Helen Bowskill’s inspiring journey from ‘junior secretary’ to the top of Queensland’s legal tree
Queensland’s new Chief Justice has taken a long and winding road to her historic role – and her story should be a lesson to us all, writes Madonna King.
Queensland Chief Justice Helen Bowskill is seen during the swearing in ceremony for Supreme Court judge Lincoln Crowley (left) at the Queen Elizabeth II Courts of Law in Brisbane, Monday, June 13, 2022. Australia's first Indigenous Supreme Court judge Lincoln Crowley has been sworn in at a public ceremony in Brisbane. (AAP Image/Darren England) NO ARCHIVING
Queensland’s Chief Justice Helen Bowskill has a story every one of our children should hear.
And perhaps particularly, those thousands and thousands of teens who will soon start year 12, or are now struggling to work out what university course will accept them.
Helen Bowskill knows what that feels like. At the end of year 12, she was struggling with mental health issues – which only grew worse after leaving school.
Like many of those who finished school last November, she had no idea what to do as a career. So she enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Queensland.
She lasted a year, but failed some subjects. So the next year, she enrolled in a communications degree at QUT, with the aim of a role in advertising.
“I lasted one semester. The next year, I auditioned for and was accepted into the drama course at Kelvin Grove. I lasted until the end of orientation week,’’ she says.
“I was struggling, lost and frustrated; but by this time I had also been getting professional help for my mental health struggles and I put a lot of effort into getting better.’’
Chief Justice Bowskill shared the extraordinarily raw and honest account of her own academic journey with graduating students of QUT recently.
But it’s a story every one of us should read because it’s a story that shows how important it is to view failure as just step along any journey. And that mental health challenges will not stain the journey of those teens who, especially post-Covid, are now feeling utterly lost.
In the wake of several failures, Helen Bowskill’s parents encouraged her to find a skill that would help find a waitressing or nannying job. “So I enrolled in the Lorraine Martin Secretarial College,’’ she says.
It was the change she needed. She learnt shorthand and to type on a typewriter (skills she still uses from the bench today, including typing her own judgements).
But more than those skills, succeeding at something provided a confidence boost that would lay the ground work for a career that now sees her written into the State’s legal history.
“My first job after finishing that course was to fill in, just for an afternoon, as a junior secretary in a barrister’s chambers – the fancy word they use for their offices. I was terrified, but I went along and did my very best,’’ she told law graduates.
“At the end of the afternoon, one of the barristers called me in, and told me to sit down. He looked at me, and said: “you can spell”. And I thought – well of course I can spell! – but I just politely said yes; and he told me I could come back the next day. I went from that job, to another barristers’ chambers and then another.’’
Helen Bowskill then decided she wanted to be a barrister. But with so many failures recorded, her school leaving score, in her words, was “decimated’’.
Her only chance was to plead for special consideration, and she sat down in November 1990 and penned a letter – which she has kept – to QUT, asking permission to enrol.
And she’ll always be grateful to the anonymous “kind soul’’ at QUT who read her plea, and allowed her to enrol in a Bachelor of Laws, the following year.
The rest is history. She continued to work full-time as a secretary, while doing her law degree part time, each night. And her secretarial skills proved worthwhile, with her jotting down lecture notes in shorthand, before typing them up on the weekend.
Seven years later, in 1998, she started practice as a barrister, before later becoming a mother, a QC, a District Court judge, Supreme Court Judge, and now Chief Justice of Queensland.
There are plenty of stories like Helen Bowskill’s. Indeed Australia’s chief justice Susan Kiefel’s is similar. But we don’t hear them enough. We’ve redefined ‘success’ to mean premature overachievement. We want to win the first time. Get the big job immediately. Be remarkable at 15, not 55. We’ve forgotten the value of dreaming, and of pure determination.
So many families are now talking about how their children ‘achieved’ their top preference, or ‘missed out’ because of a single ATAR number that many will have forgotten in a couple of years.
In a world fuelled by social media, we’ve learnt to want it all now. And Helen Bowskill’s story is a delightful reminder of the falsity of that.
There’s a lesson in that for all of us.