Interview: Sarah Plasto

Meet Sarah Plasto. Sarah is a member of the Future Leaders Committee and a Government Lawyer at the Queensland Building and Construction Commission.

We spoke to Sarah about the FLC, juggling a career in law with small children, and why she loves working as a government lawyer. Read the full interview below.

Sarah Plasto

Sarah Plasto

Tell me a bit about yourself

I work for the Queensland Building and Construction Commission. I'm an in-house lawyer and prosecutor. Prior to this, I was at the Department of Justice and Attorney General working for Blue Card Services, and then before that I did about six or seven years as a clerk in criminal defence law while I was at university.

Apart from that I'm a mum! I have two girls and juggle life, parenthood, work and my children’s social calendar which is far better than mine! Outside of that, I think I’m quite boring!

It sounds like you’re quite busy! So why did you decide to study law?

I think about this quite a lot. My dad was a Police Officer so I grew up moving all over Queensland. We lived in smaller towns out West a lot and lived on the police compounds.  I always knew I wanted to get into a similar area, but despite loving my childhood, policing didn’t appeal to me. As I got a bit older law became a bit more attractive but it still took me a long time to commit to it!  I remember growing up and thinking law was something that I wanted to do.  Dad’s stories were always fascinating, and I always liked the attraction of criminal law, but I don’t know that I necessarily liked the idea of prosecuting.  

I actually started a business degree majoring in human resources straight out of high school.  Then went into law, hated it, and went back to finish my business degree.  I think I was working at Specsavers or something when a Barrister I knew was like “hey, do you want to go and work in this criminal law firm?” I just sort of fell into it, realised practice was way better than university, went back to finish my law degree and never left.

That’s so funny, I feel like people don’t really fall into law.

I know! It was just right place, right time. I started at a boutique criminal law firm and they were really great to work for. I had my girls while I was working for them and they made it really easy with juggling small babies, studying and returning to work.  I absolutely loved my time there and it gave me some brilliant skills. It wasn’t until I got closer to graduating that I went, “actually I’d like to do something that gives me more chances to do my own advocacy.” It was quite a small firm, so it gave me a lot of experience that I don’t think juniors get in larger firms, but I still felt I was chasing something a little bit different.

We touched on this a little already, but what’s your experience in law been like so far? And what made you switch to government/in-house?

My experience in law has been overall really positive, but I think I’ve been very, very lucky to always be mentored and always had senior lawyers take an interest in my development. I found criminal law in particular was quite collegial. I think some people won’t agree with that, but I always had a very positive experience there.

Switching to in-house, I want to go to the Bar eventually, and I was really conscious that before I did I wanted to do more of my own hearing and trial work.   Criminal law has so much of that, but we briefed Counsel a lot because the consequences are really serious. It wasn’t a scenario where I wanted to cut my teeth knowing the consequences were so significant.  

So I went to Blue Card Services and did some administrative decision drafting for them, and then did some of their appeals work in QCAT and really loved the jurisdiction. Then I moved across to QBCC where I’m in Court or QCAT all the time. The work is really varied. I work with a number of different divisions across the Commission, and I like that my days aren’t the same.

That’s cool that you get to do a lot of different stuff! That will keep it interesting.

It definitely does, yeah. I don’t spend a whole heap of time at my desk, which is really nice.

Sarah with her children

Can you explain a bit more about what the QBCC does?

We are the regulator for the building and construction industry.  I won’t bore you with all the details, but what it means for me as a lawyer is that across the QBCC we make a whole range of predominantly administrative review decisions that have their review rights in the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal. So those are things from where we have made a decision to issue a direction to rectify for defective building work (or not to direct), decisions about allowing or disallowing claims under the statutory insurance scheme, technical decisions about how the insurance scheme needs to fix defective work, or disciplinary decisions about certifiers, and about 40 other different types of decisions!

On the other hand, I also work within our Investigations and Litigation Unit so I do a lot of prosecuting for the QBCC, like prosecuting unlicensed builders, or builders who haven’t taken out the right insurance under the insurance scheme or licensed builders who haven’t followed the requirements for contract formation.

I also get a little bit of Supreme Court work for judicial reviews, or injunction proceedings. I’ve appeared in the Federal Court on a public examination. I do a lot of work around decisions to cancel or suspend QBCC licences.

It’s just a whole range of everything involved in regulating the building industry, so for me in the legal team, it’s a lot of time spent in the Magistrates Court and QCAT primarily.

That sounds really interesting! I feel like nobody would expect your role to be as interesting as it is.

That’s the feedback I get from people when I say how much I love government legal work. I think there’s definitely a stigma out there.  I think the biggest thing I face is the idea that second-rate lawyers become government lawyers, and that has just been absolutely the furthest thing from the truth in my experience. Our team here at the QBCC are incredibly high performing. They’ve come from a whole variety of professional backgrounds in terms of the law they did in private practice, and everyone has an incredible amount of experience prior to coming here. It’s so varied and so diverse, and it’s given me everything that I was looking for as a lawyer in one neat little package.

I can’t speak more highly of government legal work. I encourage lots of people, especially those around my age, early 30s, to be open to the switch. Every government department I’ve ever dealt with, the work has been so different and there really is something for everybody. It doesn’t matter what kind of law you enjoy doing, you will find some government counterpart for it.

The work-life balance is a lot better in government than in private practice, I imagine.

Yeah it is. I don’t mind doing those longer hours when you have to, but it’s nice to know it’s not expected. It’s also nice to know that when everything is due at once, there’s a reshuffle of work or someone is there to take something off your plate. And that’s fine, you’re never penalised for that, and your progression opportunities aren’t limited for speaking up about that sort of stuff.

What would you like to accomplish later in your career? You mentioned you’d like to go the Bar.

I would like to go to the Bar eventually. I was always very aware of the fact that you need to have a bit of experience up your sleeve and a good reputation to get briefs.  Then I went into government law, and someone explained the concept of the employed Bar and I was like “bingo! That’s got my name all over it”.  At least until my girls get a bit older anyway.

How do you feel about the legal profession so far? Any changes you’d like to see?

I think it would be nice in the broader legal profession to have more collegiality, and I think that is definitely something that needs to change in government law, in particular. I have a really great support network within the broader profession from KCs, junior Counsel, solicitors, clerks and everything in between that I developed in private practice.  I think government law needs to encourage these types of networking and support systems between their lawyers.  It can be easy for your world to become pretty small when your in-house team is small.   I think I would have really struggled had I gone straight to government as a university grad, because I wouldn’t have had the networking opportunities I have had.

I’d also like other people to have the opportunities that I have around flexibility. Mum, dad, whoever. Having kids takes a village, and it’s a thousand times harder when you work the way lawyers work. I think it’s so important that people have those flexible opportunities to do what you need to do on both fronts without feeling like you need to choose.

Sarah with her children

Tell me about the FLC. What kind of things do you do?

I’m on a couple of sub-committees. I’m on the Events sub-committee and The Hub sub-committee. It’s such a fantastic group of young lawyers who have so much vision for what they want for this group of lawyers that are coming through, and the amount of work behind the scenes that these people give up to try and forge better paths for young lawyers is really inspirational to me.

The Hub would have been such a great resource to have when I first started. As lawyers we love hearing Judges and Magistrates talk right, and they have amazing things to tell us and really great stories.  But I think for most of us it goes over our heads as we don’t share those experiences, especially when we are just starting out. I have really loved working to put voices together that young lawyers can resonate with more, people who are 5 years into practice and can tell you, in detail, how they got started etc.

I’ve really loved it. It’s such a great group of people from all parts of the law. It’s amazing all the different things you can do with a law degree! It’s really, really great to be able to network with some of those amazing people on the committee and all the really cool things they’re doing with their degrees, like Matt [FLC President Matthew Hollings] who’s doing all this really great stuff in technology and innovation, or Minnie [FLC Immediate Past President] who works with Ashurst Advance, some have their own firms and some are just starting out like Stafford [FLC Committee Member Stafford Mortensen] but bring this really great energy and voice to regional lawyers. I think that’s really important to get out to university  students studying law, that there’s not only one path.

When I spoke to Matt and he told me he isn’t actually a lawyer, he just holds a practising certificate, I was a bit surprised!

I know! For me that was just a foreign concept. I think that diversity in law is what makes it so great.

Another thing I’d like law students to know is that your law degree is a necessary evil. I hated my law degree! Like I said, I did a HR business degree, but by the time I finished it I was working in law, and went “actually, if this is the practise of law, then I do want to do this.” So then I had to go back and get myself through constitutional law and torts and contracts. I was hopeless at contract law.  I used to always joke that I would sign something to say I’ll never work in contract law if they’d just waive the requirement. I do a lot of contract law now!

That’s very funny.

You just never know, right? Actually, my first ever hearing at the QBCC was a contract termination decision, and I was like “I’m not the person for this.” Turns out, it was fine, because in practice I understood it.  The theory of it? Hopeless.

What would you recommend for other early career lawyers who would like to join the FLC?

Just get involved wherever you can, and I think that goes for law students as well. Throw yourself into the profession, volunteer, shadow barristers, shadow lawyers, go fold somebody’s mail, go to QLS events and meet people. You get out what you put in.

The key for me is, and I made this conscious decision about 18 months ago, is to just get involved in everything, to throw myself into the profession.  I went “I’m going to volunteer at Caxton Legal Centre, I’m going to get involved in the FLC, I’m going to do all these things” and the network and friendships I have now after doing that is incredible.

That’s great advice. What do you do in your downtime, if you have any?

I don’t have a lot of that with two small kids, especially when their social life is far better than mine. I’ve become a volunteer at Caxton, because I think it’s so important to give back. I’m on the school P&F (against my will almost! Just joking). I’m very social and am very much an extrovert who draws energy from being around people, so I don’t feel like I have much downtime because the things that I get enjoyment out of and take pleasure from are very much those social activities, whatever they may be.

What’s your proudest moment or accomplishment so far?

Honestly, getting admitted. I did it with two very young children at the time. My girls are only 12 months apart. I remember I was doing an assignment one night and I was sitting in the door frame of their bedroom at 8 o’clock at night going “lie down, lie down, go to sleep” while drafting. I was at work when I got my marks back and passed everything and I burst into tears at my desk. Law school takes a lot of sleepless nights for everyone, but doing it with two small children and full time work… that was a really big thing for me personally to get through and achieve.

That would have been really hard. It’s very impressive that you managed to do that.

I think you just do it because you have to, right? You get up every day and you just sort of get through that day, and if that means everyone’s having McDonald’s for dinner then you know, everyone’s having McDonald’s for dinner. But yeah, being able to achieve that … I don’t know that I’ll ever do anything quite as hard.

Who is your role model or greatest influence?

I think there are some amazing women in the law, but I think I have always looked closer to home when I think about those who inspire me.  Those who have had journeys similar to my own, so I can see my path following theirs a bit more clearly.

There’s a barrister, Simone Bain, She’s been at the Bar for years, and was a Crown Prosecutor before that and she’s just amazing. She used to work with my dad, I think she’s known me since I was like two years old and she’s always been so amazing, keeping in touch with me, cheering me on, and when I started university taking on a formal mentor role for me.  Now I just chat her ear off about everything and anything in my life.  I think that’s the key to an amazing mentor – having more than just a profession in common.

The other one is the old boss of my previous firm, Wendy Mulcahy. She’s a tremendous person, who also had small kids when she started her firm.  I’ve never known someone with so much heart. She’s a really great lawyer, and just has so much to give – whether you are an employee, friend or client.  She’s unquestionably got your back. She’s always been so supportive of me and such a champion for whatever I decide to do, even when I chose to leave the firm and go into government. That takes a really special kind of person to be there cheering you on, wanting what’s truly best for you, and she has always done that for me.

They’re incredible women and anybody would be lucky to have them in their corner.

What’s your favourite food?

I think it changes on a day-to-day basis really! Probably pasta, from like a comfort food perspective. It helps that my children eat it too, so I don’t have to cook twice!

Any general advice or parting words?

You just need to be kind to everybody. Not all networking needs to be networking “up”. It’s really important to network with all your colleagues, and for a genuine purpose rather than to get something out of it. People can tell when you’re only interested in getting something out of them. If you need something done at the last minute, it’s never going to be a lawyer doing it for you, it’s the secretary. There are so many incredible people who work in our profession and have done it for such a long time, and have skill sets we don’t have, and who will be so generous with those skills if you ever need them. Develop friendships, not just networks.

Also, like I said, just get involved. Sometimes the things you don’t think twice about doing are some of the best things you ever do. On a whim I decided to apply for the FLC and I was really, really shocked when I got appointed. You’ll be surprised by how many doors open from the little chances you take.