Meet Tommy Lopau. Tommy is a lawyer at Littles Lawyers, and he was admitted in February 2022.
We spoke to Tommy about his aspirations to become a barrister and maybe even a judge, his passion for teaching and his community, and karaoke. Read the full interview below.
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
My name is Tommy Martinez Lopau. I’m 23 years old. I graduated from QUT in 2020 with a Bachelor of Laws and then I did my PLT the following year in 2021. I came from New Zealand when I was seven. I have seven siblings, including myself. My mum and dad are pastors of an AOG church. Outside of law I love volleyball and touch, karaoke, family time, church time, and gym.
What’s your go-to karaoke song?
I love Bruno Mars classics and the new Silk Sonic tracks.
Why did you decide to study law?
When I was going through high school I did very well in accounting, legal studies, business, and PE. I couldn't see myself doing numbers all day, so I just thought I'd do general business, but it got to registrations, and obviously I asked for my mum and dad's opinion. They were like, “You should do law.” So I thought, “If it gets too hectic, I'll revert to business, but at least I tried.” By the end of the first year of law, I did well and wanted to continue.
You just got admitted right, like really recently?
Yes, like a month ago [at time of interview].
Thank you. I’m yet to get my practising certificate. I put my application in and I’m waiting for it to come back. [Note: Tommy now has his practising certificate.]
What’s your experience been like working in law so far? Did you do any clerking?
I got my first law-related job in second year of law. The law school really emphasised getting experience as soon as you can. I worked at Cockburn Legal, which deals with wills and estates. It's a boutique firm, so there were only three of us. That was working with the principal. Then I worked at YFS Legal, which is a community legal centre, then at Caxton Legal Centre, and then I did a justice project at Cherbourg.
You’ve done a lot of different things! Which area did you like best?
I definitely didn’t like wills and estates! The two community legal centres were very general, and they did deal with vulnerable clients. Going into Littles [Lawyers], that was something I wanted to continue in.
So what does your day-to-day at Littles look like?
Right now I'm running files. At the start of my day, I usually get a list of all my matters and list down every task that I need to do.
In a typical day, it's usually just doing file work for the different matters. I do a bit of marketing for the firm here and there. My team leader will try to include me as much as possible in client meetings, so attending those as well. I also help out my other teammates as best I can, as they have quite a few more files to run.
A lot of different stuff! It keeps you interested though, right? It sounds like you need to be really organised.
Yeah it does! And yeah I really do, my diary is my best friend, my calendar is my best friend. I’ve really got to stay on top of things.
What would you like to accomplish later in your career?
I’d love to be a barrister. I’m not too sure on what that entails though! In the law degree all we talked about was being lawyers, but no one really talked about the next step. I just feel like it's a box I want to tick later in life. And then later later in life, if I want to progress, I’d become a judge.
At the same time, I've always had a passion for teaching, so I'd love to retire as a teacher, giving back to kids, inspiring them the way my teacher inspired me. I want to be there to guide them at the last minute before they leave into the real world. I just love teaching.
How do you feel about the legal profession so far?
I don’t know if I could speak on the whole environment, but in terms of the social environment, it’s very competitive in nature. I’m sure you’re familiar with the term imposter syndrome. In law school you feel like every single person is smarter than you. That’s exemplified in the law.
The legal industry is good. There are campaigns to create change and help vulnerable people. It’s well-regulated, very strict, very full-on. It’s a big jump from an undergrad who could make a few mistakes here and there on paper. In the real world, when you send a letter, that’s a final statement. It’s a high-risk type of environment but it’s something that I’m adjusting to.
You’re the treasurer of the Pasifika Lawyers Association of Queensland (PLAQ) right? When did you join the association?
2019. I forget how I found the PLAQ but I was invited to the AGM. I got my job the first time I went to an AGM, because the Vice President at the time worked at Littles.
What’s your favourite thing about being a member?
I love how it’s uncharted waters. There’s no association that exists out there for Pasifika professionals. As a general member it's a really good way to connect and see other professionals that are Pasifika who you can feel safe with. It's good to feel understood, and we're all lawyers so we all have the same expectations, and I can take lead from them and be guided in my career. It's really good to have a centralised group of people that understand every single thing to do with your life, not just professional. You can lean on them, confide in them and get advice.
It's also about representation. When you see another person that looks like you and acts like you and talks like you, you just feel so much more comfortable, especially in spaces like this where it's not many out there. It's the feeling of belonging.
Representation is so important. What do you think would inspire other young Pasifika men to join the legal profession?
It starts with groups like this. If you think about career options, you can't be what you can't see. For example in the NRL, almost 50% of the NRL are Pasifika, so kids that are Pasifika and especially men are going for these types of jobs because that's what they see in the media.
I think to inspire more Pasifika men, it's all about getting our stamp on the industry and letting them know that “Look, we're here, and if you want to be here as well, you're more than capable.” I think for a lot of people, it's a very aspirational type of job.
I've already been invited to a few talks. One pastor came up to me and he said, “My daughter is doing law, and my littlest son is thinking of doing law. I'd love if you could come to our church and just have a talk, a Q&A type thing, because I just want them to know that it is possible and it's achievable.” I said I’d love to! It's definitely something everyone can do.
I read that you were a choreographer, right? What kind of dance?
An amateur one! Hip-hop. Every time my family is invited to some type of event like a 21st or an uncle’s 50th – I don’t know if it’s just my family or maybe a Pasifika tradition – we usually take an item to perform. My dad says “There’s a 21st in three weeks, get something together,” and I have to do a song like 50 times, come up with the moves. It’s very amateur but talent nonetheless. And then for church, items for Easter or Christmas, stuff like that.
Very cool. What else do you like to do in your downtime?
I love volleyball, I love gym. I love music, hanging out with friends.
What’s your favourite food?
Nothing will beat mum’s cooking, but a hot second is… I went to a Korean barbeque and they have this dish, I forgot what it was called, it’s like pasta and full of cheese.
Is it maybe Tteokbokki? Like rice cakes and it’s kind of spicy?
Yeah I think so! But other than that, I just love mum’s cooking.
What’s your proudest moment or accomplishment so far?
It's a dual answer. Professionally, admission was a really big thing for me. I just felt so legit, like, my name is in the roll, I'm not some guy that's bluffing. No, it's actually put in writing! My whole family came out for my admission, which was so nice. When you work for something for five years and you finally become legitimate, it’s so satisfying, and it fills your cup.
Going through uni I always had two to three jobs to help out with bills at home, so I wasn’t a burden to anyone. I wanted to pay for my own stuff, and I never asked for money unless it was essential.
For so long I was taxing my parents, like, “Mum, Dad, I've got this seminar, I've got this networking event, can I have $20 in case we go for coffee?” Since becoming employed, being able to give back is so fulfilling. My mum and dad are going to get a mortgage, and they feel like they're now in a position to do that.
Admission was a really big one professionally, but personally, being employed full time in the job that I had sought to get, and the one that my parents wanted me to get, is very fulfilling as well.
I bet they’re really proud.
Yeah they are!
Do you have a role model?
I want to say my dad. He obviously never became a lawyer, but he grew up in Samoa, so for me the biggest lesson he taught me was it doesn’t matter what life gives you, it’s what you do with it.
He’s my inspiration. It was very gutsy for him to leave his home to seek something that he didn't know was actually going to come into fruition. It's about taking big risks like he did, even if you're not sure you'll get there.
Any parting words?
In five years I want to be known by the Samoan community, the Pasifika community. I'm working very hard to network and connect, because what is the use of a lawyer that's got his own niche if the niche market doesn't know about it? Hopefully when they need legal assistance, people in the community don't hesitate, they don't feel like “there's no dedicated services for me” or “they won't understand because they don't speak Samoan”.
Another quote I want to give, and something that I've always lived by, is “hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard.” I was never special. In maths, in English, I was never top five, top 10, nothing like that. But five years later, of all my friends, I was the only one that finished uni and got a career. Whatever you’re dished with in life, just roll with it and do your best with what's in front of you.
If life is unfair on you, work hard. You can get past 80 to 90% of everything with hard work. You don't need a rich dad. You don't need a solid connection in the community. I don't agree with the kind of ‘sook’ mentality, like “oh, life was unfair, I grew up poor.” No. Life is what it is. You’ve got to pull through, and if you really want it, you’ve got to work hard.