Third time's a charm August 14, 2007 The newest addition to the High Court bench had two things in her favour: she is female and a Queenslander, writes Michael Pelly New High Court justice Susan Kiefel FOR the High Court's newest judge, Susan Kiefel, it was a case of third time lucky yesterday. The Queensland-based Federal Court judge narrowly missed out on a High Court appointment to John Dyson Heydon in 2003, and in 2005 was considered the frontrunner before Susan Crennan was given the nod. But when the federal cabinet approved the selection of only the third woman to sit on the nation's top bench, it completed quite a journey for the 53-year-old. Kiefel left school at 15 and took her first job in law as a receptionist with Brisbane firm Messrs Fitzgerald, Moynihan and Mack. Kiefel soon decided she would rather write memos than take them. After completing her studies (with honours), she came to the Bar in 1975 and within 12 years had become the first woman in Queensland to be appointed a Queen's Counsel. She became known for her dogged approach, particularly in commercial cases, before the Labor state government appointed her to the Supreme Court in 1993. She was on that court for only a year before the Keating government lured her to the Federal Court in 1994, where she has won plaudits as a trial judge with a reputation as a "black-letter" lawyer in the mould of Heydon and Crennan. Kiefel replaces Ian Callinan, who will formally step down from the court when he turns 70 on September 1. However, many in the profession have their reservations about the appointment. "I think she will find it difficult at first," one lawyer says. "She is a good trial judge, but she has never been regarded as top flight when it comes to appeals. She has been a judge for a long time but she has never really shone." Another colleague thinks this criticism about her skills as an appellate judge to be unfair. "She hasn't had much of an opportunity at that level. But her life experience will really add to something to the court. She hasn't exactly trod a conventional path." It appears Kiefel had two things in her favour: she is female and a Queenslander. Callinan was clear in his wish to be replaced by a Queenslander and Prime Minister John Howard told attendees at one function that he was "under a lot of pressure to appoint someone from Queensland". Philip Ruddock has long been a promoter of women in senior judicial roles and it is significant that his only two appointments to the High Court as Attorney-General have been women. But a former colleague of Kiefel says she has made it "through sheer hard work". "You don't start out in the law as a secretary and end up making it to the top without a lot of drive and ambition. Tony Fitzgerald (the former judge and royal commissioner) inspired her to do law and she has always been focused." Her brother is an actor and her family has no background in the law. While they were not necessarily working class, Kiefel has never forgotten her humble beginnings and was renowned for taking others with an establishment background under her wing when she was a barrister. "She would ring you up and say: 'What are you doing on Sunday?"' the former colleague says. "She would invite you to her place, where there would be other barristers, academics and judges." The colleague says she is testimony to the saying that success is 5 per cent ability and 95 per cent hard work. Her work ethic will come in handy in her new position, as former High Court judge Michael McHugh says the workload borders on the oppressive. Those appearing before Kiefel can expect a stern examination. "If you asked her for some advice, she didn't want to give you the answer; she wanted you to do the work," one colleague says. "She is going to make you think it through and question the way you approached it. And you have to know your facts backwards." At last month's launch of the Australian Academy of Law, where she is a foundation fellow, Kiefel outlined her views on the role of a judge. She said it was "the responsibility of judges to demand skill and competence in the preparation of cases and adherence by lawyers to the duty to the court". "Judges speak among themselves about perceived problems in the way litigation is conducted -- inevitably how it is overdone -- and sometimes they even speak about it in general terms," she said. "Perhaps the time has come for judges to give detailed consideration to their concerns and articulate them. I am not sure solutions will be obvious but clear statements about what is unacceptable in presentation must be a starting point. Case management is not itself the solution." Ruddock was sitting in the front row when she delivered her address and would have been intrigued by her introductory remarks. She said she was "going to stick to the point, which I have been told I should be doing more of lately". According to authors Deborah Whitehall and Helen Gregory, Kiefel had an idyllic childhood in Cairns before her family moved south to Brisbane, where she attended Sandgate High School. She loved sport, music and the theatre and even considered journalism as a future career. But dreaming of financial independence, she left in Year 10 -- a move she later described as a mistake. She worked as a secretary at a building society, for an architect and at an exploration company before her time with the Fitzgerald law firm stirred her interest in the law. While continuing to work, she completed secondary school and began legal studies. She graduated with honours in three years. She became known as thorough, hardworking and relentless. Kiefel met her husband -- Michael Albrecht, an acedemic who specialises in public health issues -- when she went to Cambridge to study in 1984. She joined the rowing team and he was the coach. She doesn't have any children. In her 18 years at the bar, she had a broad practice but preferred to stay away from family law and criminal law. Whitehall and Gregory wrote of how she came to realise that "judges regarded blustering techniques as covers for poor preparation". "In Susan's view, the essential qualities were to be quite courageous and strong, a quiet confidence arising from knowing what you are doing and doing it well, which was far preferable to irritating overconfidence." They said she was annoyed in the 1980s when people frequently asked her what it was like to be a women barrister. "Such a question focused on the perceptions of sex discrimination within the profession rather than on the intellectual calibre of its female members. However, she did note that many people continued to believe that women were different in their thought processes and that many solicitors, including women, had briefed men because they thought their clients wanted them to -- a myth which she believed could be dispelled." Kiefel also held similar views to Crennan about opportunities for women, telling students in 1997 that family responsibilities were difficult to combine with the long hours demanded of those who want to succeed at the bar. When she took silk in 1993, she made a point of praising the male barristers who had helped her, singling out Callinan. She also became used to workers laughing at the sight of a woman in legal robes. Kiefel has many interests outside the law including reading -- she is a fan of the poetry of Judith Wright -- cooking, fly fishing, playing her cello and the arts. In what could be the Coalition's last appointment to the bench, Kiefel is considered to fit with the Government's conservative line. The previous three Howard government appointments have been Crennan, Heydon and Callinan. She will also join Chief Justice Murray Gleeson, William Gummow, Michael Kirby and Kenneth Hayne. She gave a hint of her belief system in an address at a girls-only All Hallows School in 2001. "You can usually do whatever you determine to do," she said. "The constraints or limits placed on a person's life and career usually come from themselves. I hope that you will focus on the possibilities open to you and not dwell on the problems that others tell you about too much." Kiefel returns from leave in early September and with no judgments outstanding, she can begin her new job on September 4. BIOGRAPHY Susan Kiefel, 53, is considered a conservative black letter lawyer. Body: 1954:Born in Cairns and educated at Sandgate State High School in Brisbane. 1971: After leaving school at 15, she begins working as a law firm receptionist at barristers Fitzgerald, Moynihan and Mack. 1973: Joins Cannan and Peterson solicitors as a legal clerk. Completes her senior examination and then her bar board course with honours. 1975: Comes to the Bar. 1984: Studying at Wolfson College, Cambridge, obtains a Master of Laws and is awarded the C.J. Hamson prize in Comparative Law. 1987: Appointed Queen's Counsel. 1993: Appointed to the Queensland Supreme Court. 1994: Appointed to the Federal Court of Australia, becoming the first woman. Also a Supreme Court judge of Norfolk Island. 2003: Appointed to the Australian Law Reform Commission as a part-time member and reappointed in 2006 for three years. Yesterday: Replaces Justice Ian Callinan as High Court judge.