Interview: Stafford Mortensen

Meet Stafford Mortensen. Stafford is a member of the Future Leaders Committee and a solicitor at Wonderley & Hall in Toowoomba.

We spoke to Stafford about the FLC, being admitted at 21, and why it's important to look after both your physical and mental health. Read the full interview below.

Stafford Mortensen

Stafford Mortensen (L) at the Downs and South Western Queensland Law Association Law Ball, with his colleagues Gemma Holland and James Halliday

Tell me about yourself

I'm from Toowoomba born and bred. I'm working at Wonderley & Hall solicitors at the moment, primarily in family law, but I do pretty well everything. Actually, I don't think there's a single field of law that I haven't at least dipped my toes into. I was admitted November of 2021, so it’s all very new to me but I’m loving it.

You’re a very fresh lawyer!

Yes, fresh and young. I was only 21 when I got admitted. I sort of fast tracked my way through uni. I did three years undergraduate at USQ and then did my PLT, which was around six months. So yeah it didn’t take too long at all compared to the process some people go through. I was actually admitted on the same day as my sister in law who is three years older than me, like on the very same day, right after each other. We were sitting next to each other in the admission ceremony. My name is above hers on the roll too, so I’ve always got that over of her!

Is everyone like “wow, you’re so young!”?

We joke that being a 21 year old lawyer is impressive, but being a 22 year old lawyer is just kind of suspicious, like I don’t want a 22 year old lawyer!

So did you start uni when you were 17?

Yeah, I turned 18 a few weeks into uni. So yeah, straight out of high school.

Why did you decide to study law?

It was a multitude of factors. I think I kind of had this idea in my head, sort of early high school, those formative years, where I realised I had a passion, or maybe a talent, for both written and spoken word. I was one of those kids that was always being told not to be a smart alec. So I had that and high school debating as well, and people just kept telling me I’d be a good lawyer, so I just kind of went with it. I had a really great legal studies teacher, and by that point I already knew that I wanted to do it, and she set me on that track, so I’m very grateful to her.

That’s good that you’ve known for a while what you wanted to do

Yeah, I mean there were times where I started to consider other opportunities and career paths. In between doing my undergraduate and postgraduate I sort of considered a few other pathways, but obviously this is the one I went with. Since I started working in a law firm, I haven’t second guessed that decision at all.

What other pathways were you considering?

I mean, they were all sort of law-based. I did consider a career with the police at a certain stage, and I got pretty far down that road before I decided that maybe this wasn’t what I wanted to do. There was a brief stint where I thought about the military, so you know, all sorts of similar roles.

What’s your experience working in law been like so far? 

I was really lucky here at Wonderley & Hall. I started working as a law clerk in June 2021, and that was a few months before I was admitted, so I couldn’t give legal advice, I couldn’t act in the capacity as a solicitor, but I got to shadow those who could for a few months, and that was a really, really great learning period. There wasn’t any pressure or stress, it was just learning and helping out where I could.

So then, when I did get admitted, I really felt like I already had a leg up and was able to hit the ground running. Since then, I’ve loved it. I’ve done things I wouldn’t have thought I would have done so early in my career, and the opportunities just keep coming. It’s something new every single day, and it sounds cliché but you really are always learning. I’m never bored. Every day it’s a different person, different story. I love meeting a new client, listening to their story, figuring out how we play a part in that and how we can help. I’ve really, really enjoyed it.

That’s great! You said you work mostly in family law. Do you think you’ll stay in that area?

At the moment it’s mostly family law, and after that it’s mostly criminal or DV. I was really fortunate when I started. The family law partner at the time, a gentleman named Malcolm Heading, had nearly 40 years’ experience and was an absolutely fantastic mentor. He’s just recently retired. There is a huge demand for this sort of work, so more than anything it’s where I’m needed. I’m fortunate that where I’m needed is also where I’m happy to be.

Family and criminal law are two areas where no one comes to see you because they’re having a good day. No disrespect to commercial or property lawyers, but there doesn’t have to be a sad ending in those fields, whereas I find you’re already treating with a very delicate situation in family and criminal. I don’t mean to sound holier than thou, but there is that satisfaction when you’re doing that work, because as I said, these clients are often at that really low point.

But look, I don’t know what will happen six months or six years from now, or whether I’ll stay in family law. I do want to try to transition into being a barrister, that’s my long-term goal, but that’s many years from now.

I know some people do struggle with getting too attached, too emotionally invested

Yeah, you’re obviously not supposed to get attached to the client, but it does become a point where you want to do well for them, and I think that drives you to win. I wouldn’t ever want to stop taking that to heart. If I want to be the best lawyer I can be, then I should care about what happens at the end of the day. Some more senior practitioners say, “you’ll get used to it,” but it’s like, how used to it do you want to be before you just start seeing these people as just another name on your case load?

You said you’d like to eventually become a barrister. Tell me more about your future goals.

If I’m being super-duper ambitious, my dream would be to be a King’s Counsel, if we still have a monarchy by then! I think my ultimate end goal would be to be a silk one day, because I think stuff like that, like standing up in a courtroom, is the work I find the most exciting and I probably always will. That’s probably only 5% of the job but that’s the part I really enjoy and what I think I’d be best at.

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

One thing I’ve noticed, and I don’t think it’s a huge problem in Toowoomba but from people I know who’ve studied down in Brisbane and the Gold Coast, is a trend or an idea that junior or graduate lawyers are disposable. Like it’s almost to the point that it’s a joke that you just take the first job that you get, because if you don’t someone else will, and I don’t like the idea that we treat ourselves as disposable. We’ve got a whole cohort of young professionals who are highly educated, and who’ve done well to get as far as they have, but then the second you leave uni you get this idea in your head that you’re not valuable. It’s well-known how difficult this profession can be on people’s mental health. The retention numbers in the first five years, particularly in women, are low, and people struggle to keep on this path. To spend all that time studying only to throw the towel in after a couple of years… I think the profession needs to look out for young people and make sure they’re happy.

Right now my generation of lawyers has the benefit of seeking the advice of practitioners who have done ten, 20, 40 years’ worth of practise. But if young people keep jumping ship before they can get to that point, who’s the next generation going to approach? What will the profession look like in 40 years?

Stafford with his dad at his admission

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

It’s good! It’s great because it’s such a diverse group of people, even geographically. I’m in Toowoomba, there’s a handful of Brisbane-based people, Michael Murray is up north, so we stretch across most of Queensland. It’s good to get a sense of what’s happening all around the state, which gives me a competitive edge.

It’s a great group of people, all high achievers that are very dedicated to not just the craft as solicitors, but the profession, people who genuinely want to make a difference. The future leaders demographic (under 35 or less than 5 years PAE) is a demographic that needs support, like I mentioned, so to be a part of a group dedicated to supporting that demographic is quite an honour. It’s quite a big responsibility, representing so many people, but an equally large honour.

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

I think it’s important to show that you’re dedicated to improving the profession and improving things for your cohort. We all have different workloads and everyone has their priorities, I respect that. But if it’s something you’re truly interested in, there are so many ways to get involved, like the various associations and committees in your area. You’ve got the Law Society, a few different committees that could apply to you, the district law associations, university law societies, so many that could represent you, so it’s never difficult to get involved. Make your name known, show that you care about the profession as a whole, and the rest will follow. That’s what happened for me.

What do you do in your downtime?

We don’t get much of that as lawyers! Kidding, it’s not that bad. One thing that’s really important to me is keeping up my physical health as well as my mental health, so I try to go to the gym after work every single day, which is a good way to decompress as well. I’ve found that if I don’t manage to go, then I feel really flat the next day. Other than that, I do enjoy rugby league more than the common man, I would say.

The other thing that I find is a good way to soak up your time is to make sure you have a good support network, whether it’s friends, personal relationships, or even family, people who aren’t part of the legal world. Lawyers get sick of hearing about other lawyers’ problems, whereas I find my friends can listen to me complain forever! I try to find time to decompress and talk (without breaking privilege). Just making sure you spend time with people that you don’t see 38 hours a week at a minimum is a good way of keeping a level head.

What’s your proudest moment or accomplishment so far?

Being on the FLC was really cool. I was in the middle of a COVID isolation period when I got that notification, and I have to be honest, I was not the easiest week. I was trying to work from home, but I just couldn’t cope, I couldn’t focus, and I was unwell. So that was really cool news to receive. Otherwise, it might sound small, but the first time that I took a matter from the very start to the very end, and to win, and to have the client demonstrate their gratitude. That was probably the best feeling that I’ve had so far. I studied, I worked for this, and I was able to genuinely help this person and make a positive impact on their life.

You should be proud! Do you have a role model, or someone who’s been a big influence?

My father. He’s not a lawyer but he’s one of those blokes who knows a little bit about everything, he’s been around long enough to pick up a few things. Throughout my studies, when I was spending late nights doing assignments, banging my head against the keyboard, he was always really, really helpful. The interest and support he’s given me throughout my early career… I’m trying not to get too sentimental. I can tell my success means a lot to him.

What’s your favourite food?

I’m going to give my dad a shout-out here as well. He does these tacos right, where you take a hard shell taco, and you wrap it in a soft shell taco. It doesn’t have a name, we should give it a name.

Any general advice or parting words?

This could be terrible advice but in this profession, you will meet a lot of people, you will work alongside a lot of people and you will work against a lot of people. I think the most important thing is to stay true to yourself, stay true to what you believe is right within your knowledge of the law, which, if you’re this far, is more than you think. If you stay true to your own convictions, then I don’t think you can really go too far away from what’s right.