Interview: Stephanie Forward

Meet Stephanie Forward. Stephanie is a senior associate at Rouse Lawyers. She was the 2020 President of Queensland Young Lawyers and the representative for the Law Council. 

We spoke to Stephanie about combining laughter and the law in Queensland Young Lawyers' Law Revue, switching from personal injuries to commercial litigation, and why it's so important to have a support network. Read the full interview below.

Stephanie Forward

Stephanie Forward

Tell me a little bit about yourself

I'm a senior associate at Rouse Lawyers, and I've been there for three years. I work in commercial litigation predominantly. I started my career in personal injuries but quickly realised that just wasn't for me. I've been working with the same partner for about 6 years now.

What made you realise personal injury wasn’t for you?

I think I found it too regimented because of the Civil Procedure rules. One of the things I like about litigation is that every case is truly different. It's also one of the things I hate about litigation!

I got into law wanting to help people, and my original intention was to go to the criminal bar and defend Indigenous youth. That was a big passion of mine and doing a dual degree in law and justice, that's what I wanted to do.

But with graduate jobs being difficult to get, I kind of just fell into certain areas. In hindsight, I'm glad that that happened because it's really easy for me to get emotionally attached to my clients and their issues. I have a lot of respect for people that do that, but I just don’t think personally that was for me.  

In litigation I still get to help my clients but not necessarily in such circumstances.  It is particularly rewarding to help a small ‘mum and dad’ company succeed against a larger opponent.

It would be really difficult to separate yourself.

I don’t know how some lawyers do family law or criminal law and all the things that come with that. It takes a certain type of person, I think.

You’d have to be really good at looking after yourself.

Yeah, you’d either have to be a very empathetic person who also knew how to look after themselves, or you’d have to be the type of person that it just doesn’t bother them at all.

I was going to ask you why you decided to study law, but I guess it’s because you wanted to help people, right?

Yeah. I recently found my Grade 7 yearbook from when we graduated, and in there, it says “what job do you want to do when you grow up?” And it said lawyer! So that’s kind of nice that I let my childhood dream come true, but my mum was also studying to become a lawyer at the time, so I think that was a bit of an influence as well.

Is she still a lawyer?

She doesn’t practise, she works in government.

Why did you do a dual degree in justice?

A lot of people do the justice degree if they wanted to become a detective or something, but there are different streams. I didn't do policing, I did criminology. It's a lot of theoretical learning about why people commit crime, and sentencing and punishments and so on. It was super interesting and I think it has made me a better and more empathetic person.

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

I'd say it's been good on the whole. It's been a bit of a rollercoaster. I've always worked in boutique firms and one of the great things about that is that you get thrown in the deep end, so I had a lot of experience with big matters from an early point in my career, but I think that's also quite tough and it's a really steep learning curve. My first matter ever matter had me travelling solo interstate to interview witnesses for a multimillion dollar confidential information case.  Our potential witness list was nearly 300 people long.  

In litigation, it’s a lot of late nights, a lot of tight deadlines, lots of travel interstate, and that can be hard. In any type of law you have things that you mark your success by, but with litigation when you're actually sitting in court with the client and you’re told that you’ve lost, that can be really tough, particularly if you're a junior lawyer. It's been a rollercoaster. But on the whole, I really enjoy it. I wouldn't go back and do anything else if I had my time again, I’d still be a lawyer. As I said, every day is different, the work is intellectually challenging and there are few greater feelings than helping your client succeed.

As I get older and (hopefully wiser) one of the joys of my career has been mentoring junior lawyers both in my firm and through QUT’s mentoring programme.

How long have you been admitted for?

Just over six years. One of the best things I did when I was a junior lawyer was joining Queensland Young Lawyers. I became a part of the Law Revue, which back then was with QLS but has since moved across to QYL.

That meant I had an instant group of people that were my friends and support. When a partner's cross with you because you've made a mistake, they're all going through some other things and you can also talk to each other and share resources and support. That's been great. I didn't meet a lot of people that I'm still friends with in university until I joined Law Revue in my final year. I'm still friends with those people and continue adding to that friendship group every year that more people join the Law Revue. That's been really important part of it and why I've enjoyed law so much, because even when you have a bad day, I've had those people to lean on and have a wine with them and lament about things too.

They can understand your exact issues. You can talk to your friends but if they aren't lawyers, they'll just be like “Oh, that sounds bad…”

Exactly. My partner’s not a lawyer, and sometimes he’ll will say “I don’t understand, why are you working, why don’t you get paid overtime?” And I say “I can’t tell the judge I’m sick, it just doesn’t work like that!” I was sick last year and he actually came to my work and  tried to get me to come home with him, and I just said “no, I can’t, I have a court deadline!”

You were actually the President of Queensland Young Lawyers right?

I was, in 2020. That was a bad year to be President because we’re predominantly an events-based organisation and a little thing called COVID happened. We tried to pivot and did some online events like combining wine and yoga, which was a great idea until I had to do downward dog after a bottle of wine.

We also did a few hybrid events and so on. That was a difficult year to be president, but last year I was still involved as the Immediate Past President and the representative for the Law Council. We put on National Gavel, which is a comedy speaking competition. We managed to do a hybrid event for the winners of Gavel across all of the States and Territories, and we had quite a few interstate people come, notwithstanding all the border closures, so that was a great success. We did Law Revue last year as well, which was great.  I love combining comedy with legal events; laughter is excellent for relieving stress.  

QYL is doing some great work with a new CPD stream and other networking events.  Having been involved for many years it is great to see the organisation go from strength to strength and really support young lawyers.  

Stephanie at Queensland Young Lawyers' National Golden Gavel Gala 2021

That’s the worst timing isn’t it?

Yeah and 2019 felt like it was really building, everything was great. I was nominated for two awards, I won another award, I was Treasurer and then I was elected President, so I was like “yes, 2020 is my year!”

What awards were you nominated for?

I was nominated for Rising Star of the Year for the Women Lawyers Award and for the Rising Star of the Year for the Australian Law Awards, both of them from Lawyers Weekly. And then I won the Young Gun of the Year for Women in Insolvency and Restructuring QLD (WIRQ). That was awesome.

You should be really proud! Did you get a trophy or something?

I did, I have it in my office! That was the third award that I had been nominated for that year, and I was a bit embarrassed by getting people together to go to awards nights and then not winning, so I didn’t even have a ticket to the event, and then one of the people from WIRQ contacted me and said “I really think you should come along.” So I said “ok, are there any tickets left?” And they said “we sold out but we do have one set aside for you.” I thought “that’s weird, ok.”

Anyway, I went by myself, sat at a table of people from a completely different firm, and when my name was called as the winner there was no one at the table to cheer for me ! My firm was a bit cross I didn’t invite them but I didn’t want them to come and see me lose again!

The one time!

I know, I wasn’t even wearing anything nice, I was wearing a t-shirt. So yeah, if you want to win an award all you have to do is rock up to the ceremony in a t-shirt.

Stephanie with other Law Revue cast members

I’ve been dying to ask about this Top Gun photo.

That was Law Revue last year. The theme was a Top Gun: Mareva edition because the second Top Gun was meant to be coming out last year, so it was meant to be a play on Top Gun: Maverick, but because of Covid it got delayed. We were planning to film outside of the airport and just hoped to catch B-roll of a plane going past, but by happy chance the boyfriend of the lawyer who was filming it works internally for the airport there as a lawyer, so he was able to get us access!

We managed to film in the airport, which we were all very excited about. Obviously we dressed up in our Top Gun gear, all in head to toe leather, big 80s hair. That was good! The general gist of the video was we had the soundtrack for Top Gun going, and we had all these girls there with their hair blowing in the wind, and then they panned back and it’s just all of these people with fans and leaf blowers.

What do you like to do in your downtime?

Law Revue takes up a lot of my time because it’s all original content that we write. This will be my fifth year that I’ve been the Convener, so I do all the organising, producing and directing. We’ve got a 10-piece band and 20 cast members so it’s very time consuming organising all of that. And I have two little doggies! They’re Bichon Frise x Shih Tzu. Cookie is 14 and Simba is 13, so they’re seniors now.

I’m also quite involved politically in social justice. I go to the gym when I can. I mostly do weights but I also do dance classes. I’m not very good but what I lack in talent I make up for in enthusiasm!

Everyone I’ve interviewed so far has been involved in dancing!

It’s interesting. There are heaps of people in the Law Revue or who are involved in that type of thing, like TLF Creative [Editor's note: The Legal Forecast Creative is an orchestra and arts group]. A lot of people would think lawyers are stuffy and boring, like accountants or something, but I think there is a the type of person that’s attracted to law… it seems to be there’s a lot of talented creatives there as well.

I’ve always thought that it was really important to embrace that because it is such a demanding job and all of those emotional aspects that we talked about earlier, that it’s important to have an outlet that is somewhat connected to your career, so that you can build those networks and friendships, but you also have that time down and that comedic break from everything. I think it’s really important and that’s why I’ve been involved so heavily and put my heart and soul into it.

It's nice to have an outlet, especially with people who can understand where you’re coming from.

Exactly. And I don’t know many other hobbies that let you dance and sing and rap parody songs, and make fun of people, and then get up on a stage in front of 400 people and get a big applause at the end. So it’s a pretty good one.

What’s your proudest moment or accomplishment so far?

I have a couple. Winning the Women in Insolvency Award was one of them. I really appreciated the judges’ comments and it felt like all the years of hard work had led to something. Last year I had a couple of really good settlements for clients, they were just individuals or small companies but they weren’t turning over a lot of money and they were defendants. They’d been dragged into this litigation, and at mediation for the two matters I’m thinking of, we managed to settle for less than 10% of what they were being sued for. Just seeing the relief on the clients’ faces was a really proud moment. Because I’ve only relatively recently become a senior associate, having run those matters from start to finish and having made the all of the strategic calls on them, and then to see them get such a great outcome, it's a good feeling.

That shows that you’re in the right career and are good at what you do.

I hope so!

You got an award!

Yeah. I think that so many, particularly females in law, are just constantly wracked with self-doubt and imposter syndrome. It’s difficult, and there are always ways you could’ve been better, so sometimes it is hard to sleep at night when you second guess everything you’ve done, but I think it makes you a good lawyer as well. If you’re the type of person that does something, never thinks about it again, never reflects on how you could do better, then how are you going to improve? I envy them because they probably sleep more soundly at night than me!

Do you have a role model or an influence?

There are lots of women that inspire me in the profession. I saw Margaret McMurdo AC, former judge, speak the other day, and every time I hear her speak, she's so eloquent and poised and clever. Now that she's no longer a judge, she's been able to get involved in lots of really important social missions, so she inspires me. Justice Kirby, big fan of his.

My grandmother is also a huge inspiration of mine. She was a trailblazer in her career, being the first female to be president of a trade union in Australia and given that working mothers were not the norm for her generation. She always seemed to be to be a woman that was capable of doing it all.

So there’s not just one person, but there’s lots of people in the law and in my life that I look up to.

What’s your favourite food?

Probably pasta, which is devastating because I recently found out I’m gluten intolerant! I’ve managed to go to Italy three times because I love pasta so much.

What’s your favourite pasta?

If it’s a really nice pasta, just aglio e olio, garlic and olive oil.

Do you have any general advice for other young lawyers?

My biggest advice for young lawyers would be to find a group of friends and a support network that can help them through some of those rollercoaster days. There are some really great days being a lawyer, it’s really interesting, it’s rewarding, it’s challenging. It’s everything I would want in a career.

But in saying that, with a law degree you don’t have to go into practise, you don’t have to become a certain type of lawyer. If you find that litigation’s not for you because you don’t like the conflict, then you don’t have to practise in litigation just because that’s what’s on Suits or whatever. There are so many options out there.

If young lawyers don’t restrict themselves to their idea of what a lawyer is or how a lawyer works, they’ll be happier for it, and that goes with working at top tier firms. You’ll get experience and exposure to different matters working in a smaller firm and likely with a better culture. For some people top tier firms are great, but they shouldn’t be your only option when you’re a junior lawyer. You can have a really fulfilling and rewarding career – and win awards – if you work in a boutique firm!