Australian Unity Trustees' legal services head on making a difference as an elder law specialist

"Law is not just about outcomes and decisions, it is about the personal element," Anna Hacker says

Australian Unity Trustees' legal services head on making a difference as an elder law specialist
Anna Hacker

Anna Hacker has long nursed a passion for human rights, and it is a passion she has taken into her legal career. As a junior lawyer, she struggled to identify where she could make a difference as a practitioner, but it was in elder law that she found the answer.

Today, Hacker leads the legal services team at Australian Unity Trustees, and over the past year, she has revelled in being able to balance overseeing her team remotely with managing her children’s schooling at home. The lesson she says is most pleased with learning during the pandemic period is, “learning not to apologise.”

In this September interview, Hacker talks about how the legal profession should “work flexibly without apology,” the case that proved to her that law is more than the outcomes it generates and the need for greater cross-collaboration across professions.

What made you choose a career in law, and what's your favourite part of the job?

I always had an interest in human rights having been a part of Amnesty International at school, St Vincent de Paul during university and then the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre while working in my junior years. I also won a scholarship during university to study in Berlin and research the language of hate and fear in letters written from Jewish people in Vienna to family members in Melbourne that spanned 1937–1941.

I felt like I wanted to make a difference but when you practice law, it sometimes can be hard to see as a junior lawyer where that difference can be made. As soon as I started working in elder law, I realised that I found that area where I could make a difference in people’s lives. My favourite part of my job is seeing that difference being made and knowing that I have truly assisted people to remain independent, protected and empowered.

What is the most memorable case you've taken on/been involved in?

This is a difficult one, as almost all of my matters settle before trial. I do recall one matter that did eventually go to trial but while I was on maternity leave – so unfortunately, I did not have a chance to appear – but it was a statutory wills matter which had previously been my VCAT matter involving my client’s grandparents who had lost capacity.

 As her father had passed away, we had to prove the familial relationship by DNA, and VCAT ordered a guardian be appointed to decide if that was in their best interests. It was a highly emotional matter that showed me the importance of getting everything sorted before it is too late. The heartache for my client in trying to prove who her family was and the on-going litigation that ultimately saw her listed as the beneficiary of her grandparent’s will proved to me that law is not just about outcomes and decisions, it is about the personal element that means so much more to clients.

That is actually why I love working at Australian Unity Trustees – a huge number of our clients are protected persons where they have lost capacity in their lifetime and we are appointed as their administrator. The value of the work we do almost cannot be measured, and the care and patience of all team members when they assist clients makes me very proud to work alongside them.

What is going on at the firm? Are there any new programs and initiatives that you’re particularly interested in?

Right now, Australian Unity Trustees is intimately involved, alongside other parts of Australian Unity, in supporting remote First Nations communities in NSW through our community trusts, providing them with essential living supplies as they face uncertainty during lockdown and the rising numbers of COVID-19 cases amongst the community. I love that I work for an organisation that provides hands on support when it is needed and can pivot to do what is best for the needs of our clients and community when they need it most.

What tech-related initiatives adopted by the firm, if any, are you most excited about?

Prior to lockdown, we had by coincidence moved to electronic files in the legal practice and as our main office in Melbourne actually hot desks (I can hear all the lawyers reading gasp!), we were perfectly equipped to deal with remote working and working innovatively across all the states of our business.

We had also just transitioned to a new CRM and document management system which changed many manual processes to be automated and much more time efficient. It was exciting to do it in the first place, but we all felt so lucky that it had been implemented just in time for lockdown!

What has been your proudest accomplishment in the last year or so? Or what’s the biggest lesson you learned in the past year and what advice can you give fellow lawyers about it?

To be honest, my proudest accomplishment has been to be able to juggle my own remote working and my children’s remote learning. Australian Unity always embraced flexible working conditions, but I have never been so grateful to have the support of the business I work in as when I had to completely change my day to manage lessons, meetings, presentations, clients and managing a national team of lawyers.

I think that the thing I am most proud of is learning not to apologise and I think that is something we all need to remember. We have a different way of working now and we should work flexibly without apology. While we didn’t intend to change everything about legal practice, we were forced to, and I think the vast majority of the profession has stepped up and embraced it.

What should the profession focus more on?

While I do think there have been advances made in leaps and bounds during the past 18 months, we need to keep the pressure on to develop different ways of working that support flexibility and also the changed needs of clients. We do not need to go back to what was normal – we can create a new normal. Innovations like electronic filing at court and remote witnessing of wills is a great start, but a continued focus on ways we can let technology help us must be a focus so that the legal profession is not left behind.

What are the challenges you expect in your practice, and in the business of law in general, going forward? What challenges are particularly pressing in the country’s legal industry?

We need more cross-collaboration between professions – legal, financial, accounting, banking and others. This emerging issue seems to be something that I believe is heading in the right direction – I have noticed a positive shift in the ways that banks, in particular, are protecting elderly customers and putting checks and balances in place to ensure there are no issues of elder abuse or misappropriation of funds. A fantastic initiative and something I absolutely applaud.

What I have also seen emerging though is an increased number of situations where attorneys who are in good faith acting on behalf of principals who have lost capacity have been questioned and, in some cases, prevented from acting. This clash between the legal authority of an attorney and the policy of an individual bank creates significant issues for the people involved and while it is certainly well meaning, I think everyone would benefit from coming together and working closer to understand where the real risks are. I love the focus on protecting elderly customers but policy must still be in line with the legal position.

Going forward, I think that overall, this is an issue that does pop up often – cross-collaboration is key to resolving these concerns.

What are you looking forward to the most in the coming year?

The second season of Australian Unity’s podcast that I host has just been released, called What Happens When I Die? I am loving all the feedback. I was lucky enough to have Kitty Flanagan come and speak about her ABC TV series Fisk and how she came to play a probate lawyer on television. It was a joy to interview her, and I must admit, I still laugh every time I re-listen to that episode. 

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