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Supporting native title holders to secure economic opportunities, from big law to the Kimberley
10 November 2021

Supporting native title holders to secure economic opportunities, from big law to the Kimberley

Published on 10 November 2021

Moving to the Kimberley was far from Joe Heffernan's mind as he put in his hours as a new lawyer for Gilbert + Tobin. Having come to law later in life, after working in the not-for-profit sector in Vietnam and South East Asia, he was keen to make the most of a new role. Insights caught up with Joe on how he found himself, years later, settled in the Kimberley with his young family and dogs, helping to develop business opportunities for native title holders.

From Sir David Attenborough to city lawyer

Joe started his career in the not-for-profit sector, spending over 12 years with an international conservation organisation with renowned environmentalist, Sir David Attenborough, as its vice-president.

"My move to law was driven by a need to understand and better engage with policy and legislative reform, particularly in the land sector," said Joe. "Once I began training as a lawyer, it became apparent to me that working in Indigenous native title law and its related aspects were an important and fascinating area of Australian law. Following a couple of years at city firm, Gilbert + Tobin, the opportunity came up to work with an Aboriginal corporation, Miriuwung Gajerrong Corporation, in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, so I jumped at it. My family and I have loved living in the culturally diverse and stunning beautiful Kimberley and have made many great friends throughout."

Midway through 2019, Joe transferred to the Kimberley Land Council as a lawyer, and shortly thereafter, moved to work more directly on enterprise development focused on developing new business opportunities for native title holders.

Improving economic opportunities in the Kimberley

Joe's new home is vast, covering 423,000 km2 with a population of only 35,000 people, about half of whom are Indigenous. "My role is to support Indigenous people across the Kimberley in bringing new businesses to market, providing commercial advice and planning tools, along with day to day support.”

As a lawyer for the Kimberley Land Council (KLC), Joe joined an organisation formed in 1978 by Kimberley Aboriginal people as a political land rights organisation. Since then, it has become the peak Indigenous body in the region working to:

  • Get back country, through securing native title recognition,
  • Look after country, including through active land management, and
  • Get control of the future, partly through supporting development of community-driven businesses.

His experiences in the Kimberley saw him join the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation RNTBC as Chief Executive Officer this year, supporting the Balanggarra People to achieve their aspirations.

Driven to make a difference in the community

It’s clear that Joe relished his role in the Kimberley, working closely with the indigenous custodians of the land.

"I get the opportunity to engage directly with Aboriginal leaders across the Kimberley who are driven to make a difference for their people,” Joe enthused. "The Kimberley experienced some of the worst and most immediate legacies of colonisation with massacres of Aboriginal people continuing well into the 1920s. People here are still advocating for fundamental social change. The Kimberley is also one of the richest cultural regions in the country, if not the world. Many people still conduct traditional law practices, often highly secretive, and use a range of ancient languages as their mother tongue, including Gija, Walmajarri or Miriuwung."

"In some of the places we work, it can feel like you are a guest from a foreign country. It has also been a privilege to meet and get to know some of the region’s elders, many of whom are talented artists, some of whom have already sadly passed away. It is hard to accept some unique traditional knowledge and stories disappear with the passing of these old folks, leaving us all a little poorer."

When it comes to career, think outside the box

Joe has had the quintessential multiple career approach. For lawyers uncertain of how they might progress to do what they really want, Joe thinks it's important to consider the skills that you develop as a lawyer.

"For me, the key thing to remember is that working in the law also establishes a way of thinking," said Joe. "The ability to critically analyse, absorb complex information and make decisions based upon evidence are skills that apply to all walks of life."

He urges students to fully commit to study, then take the time to practise.

"There is still a lot more learning to be done after you are finally admitted,” observed Joe. "Once you have spent some time working in the law, you may find that your interests take you in a direction where holding a practicing certificate is not required. In my case, I was more interested in developing businesses and supporting people in converting opportunities, but your interests could take you anywhere. The one thing I do think is that lawyers need to remember that the world is a diverse and complex place and that they should not be afraid to ‘think outside of the box’. "

Not every aspect of legal work came naturally to Joe.

 "To the chagrin of supervisors over the years, I always had to work on my attention to detail," admitted Joe. “However, the reality is that this skill is a key part of being a lawyer. I learned to re-read documents, put distractions aside and visit documents with fresh eyes. I began printing out more often and carefully reading final submissions with a red pen in hand." 

"A partner once advised me to read things over three times, which is strangely hard to do! Once you’ve read it twice, it's hard to go back over something again, but that third run is the one where you spot those killer doozies," said Joe.