygen at birth. These are difficult cases to prove, but when they do come together they're worth a significant amount which really does make a huge difference in the life of that person.
It must be difficult to handle many of the cases that you do, what is your mantra for getting through the tough jobs?
A lot of it is about teamwork. We always work as a team on those types of cases so we can debrief, talk and help each other through difficult cases. The little achievements you make at work keep you going through the emotional times, where you have to take a step back and try and be less emotionally involved so you can focus on doing your best work for the client.
Have there been any times where a case or situation particularly affected you?
The only time I've ever found my job to be difficult was when I had my first child. Dealing with cases to do with injured or deceased children became the hardest ones because you can empathise a lot more when you've had children of your own.
Why do you believe it's so important for lawyers like yourself to become involved in charity, community or cause work?
Particularly within the Cerebral Palsy League I met lots of families, and I could see how challenging their lives were. I decided to become involved from that perspective and to give me a better understanding of what they're going through. It's really important when you're an upstanding member of the community that you try to give back. That's why I really enjoy my work with Maurice Blackburn because it's a social justice law firm that advocates for pro bono work as well.
With regards to the Women's Network, I really enjoy the work I do there because I like helping younger women to develop leadership skills and navigate a good work-life-balance. I pass on what I can from my own experience in that respect.
What advice would you give to other lawyers for maintaining a healthy balance between work, life and community engagement?
The biggest thing to realise is that you can't do everything perfectly. I think a lot of women in particular get stressed because they're trying to be the perfect mother, perfect at work and to also give back to the community. Delegation and teamwork is key in home life as well as work life, having a good team beside you is the best support.
Beyond the word of law, what do you believe are some of the most important values to advocate in a court room?
Nearly all of my work is about sticking up for the little guy against bigger organisations. Many of our cases are against the government or Queensland health for example, and other cases are against big insurance companies. So I believe it's really important that the everyday person is given a voice through a lawyer.
What do you believe are the biggest current trends in Medical Negligence law that people should be aware of?
I think there's going to be an increase in legal issues over what happens at the beginning of life, particularly considering things like IVF where the law is still pretty unclear and people's protection isn't as good as it should be. Also, I think we'll see issues towards the end of life as well with an increasing movement in areas like euthanasia and health directives. It's another area of the law that hasn't quite come into itself yet.
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