Women in Law Series, Part 4: Q&A with Teela Reid of Sydney Law School

Teela Reid, current Practitioner in Residence at Sydney Law School, joined Natalie from Legalwise Seminars for the fourth installment of our Women in Law series.

For Teela, proud Wiradjuri and Wailwan woman with a legacy of stories passed down about women who stood their ground on the frontline of First Nations movements, lawyering is an extension of that kind of advocacy.

The interview follows her moving and timely Keynote Address at the Women Lawyers Association of NSW Awards ceremony in August.

Thank you for joining us today, Teela. You come from a long line of First Nations warrior women, so maybe we can start with a little bit about your personal journey into the law and how your background may have inspired you to pursue this path?

That’s a great place to start. I see my lawyering as an extension of the many First Nations matriarchs who came before me. As you’ve said, I come from a long line of strong black women, who spoke truth to power and who understood their roles and responsibilities as women. Having grown up in matriarchal kinships, where women are the decision makers, they’re the storytellers, they’re the healers, they are the keepers of our children, and they’re very much the centre of our kinship circles.

That’s not to necessarily diminish men, but it’s the fact that often women are those who make the decisions. And this legacy of stories passed down to me about the women who stood their ground and were always the frontline of First Nations movements means that lawyering, for me, is really an extension of that kind of advocacy. I see my role as a lawyer very much instilled in my values as a First Nations woman. That can create tension sometimes, as we’re often dealing with the objectivity of the law with the way in which the rule of law itself has often oppressed First Nations and vulnerable people. As a black woman coming to the profession, the stories in my own family, both my matriarchal lineage and my patriarchal lineage were both forced onto missionaries, on my traditional country. And that is a result of the way in which colonisation and the laws in Australia have lawfully oppressed First Nations peoples. I’ve always brought those stories with me and maintain a hope and ambition that as lawyers, we call out injustice. We recognise the circumstances wherein the rule of law is not always applied equally, particularly to First Nations peoples in this country.

It’s always deeply within me trying to balance both those cultural roles and responsibilities, whilst also taking seriously my black letter law skills. I think for many of us as lawyers, we understand that our role in society is very privileged. For me and for where I come from, my lawyering is in many ways at odds with my traditional matriarchal kinships.

The law itself is very white, patriarchal, and hierarchical. I often find where I’m practicing law or having conversations with other lawyers, there is a tension around the fact that the law has not always been just in particular to First Nations peoples, and how do we navigate that space to create a better future for our country and the people the law is supposed to serve?

As a campaigner for the Uluru Statement of the Heart, can you share with our readers the processes and discussions that led to the statement, and what has been your role in advocating for a First Nations Voice enshrined into the Constitution?

The Uluru Statement from the Heart is one of many petitions issued by First Nations peoples. In the past some of the more notable ones have been the Yirrkala Bark petitions, the Larrakia petition, and the Kirribilli Statement. What makes the Uluru Statement from the Heart so strategically different is that having learned the lessons of our nation’s past, where in fact First Nations peoples cannot always rely on the status quo of politicians to make decisions in good faith, the Uluru Statement did not hand over all that hard work to politicians.

In fact, it went straight to the people of Australia. My role in that process that underpinned the Uluru Statement was really confined to a very narrow issue, which was subsection of Section 51(xxvi) of the Constitution, or more commonly known as ‘the race power’. When Australia was founded, the federal parliament empowered itself to make laws with respect to people of a particular race, so that is a foundational issue of our nation.

First Nations peoples saw 1967 as a fundamental change, and one of the most successful referendums in Australian history, when 90.77% percent of people voted yes in solidarity with Aboriginal people. Prior to this date, only the states and territories had the lawful power to make laws in relation to Aboriginal people. At this point, we thought this was an opportunity to ensure that the federal parliament would make decisions in good faith for Aboriginal and Torres Strait people. So it makes practical sense that now, post the 1967 referendum, Federal parliament have the power to make laws in relation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues that brings us into the lawmaking process.

Australia is a distinctly different democracy in relation to other similar liberal democracies around the world. Upon colonisation, there was no attempt to make Treaty with the Indigenous peoples that occupied the land, unlike Canada, New Zealand and other parts of North America. There was a complete ignorance to the fact that there were Indigenous people that occupied the land, and this led to a lack of recognition of that fact. So here we are in 2023, asking the Australian people to answer a question in relation to the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The Uluru Statement invites Australia to recognise our preoccupation and existence of this continent by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Voice to Parliament. Underpinning the Uluru Statement from the Heart was an incredibly robust and thorough process involving a higher proportion of Indigenous peoples debating the concept of recognition and coming forward with a solution to that unanswered question of our nation’s past, than there were of non-Indigenous Australians who actually founded the constitution itself! It was unprecedented. And as a leader on subsection of Section 51(xxvi), it was very clear that the lived experiences of elders and First Nations peoples and leaders was that they understood the impact of the lawmaking process because we had lived the impact of things such as the stolen generations, lawful dispossession, the lawful massacring of Indigenous peoples. The sophistication of the idea of proposing a voice to actually improve politicians’ decision making, is such a generous offer in the scheme of what First Nations peoples have endured.

I don’t think that we can let this opportunity pass us by. It makes complete practical sense that you would ensure that the views of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are considered, at least, when politicians and parliaments make decisions about laws, and that that’s just a fair and just request. Right now, I think what we’re witnessing is a lot of noise around the idea and the referendum. In my opinion, the media have never been able to be trusted when it comes to First Nations issues. What we see is very surface level reporting, with mainstream news outlets running for headlines and negative stereotypes about First Nations peoples.

However, I have witnessed so much strength within our community to seriously defy the odds of history when they have issued the Uluru Statement. The statement wasn’t intended for politicians, it was intended for the people, because we know that just like in 1967, overwhelmingly, Australians also voted yes to changing the constitution.

How do you foresee a successful ‘Yes’ result, impacting Indigenous women, particularly in the legal and political spheres?

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have been historically underrepresented in our nation’s democracy and places of decision making and power. A successful referendum essentially guarantees equity in balance of gender, so it’s a fundamental design principle that posts a successful referendum. A key feature is the opportunity to guarantee into the future First Nations women at the decision-making table. Right now, we do have some First Nations women in politics, and some might be lawyers or in powerful positions, but this is not necessarily guaranteed when it comes to who represents the interest of our First Nations communities. So often you hear people say, oh, but we already have Indigenous politicians and women in Parliament! But the difference is that these women are elected in their political parties, and that is driven by political ideology.

When First Nations women speak about our communities and the issues confronting our communities, it’s not because they want to become everyday politicians. They want to stay in their communities. They care very deeply about their kinships and given our nation’s history of the Stolen Generations, how to rebuild them. And the voice to Parliament is distinctly a voice to Parliament and not a voice in Parliament, because no one really wants to go down to Canberra and do the status quo politician lifestyle.

If you look at initiatives like Closing the Gap, which has basically been almost two decades of policy failure by the Federal Parliament, Australians know that every political promise made by political parties has not been fulfilled. So, the opportunity for Australians to mandate that the voice exist if there is a successful referendum guarantees that into the future, there is consistent input from First Nations peoples and that this volatile cycle we’re in at the moment with either side of politics getting into it, and fracturing Indigenous policy, comes to an end. It’s an attempt to take Indigenous issues back into the community and out of politics, and to ensure that community solutions to community issues are always driven by those on the ground.

As I’ve said previously, it’s a really sophisticated and generous proposition to say that we will put our hands up to represent our communities and have influence into the laws and policies to support politicians in their decision making, to make it more robust and ensure we’re creating and designing the solutions impacting on our communities. Unlike other continents or democracies, here in Australia we have over 250 First Nations and those First Nations are distinctly different in their kinships in their governance.

A voice means that each and every community has the power to generate solutions to the problems they are facing, rather than what we are seeing at the moment, which is politicians thinking they know what’s best for our communities and using Indigenous issues as a political football. Subsequently, we see taxpayer dollars wasted on this perpetual problem in which they have continually failed us, so it’s about creating efficiency, as well. It’s looking at putting in place much needed resources on the ground, as opposed to the middle man and almost certain wastage.

In advocating for a ‘Yes’ vote, how do you balance the need for Indigenous voices to be heard with the diversity of opinions within such a diverse community? How did the Uluru Statement from the Heart deal with that?

I think it’s very clear from a First Nations perspective, that we can’t put First Nations issues into a binary of ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. As someone who has actively engaged in the conversation and the advocacy, I have never labelled myself as a ‘Yes’ campaigner, although the mainstream media has labelled me in that way.

In fact, I think there are many more nuances in this conversation and where there is a diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander opinion, that should be embraced. The diversity of our opinions and our views is our strength, and for too long, Australia has expected us to all speak with one voice. That is such a double standard because non-Indigenous Australia doesn’t even expect that of itself. We wake up every day in this country and we must listen to non-Indigenous people argue, to debate and contest ideas, so the fact that we as First Nations peoples aren’t entitled to that contest of ideas is just hypocritical.

So, in this context, I think it’s important to be mindful that while we all want what’s best for the First Nations community and indeed our nation as a whole, it’s a very narrow viewpoint to try and put First Nations issues into a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ box.

The question being asked to people at the referendum is to vote on a principle. The principle of the voice, and I have always argued this, is to ensure the diversity of our views, and to ensure the future of our country and that its parliament enables the many different and powerful views of our communities. We are the oldest surviving peoples on the planet, so we are of course such diverse people and, for me, that’s a strength, not a weakness.

Looking ahead beyond October 14, what are your aspirations and goals for the future, both personally and in terms of your advocacy work?

I do hope that there is peace and resolution on our country, but I believe we will need to rebuild relationships between First Nations peoples and the rest of the country. I’ve always committed my advocacy to dismantling systemic racism and confronting these difficult notions in our society, particularly where systemic racism infiltrates.

As a young lawyer, I was always very passionate about the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sovereignty through the remodeling of what a future Australian Republic could look like. As a big picture person, I see lots of problems that need to be addressed in our country.

What type of problems?

Things that are not representative of who we are now. Over 30% of our communities are multicultural and diverse, and there’s around 3% in the First Nations community. We don’t look the same as we did in 1901, so I think our conversations about who we are as a nation and building strength in the diversity of who we are, are conversations we need to keep having.

I also have hope for transforming our profession. My friends and I co-founded Rebellious Lawyers Australia. It was born out of a frustration of practicing law, questioning our own practice when advising clients or helping them navigate systems, asking ourselves if we’re simply reinforcing oppressive systems? We’ve really been able to unpack what lawyering looks like, and not just in the lawyer-client relationship sense. It’s very much about how lawyers respond to the confronting issues of our time and to how we help everyday citizens and collectives navigate those issues.

Climate justice, for example, is such a confronting issue, and not just for First Nations people. Is our parliament doing enough? Are we doing enough? How do we better support communities who are navigating these issues such as the Torres Strait Islanders, who have recently said they’re literally picking up the bones of their ancestors from the shores because of the rise in sea levels?

For the future, I do hope lawyers start to begin to see themselves beyond the lawyer-client relationship, and beyond thinking you’ve got to be a lawyer, you’ve got to go to the bar, then you’ve got to become a judge. Being a lawyer is so much more than that.

The responsibility of how we show up to the profession should be of service to the entire community. Often, I think we lock ourselves out of that conversation because of the way in which it’s been traditionally practiced. Rebellious Lawyers is about how do you, as a lawyer, bring your storytelling skills to the courtroom, or through a written story, such as those I’ve written in the media, or about how you better respond to community activism and issues, as well as activating your black letter law skills.

Often, whilst unpacking clients’ problems, we get stuck in the way we’re trained and to have that legal response. But if we look broader and have a moment to reflect, it may be that there are non-legal strategies we can use to support our clients, and indeed the broader community, to navigate these issues?

I think we should be demanding better of ourselves as lawyers when it comes to the way in which we are expected to practice. There is a long way to go in legal education in Australia. The dominance of Western legal education and Western law has meant that we have entire generations of lawyers who only see the law through that Western lens, when in fact, here in Australia, we have the oldest continuing laws on the planet from First Nations communities, in the form of oral stories. They might not be written down, in case law or textbooks, but the law of the land has always existed here, and I think that we’re only beginning to really scrape the surface of the plurality of the jurisprudence that always existed.

I hope for the future that we are producing lawyers who are much more capable in understanding the source of law and that law itself isn’t just a Western notion. It exists in many forms, and it continues, and that is what we mean when we say First Nations sovereignty was never ceded. We mean that we are the first lawmakers and that the law of the land continues to exist in our everyday life.

In your current academic position at the University of Sydney, working alongside the lawyers of tomorrow, do you see a pluralistic legal framework being a possibility in the future?

Absolutely! I feel like we’re on the cusp of having conversations about the transformation of the legal profession and legal education. I’ve had the opportunity to study in Canada, which I would say is probably 20 years ahead of Australia in terms of understanding the plurality of law and the source of law and Indigenous law.

We’re only knocking on that door in Australia and asking how we start to embed First Law and First Nations perspectives into our legal education to make lawyers more aware of the continuation of First Nations sovereignty, and how it isn’t at odds with Western law, but it can coexist with Western law.

Our legal education is very British and colonial, which means that often we’re producing lawyers who don’t understand the impact of colonial law. For example, I’m a senior litigator in Aboriginal land rights, and the Land Rights Act in NSW has existed since the 1880s. Not many lawyers come out of law school with an understanding about the purpose of that. We have over 30,000 undetermined Aboriginal land claims in this state, and it’s a disservice to our profession that we’re not producing quality lawyers with a broader understanding not only about the negative impacts of law, but also in a way in which we can empower First Nations communities. If we’re better able to practice in these spaces and have a good understanding of how you deal with not just Indigenous clients, but Indigenous communities, you can start to have bigger conversations about economic, political and social issues.

There is definitely a better way forward, and as part of my residency at the Sydney Law School, I’ve returned to Canada to be able to look at, for example, the Canadian Juris Doctor in Indigenous Law which is teaching future lawyers about both legal systems. I do hope we get to that point in Australia, where the value of First Nations law is front and centre of future lawyer’s minds.

Maybe that brings us full circle, back around to the original point of the value of an enshrined voice. If laws are made in Parliament, the people in Parliament need advising from a grassroots level. Maybe with a successful ‘Yes’ result, systemic change will happen a little bit sooner, rather than later?

I definitely think you make a good point there, and it’s such an important thing to stop and check in on ourselves. The conversations we’re having as a nation and the way the media have distilled it to simply a ‘Yes’ or a ‘No’, people are so confused by the noise around the actual proposal itself rather than focusing on the question that needs to be answered at a referendum.

If we all take a step back and imagine what the Uluru Statement from the Heart physically looks like, it’s not just the words in the paper. There’s an amazing artwork around that statement itself in that the Aunties from the Central Desert who painted that were depicting the Law of the Central Desert. Australians didn’t just get gifted the words on that document – they were gifted an enormous opportunity to embrace the existence of the way in which we talk about law. It’s in artwork. It’s in ceremony. It’s in the stories that our elders teach us and pass down.

And I think that is a great example of the tunnel vision that a lot of us as lawyers are trained to focus in on, forgetting these bigger picture conversations. And I think you’re right, if successful at the referendum, it will open up this whole world of conversations not just from a deficit, such as Closing the Gap, but from a strength based approach where all Australians are going to be able to understand what it means to belong here, to belong on the oldest continent on the planet with the oldest surviving people on the planet, and to have a strong understanding about the stories we tell ourselves that link us to this land. I agree with you that the Voice to Parliament referendum is just the start of this conversation and it’s not the end, and I think it’s really important we see it that way.

For people who may be inspired by your journey and your career so far, what advice would you give to them before they pursue a similar path?

I would say keep an open mind about where your legal career will take you. I prior to law school I was Australia’s youth delegate at the UN in New York. I originally had this ambitious vision of becoming some big human rights lawyer, and I was always labelling my learning and my future aspirations. When I stopped putting that expectation on myself about what I wanted to do or achieve, it actually just brought me back to my purpose and obligations, and role in fighting for change. I realised it didn’t matter if I was a criminal defence lawyer or a tip staff to a Supreme Court justice or, as in my experience, a land rights litigator.

What matters, is the fact we have this important legal skillset. We can help people better understand the systems and call out the injustices they experience. So always keep an open mind about where your profession will take you. When I’ve been asked how I’ve built my career, I recall that I’ve never really felt like I’ve fitted into one job. I always had to be doing many different things for my voice and my advocacy to cut through. That job that you want might not actually exist, and you might need to create that for yourself.

And that’s what excites me about our profession, that we have a new generation of lawyers coming through that are fearless, have had enough of the status quo and are creating their own spaces for themselves in the profession. We always want more rebellious lawyers to come over and join the conversation, as well!


Teela Reid is a proud Wiradjuri and Wailwan woman, lawyer, essayist, storyteller and co-founder of @blackfulla_bookclub, a platform that honours First Nation’s Ancestors as the original Storytellers. Currently, Teela is a Sydney-based Senior Solicitor practicing in Aboriginal Land Rights litigation and is the current Practitioner in residence at Sydney Law School. She is also a campaigner for the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

This year, Teela is the contribution editor for the Griffith Review ‘Acts of Reckoning’ Edition 2022. Her essay is titled; The Power of the First Nations Matriarchy: Warrior Women Reckoning with the Colony’. Her first essay was titled 2020 – the year of reckoning, not reconciliation. It’s time to show up! A soaring tribute to her late grandfather, Trevor ‘Toot’ Reid. Her second essay is titled The Heart of seeding First Nations Sovereignty – Can you handle the truth about Treaty?

Teela has also written opinions published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Washington Post, The Guardian, Marie Claire and The National Indigenous Times.

Teela was awarded 2022 Indigenous Leader at the Australian Law Awards. In 2021, Teela was named as a Future Shaper by Time Out Sydney for her public advocacy across a range of mediums. She was also awarded the 2020 UNSW Young Achiever for her contributions to the community, her advocacy as a working group leader on s 51(xxvi), the Race Power, in the Constitutional dialogue process that culminated in the Uluru Statement from the Heart that culminated in the most historic calls for a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Australian Constitution and a Makarrata Commission to enable a process of Treaty and Truth-telling. Teela was also recognised for her work as a key thinker and leading advocate behind the Walama Court, a proposal to establish an Aboriginal sentencing court at the NSW District Court jurisdiction. Connect with Teela via LinkedIn.