Q&A with Asha Belkin, international lawyer

Asha has been a client of Madderson London for as long as we can remember. We love getting to know our customers as best we can, and when Asha offered to be interviewed for our Q&A series we jumped at the chance. An international lawyer based in Australia, her career journey is impressive, inspiring and not without some hilarious moments...

 

Asha Belkin

You have a crazily impressive career history! Can you share briefly what your career journey has been & how you have gotten to where you are today?

After graduating from uni with a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Laws with Honours, I started off as a commercial lawyer at what is now King & Wood Mallesons in Melbourne. I then switched to international law which has taken me to Bougainville in Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste, Iraq and Afghanistan.

On the first trip to Timor I was present for the transition from UN administration to sovereignty – it’s not every day you witness the birth of a new nation! On the second trip I was legal adviser to the Secretary of State for Security so I lived there for a year.

I’ve done everything from negotiating treaties for the Australian government to being part of an official delegation sent to an Assembly of State Parties to the Rome Statute, which establishes and sets out the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, held at the UN in New York. I’ve now returned to a weird mix of commercial and administrative law and am enjoying a new suite of challenges.

The journey has actually been quite ad hoc and I’ve managed to capitalise on opportunities which I usually didn’t anticipate. I’ve also worked extremely hard, for example completing a Master of Laws at the University of Melbourne while working full-time. Despite undertaking a fairly traditional profession, I always wanted it to be different so I’ve deliberately sought out challenges and opportunities to continue learning.

 

What have been the biggest personal learnings from your deployments to such a wide range of cultures and political regimes?

Cultures vary enormously but this doesn’t necessarily make one better than another: just different. Being judgmental won’t get you anywhere.

It took me a little while to come to grips with the juxtaposition of worlds, being in Loloho, Bougainville one day and walking down Sydney’s uber-edgy Oxford Street, Paddington the next, for example. There’s nothing to make sense of: that’s just how the world is but arriving at that acceptance was not straightforward.

 

What has been your career high?

I’ve been lucky to have a few: briefing Xanana Gusmao, Prime Minister of Timor-Leste (at the time), is one; having a role in the international quest to define the crime of aggression for the purposes of the Rome Statute (referred to above) is another, as is practising international humanitarian law and international human rights law in Afghanistan.

 

Tell me about your biggest challenge on the job, and how did you talk your way out of it?! 

In Afghanistan, part of my job involved liaising with local authorities. However, engaging with a woman in a professional capacity is contrary to the culture. I therefore called in a male colleague each time I had a meeting with these stakeholders and briefed him thoroughly on the agenda and desired outcomes. He sat at the table and I’d sit behind him pretending to be taking notes but actually writing down things I wanted him to say. It worked. Technically that’s ‘not talking my way’ out of something but it probably does constitute my biggest on-the-job challenge!

You must have had many “can’t make it up” moments. What’s your funniest story from this amazing career?

In Timor my team and I were tasked with drafting the new Organic Law for the PNTL (Timorese police force). While it was being presented to the Timor-Leste Council of Ministers, akin to what we know as cabinet and chaired by the PM, we were in the room to answer any questions and provide explanations as required. Suddenly, mid-proceedings, one of the ministers got up out of her chair and, explaining that her waters had just broken, made her way calmly out of the room. The PM beamed at her, turned back to the table and the meeting continued without skipping a beat. There was no fuss, no commotion, no-one assisted her and off she went. I just sat there thinking, “Wow!! Did that just happen?? She’s going in to LABOUR!!!” They do keep things real in Timor.

 

What are the synergies between your ‘day job’ and your advisory board seat on the Phoenix Centre at the University of Melbourne’s Department of Psychiatry?

I think it’s more about capturing some unique observations I’ve been able to make as a result of my work in conflict areas overseas: the environments are harsh and there are relentless reminders of the challenges faced by communities and the horrific things the locals have endured. The Phoenix Centre wants to harness “experts by experience” to help it focus its efforts in relation to improving research into, and treatment of, post-traumatic mental health. I think it’s a brilliant initiative and I’m so glad to have been asked to participate.

 

Who are your role models?

I absolutely love Julie Bishop, who until recently was Australia’s foreign minister. Before moving to politics she was managing partner of a top-tier law firm. She has such poise and grace, is fiercely intelligent, wonderfully articulate and commands respect.

I also admire Australia’s former governor-general, Dame Quentin Bryce, and have had the pleasure of meeting her on a couple of occasions. She used to be a human rights lawyer, among other things, and she too possesses striking poise, grace, dignity and empathy.

 

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

I’d like to know that I have reached my full potential; for me that is success. I’d also like to be looking back with a sense of achievement and looking forward with a sense of excitement; for me that would be contentment.

What’s your secret to getting dressed every morning?

 I’ll think about what I have on during the day and decide whether I want to dress for impact or comfort (noting that they’re not always mutually exclusive). I’m far less shy about standing out and making a statement than I used to be and I love the unusual detail in my Madderson garments that helps me to do just that, particularly the pop of colour that is typically by way of a tweed embellishment. Your workwear is a perfect oxymoron: classically different. I can stand out without going over the top.

Do you have a favourite item from Madderson’s latest collection?

I was planning to invest in the Victoria Navy Wool Jacket and Isabella Jersey Dress but you’ve sold out in my size!! By default, then, my favourite most recent acquisitions are the Titania Silk Peony Dress (now sold out) for special occasions and the Grey Ophelia Dress for work. I wore the latter to a meeting recently and my counterpart kept punctuating the rather sedate conversation about the finer points of administrative law with “I have serious dress envy!!” I wrote down your website on a post-it note for her as I left…

 

Where were these photos taken?

In the House of Representatives rose garden at Old Parliament House here in Canberra. I love spending time here because it’s so peaceful. It’s also known as the Ladies’ Rose Garden: the wives of prime ministers and MPs took charge of it in the 1930s and made it the place of beauty and reflection it continues to be today. It also has a Centenary of Womens’ Suffrage fountain which records various milestones in the history of female involvement in politics in Australia. It’s calming and inspiring. 

Credit: Photography thanks to Peter Kitchen

Helen Hughes is co-founder and head of marketing at Madderson London.
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