Magistrate Cathy McLennan grew up on Magnetic Island and from a young age developed a strong work ethic toiling hard cleaning resort guest rooms, cleaning schools, working as an assistant in a bakery and as a pianist in a restaurant.
She went on to obtain her law degree from James Cook University, becoming a barrister at the age of 22 and is now a respected Magistrate at Innisfail. Her advice to young people considering a career in law is ‘Never give up’.
Here Cathy walks you through her journey to Magistracy.
Cathy as a young girl growing up on Magnetic Island.
I grew up on Magnetic Island with a supportive family and a great love of books. We didn’t have much money. My parents invested everything in a small resort and we all had to work hard. From the age of nine, one of my jobs was to scrub the bathrooms. I got $2 each – I get paid a bit more these days.
The resort wasn’t fancy, but it did attract some famous legal families. They were ordinary people, down-to-earth and kind. Justice Sir George Kneipp ate lamb-chops for breakfast. Mr Galbally QC left his memoir with us, and that’s what made me decide I wanted to be a barrister. It also led to my own memoir of life as a young lawyer, Saltwater.
Salt Water - an epic fight for justice in the tropics by Cathy McLennan - When Cathy McLennan first steps into Townsville's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service as a young graduate she isn't expecting a major murder case to land on her desk. The accused are four teenage boys whose family connections stretch across the water to Palm Island. As she battles to prove herself in the courtroom, Cathy realises that the truth is far more complex than she first thought. She starts to question who are the criminals and who are the victims. Saltwaters tells the story on one lawyer's fight for justice amongst the beauty and the violence and the violence of this tropical paradise.
My first legal job was Associate to Supreme Court Justice Cullinane. There is no better experience for a fledgling Barrister. I got to sit for one year in court and watch the top QC’s at work. Most of the time they were brilliant. Some of the time they made mistakes, seriously embarrassing mistakes. I thought, ‘I can do that’.
Upon admission to the Bar, I worked at the Aboriginal and Islander Legal Service in Townsville. It was a demanding role, but I was used to hard work and understood and cared about the issues. After two years I went to the private Bar. I loved being a Barrister. It suited all my interests and skills – reading, writing, problem solving. I ran dozens of trials in the Magistrates Court. But I developed a terror of appearing in jury trials. My heart would thud just thinking about it. Finally, I realised it was the performance aspect that frightened me. So I tried out for amateur theatre and played lead in a Tennessee Williams’ play.
A few weeks later the brief for my first jury trial landed on my desk the night before the trial. The charge was rape. After working through the night, I asked the judge for an adjournment. He said, “Sure, you have an hour.”
What can I say, it was my first trial - but I was ready. I had years of preparation, study and determination behind me. It’s probably a terrible thing to say, but I really enjoyed myself, and I continued to love it for years.
Life at the Bar was never boring. There are a range of fields to practice in, each one completely different. From family law to commerce, personal injuries to wills and estates. And I got to practice at all levels, from Tribunals to the High Court.
Early on in my career I had no aspirations to the Bench. Justice Cullinane was a fine jurist and set an extraordinary standard. More than 20 years later, I felt I had something to offer the Bench with my legal and life experience.
I enjoy the Bench. I have long been passionate about justice and do my best every day to make sure every person has a fair hearing. Justice begins and ends with knowledge, diligence, respect and kindness.
One thing my legal career taught me is that my dignity and sense of self-worth stems from how I treat others. Every single person is important. Every case is important. If you follow that principle, you will have a career you can be proud of.
If you're interested in following Cathy's footsteps by becoming an Associate to a District Court of Supreme Court Judge, visit the Queensland Courts website to find out how.
If I could say anything to a new lawyer, it would be that the key to success is the ability to fail, and then keep on trying.
Nobody is ever perfect. Take me, for example. During the years, I've had plenty of setbacks. I'm here now because I never stopped striving. I didn’t get every job I ever applied for. I had dozens of rejections from publishers. I had no way of knowing whether my book Saltwater would ever be published, but I slaved over every word. Now I have a Queensland Literary Award.
My point is that if you want a successful career in law, DON’T GIVE UP! Work hard and believe in yourself. If you have setbacks, pick yourself up, dust yourself off and keep trying.