Becoming one of the youngest barristers in Queensland, QUT Law Alumnus Denika Whitehouse shares insights into her life and career since graduating in 2011.
Tell us a bit about your life and career since graduation?
When I graduated from the QUT Bachelor of Laws, I was already working at the State Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. I later left to work for his Honour Judge McGill of the District Court, during which time I sat the Bar Exams. I then completed the Bar Practice Course before returning to the Courts as the associate to the Honourable Justice Gotterson AO of the Court of Appeal.
For just over five and a half years, I have been a barrister at the private bar, practising in a broad range of areas. In my early days these included crime, family, civil litigation and employment law, expanding into commercial, administrative and planning and environment law in more recent times. I have also been fortunate enough to have tutored in Commercial Law and have lectured in Planning and Environment Law at the University of Queensland.
I am presently one of four prosecuting Counsel in one of the largest environmental prosecutions to take place in Queensland. During the course of this prosecution, I married the love of my life and had my first child, returning to work and Court six days after he was born. I don't necessarily recommend that course by any stretch, but I was repeatedly told I would not be able to return so soon and I was (somewhat foolishly in retrospect) galvanised by this.
What does your day-to-day role involve?
Problem solving. Strategising. Searching for patterns in evidence and caselaw. Mulling over things. Going down rabbit holes to develop ideas on case theories. Reaching dead ends. Questioning everything. Playing devil’s advocate. Drafting, re-drafting and re-re-drafting.
How does practising as a barrister differ from a traditional law firm and what inspired you to take this pathway?
When you start out, practising as a barrister is exciting, but also often difficult and isolating compared to working in a firm where there are more opportunities for integration at graduate level. Over time, however, you come to realise that you are part of a large, very close knit family that you can tap into as needed for both intellectual and emotional support.
A key difference between practising as a barrister as opposed to a solicitor is the extra degree of separation that you have from the client. This separation allows a barrister to view a case with a greater level of objectivity, a fundamental string to our bow and one of the main reasons solicitors choose to seek advice from barristers.
It was a conversation I had with Judge McGill when I was his associate that inspired me to take this path. On this particular day, he mentioned that he wanted to speak to me about something. As I was a very anxious young associate, I thought I had perhaps broken a rule of etiquette at some point. However, when the moment came, he told me it was his view that I should sit the Bar exams.
His belief in me was more than enough to change my mind. I can safely say that I never wanted to be a barrister until that moment. It was a critical turning point in my life and I have never looked back.
As one of the youngest barristers in Queensland, how did you use this to your advantage?
I asked questions all the time. At first, I felt like I was allowed to because of how junior I was, but then I quickly realised the more you ask, the more you know. I never stopped asking questions. I believe everyone of every age should ask questions. Constantly. It’s how we learn and develop. It’s how we fight ignorance. It's what brings us closer together, and I will be teaching this lesson to my son.
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
In my experience, highlights don’t usually take the form of a big win in Court. They are linked with the challenges faced working on a particularly hard case with a good team. Sometimes the highlight is simply reaching an understanding of what the client truly cares about and achieving that outcome for them.
Each time I get the opportunity to work with Queen’s Counsel is an absolute mental feast and a huge buzz. I have been fortunate enough to work alongside Queen’s Counsel in commercial, criminal, family, building and construction, and planning and environment law matters. They have all have taught me a great deal.
How did the QUT law degree help you succeed?
QUT provides a flexible approach to study which allowed me to work full-time in a law firm before graduating, complementing my coursework with practical experience. I took advantage of the option to study during summer semesters which accelerated my progress after I took a year off to work as an au-pair in Paris.
What was your fondest memory of studying law at QUT?
Meeting other students in my first year who are now amongst my closest friends. Another fond memory was finally understanding administrative law, three quarters of the way through the semester.
What advice would you give to others considering studying Law?
When you understand the law, you gain an understanding of society and how it works, as well as how it has evolved throughout history.
By studying law, you are playing a critical role in keeping the intricate web of society together. It is fundamentally about keeping people safe, protecting our rights and advancing the objectives of a dynamic civilisation.