From handwashing men’s Y-fronts and overcoming racism to founding a law firm and becoming a philanthropist, Melissa Kirby’s journey from humble beginnings in Hong Kong is a compelling story of hard knocks and hard work.
Delivering a no-nonsense career seminar for law students at the ANU College of Law on 11 March, Ms Kirby pulled no punches with students about the challenges of forging a career in the law.
“Law is not a very forgiving profession if you’re not prepared to work hard. People go to lawyers because they need help, so it's never going to be stress-free or nine to five. If you’re going to do anything well, it takes time – and if you’re not willing to put in the time, then don’t do it.
“Don’t work half-heartedly to be mediocre. The world simply doesn’t pay for that,” Melissa said.
Melissa graduated from ANU in 1999 with a double degree in Law and Asian Studies, and has been extraordinarily generous with her expertise and time, returning to the university to work with students over many years.
In addition, Melissa’s firm, Sharpe & Abel, has introduced an annual scholarship worth $5000 for undergraduates in the disciplines of Law, Engineering and Computer Science.
Reflecting Melissa’s own background, the scholarship requires the successful recipient to not only demonstrate their commitment to achieving an end goal in spite of adversity, but show how the scholarship will significantly improve their ability to achieve that goal.
“I didn’t come from a comfortable background; my parents were immigrants and my first permanent job was in child care. Look, I’ve washed men’s underwear by hand for pay.”
Melissa says that her eventual success was hard won and her work ethic was reinforced by her lecturers during her time at ANU.
“My lecturers told me that I needed to work hard and be good at something. With the sort of competition you have at ANU, you have no option but to work hard.
“Lecturers at ANU don’t reward sloppiness but do reward intellectual curiosity – it was this grounding that gave me the tools that I use today,” she said.
Indeed, her CV reveals the extent of her success, including working as Associate General Counsel at a Fortune 100 company, teaching at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, and roles with leading global law firms.
But Melissa’s professional journey has also had its challenging moments. She tells the sobering story of how she had to make the painful decision to dump her maiden name of Cheung and stop placing her photo on her CV in order to get interviews for legal positions in London, despite having a first class honours degree from ANU, scholarships and having worked at two of the world’s top law firms.
When she returned to Australia, Melissa founded Sharpe and Abel, a Melbourne-based law and strategy firm that specialises in serving the infrastructure, manufacturing, engineering and technical professions.
“I thought that the way private practice delivered legal services needed improvement. I wanted to try and do it differently, and deliver a service that upheld the administration of justice and also was focused on the needs of the client. After all, legal practice is a service industry and you need to serve.”
Despite the competition and challenges they’re likely to face, Melissa reminds ANU law graduates they have an edge and should be confident they can match it with graduates across the globe.
“Having worked with some of the best lawyers at the best firms in the world, I know my degree from ANU is on par with anything from Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Cambridge and Oxford.
“ANU law graduates are just as good, if not better, than graduates from some of the best law schools.”
Melissa’s advice for aspiring lawyers in a shrinking job market is extremely practical: if you can’t land a job straight out of university, go and do something – anything.
“Don’t wait for a job to land in your lap. If you’re not humble enough to do anything, you’re not hungry enough to work for an employer anyway.
“If you clean someone’s kitchen and you do it really well, people notice. When you go above and beyond, and do something, anything really well – regardless of what whether it’s cleaning kitchens, washing Y-fronts or providing legal advice – people notice.”
– BY LYN LARKIN AND TIM GRAINGER