©Copyright Legal Women Limited 2023
Olga Hancock, an Australian lawyer, explains how a quirk in the university timetable ended up influencing her whole career. Her interest in environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues and social justice has informed all her work; no longer a fringe issue but now mainstream at many law firms, companies and investors. Olga herself has moved from law to a role as Senior Engagement Analyst in the Responsible Investment team of the Church Commissioners for England, where she leads on engagement with companies and policy makers on ESG issues.
I would say my career has been driven by a large element of luck- both good and bad. This is probably true for a lot of women.
I decided to study law as a law degree seemed to be a key to the world. The Australian system requires a double degree for law, so I enrolled in Arts/Law at the University of Sydney. I wanted to study languages, but a timetabling clash found me in a first-year geography lecture. I was only going to study geography 101, however the course opened my eyes to the environmental crises around the world, particularly the climate crisis at a time when it was not part of common parlance. It also made me realise the intersectionality between social justice and environmental issues. That interest has stuck with me ever since. I really struggled to finish law school, I found the procedural aspect of things very dry and found it hard to engage with a lot of law subjects. I tried to focus on electives which interested me. I studied environmental law, human rights, Indigenous people and the law, criminology and jurisprudence. I was told I would never get a decent graduate job with these choices.
I ended up with a graduate position at what was then Mallesons. I was initially placed in the Resources group, where my university subjects enabled me to advise on issues around Native Title. I also worked in the Environment group, where I was required to appear from day one in the NSW Land and Environment Court, and in the District Court as a duty solicitor in the firm’s pro bono scheme. The skills I learned being forced to appear in Court as a junior lawyer have stuck with me for the rest of my career. After this role, I went travelling around the world, and on a working holiday visa in the UK ended up working in local government. I had to clerk a large number of planning and licencing committees, and had a real chuckle with the recent Handforth Parish Council footage, which brought back memories. To be fair this experience taught me how the British system works, and I always admire at how consensus is generally somehow rattled out of things here. Again the skills I learned in how to build consensus have been useful for the rest of my career. Back in Sydney, I worked at two other law firms in environmental litigation and advice. At times I felt like I was on the wrong side of Erin Brockovich.
After my first son was born and I moved back to the UK, I took on the role leading the global pro bono practise at Simmons & Simmons, which seemed to fit well with having young children. The recruiter apparently found my CV on a net search of “pro bono”. The good thing about this role was that every single day I felt like Erin Brockovich. I worked with the Legal Response International advising least developed and climate vulnerable countries in the Paris Agreement and Rule Book negotiations. I assisted Peace Brigades International with a human rights defenders’ toolbox based on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. And although a lot of the time I was not carrying out the legal work myself, every client I met was pursuing something important and worthwhile. Client meetings were a joy. It was also during this time I found my myself a single parent of two children, one with autism. A lot of days I felt more akin to the clients we were assisting from the Law Centre, than other lawyers in the firm. My legal skills began to be useful in asserting the rights of my son, and I seemingly developed a secondary specialisation in dealing with the rights of a child with autism.
During my eight years at Simmons & Simmons, I noticed that all the issues which were discussed in my “internal NGO” office, slowly but surely were moving from the fringe into the corporate practise. Renewables were no longer pro bono but a profitable workstream. Human rights were being considered by the corporate governance department. Climate Risk was suddenly taken seriously. In the end I decided to follow the issues which had always been at the heart of my career and moved into the field of responsible investment. I now work at the Church Commissioners for England, where I lead on engagement with companies and policy makers on a range of ESG issues. During the first 18 months in the job, I worked with the other National Investing Bodies of the Church of England to develop a human rights policy and engagement programmes. I never could have done that without my years in legal human rights. I'm also working on climate policy through the UN -Convened Net Zero Asset Owner Alliance, as a member of the UKSIF Policy Committee, and as Co-Chair of the Investor Policy Dialogue on Deforestation with Indonesia. Those years in the UN climate negotiations have come in incredibly handy.
Working for a Church Investor, everything is put through a rigorous ethical lens. I’ve had to dig deep back to those jurisprudence units I took at university to be able to apply ethics to decision making. I feel like things have come full circle.
So, whilst I am no longer a lawyer, my law degree has served me continuously as both a sword and a shield.