Dowson Turco Lawyers is an openly gay owned and operated firm in Sydney, offering legal services tailored to the LGBTQI community. We spoke to their managing partner about the challenges of the past and their plans for the future.
Good morning, Stacey. Can you give us some of your professional background and career prior to creating Dowson Turco Lawyers (DTL)?
Back when I first started doing law in the mid-90s, I met a woman named Mary Turco. We had a close connection, held similar values and had the same vision for the law. In the early 2000s, we were working side-by-side but separately in our own practices. We’d talk and share our resources, and it became apparent that we may as well be working together.
Mary is also a community member, as am I, and we both thought there was a gap in the market in terms of providing really good services to the LGBTQI community. While some practices in law don’t really need an LGBTQI approach, things like family law, for example, is an area that requires more understanding. I think the community members were at that time not getting that level of understanding from your average lawyer. They were struggling with awkward conversations and essentially, they were required to educate their own lawyers around the lifestyles of gay people.
Around that time – probably early in the ‘80s – there was a guy called John Marsden and he was a very well-known gay man who had his own law practice. When he died there really was a complete vacuum in terms of services to the community. So, Mary and I teamed up and thought, “let’s get into the market and do things a little differently.”
Can you share some insights as to the firm, and what role it plays in the LGBTQI community?
We see ourselves as the custodians of the legal needs of the LGBTQI community. We have been (and continue to be) active in law reform and community participation. We’ve been nominated for various community awards and won a number of them as well, which is always a source of pride from my perspective. We won the ACON Honour Awards twice, which had never been done before and has not been done since. That was pretty impressive. We’ve also been recognised in the NSW State Parliament for the pro bono work we do in our communities.
What lessons or concepts have you learnt over the years at DTL?
The biggest thing has been the LGBTQI focus on what we do. When it was just Mary and myself as partners, a couple of lesbians starting up a law firm, we did things entirely differently. When we built our first office – and eventually our second office – my aim was to have it look nothing like a law firm. So, there were no filing cabinets to be seen anywhere, everything was glossy, sexy and fabulous. We kind of learnt to be different and stand out. Mary was more hesitant and traditional, but I’m very much more the bull at the gate, but she learnt to chill out and relax into it.
Law, as you could imagine, is a very traditional profession. Very ‘heritage’ type, and what we were doing was unique, forward-thinking and pretty edgy. We learnt to be different, we learnt to be authentic and we learnt to do it our own way. There are a lot of LGBTQI members in the legal profession, but everybody toes a line. That’s where we do things differently; much more authentically.
Can you expand on how you do things differently?
Well, for example, with DTL being a champion of diversity, it’s allowed us to build a really diverse company. This means we can focus on the fact women are half of the working population, we can focus on multiculturalism and ensuring our ‘face’ is not a homogenous, white European one – we hold it at the forefront of our minds when we’re recruiting, and right through the recruitment process.
Everybody needs to be represented. It’s exactly why we built a DTL as an LGBTQI firm, the community wasn’t being included in the legal service process. People need to see themselves in the services where they go and I think we’ve carried that on quite well. We’ve done some kind of ‘out there’ things and it’s actually been a really wonderful experience to do things so differently.
While we are an LGBTQI law firm, we are not only an LGBTQI law firm, we are also committed to supporting all of our diverse communities, including our geographical communities. We also try to educate our clients about the law as it pertains to them so they’re more empowered if they find themselves in a similar situation. I’m a firm believer in that.
What’s the key to authenticity?
To stay true to yourself and do it your own way. Part of the reason I left paid employment and did it my way was because I wanted to maintain that authenticity. When you’re being led by someone else and they’re paying your wages, there’s an expectation that you’ll do it their way. I was never very good at that, and I believed the status quo needed a rethink.
Are you a long-term goal setter? How do you implement a strategy to achieve business outcomes?
I do have long-term goals and many short-term goals along the way. I’m not wedded to those goals, though. If things move and an opportunity pops up, I’ll acknowledge that and steer a different course.
What do you think makes a great leader, either in general legal circles or in a firm such as yours?
I think you need to be a very strong communicator. You need to have that ability to communicate with everyone, from with your paralegals to all the way to members of Parliament. You really do have to be a strong communicator, regardless of who you are speaking with at the time. It’s what we all strive to do: to be a great leader. You need to be consultative, accessible and available, but also have a strong leaning towards collaboration, which I do. I’m not a leader who leads in a vacuum.
Quite the opposite, I like to consult widely before making decisions.
What have been your great successes?
One of them was getting the Parliamentary Inquiry into the gay hate crimes in the 80s, 90s and 2000s. It was something our criminal lawyers strived for, for years and years. We spent an enormous amount of work hours, but also passion and energy into it. That was one of our greatest successes.
Another was opening up DTL’s second office and growing from Mary and myself to 12 employees at that time. We were able to offer more specialised family law services to the LGBTQI community, including surrogacy arrangements, which have been essential for gay men who wish to become parents as well as documenting parenting agreements for lesbians and gay men who wished to co-parent or become sperm donors.
The recent COVID shift was also a great success in terms of testing our mettle as a company, being able to adapt to a different work format and working from home.
In the early stages, we focused on wills and other life documents such as powers of attorney and enduring guardian documents. It was a time when people were anxious about their own life admin. I was quite impressed we were able to do that so quickly and so readily.
There have been loads of successes over the years, actually. Perhaps that’s what has sustained me.
What was DTL’s biggest hurdle, and how was it overcome?
Going from a business of about 11 people, into a group of 16, 17, 18, the biggest hurdle was growing too quickly. We really didn’t have the structures to cope with that amount of people. So we did have a bit of a downturn, in terms of how I would measure my sense of success. But it was how we responded to that crisis so steadily, which is probably why we are still here. That was a major learning curve.
Looking to the future, what are the short- and long-term goals for the firm?
Immediately, we need to move staff to the city – we’re opening a CBD branch of DTL. That not only involves moving but moving successfully into the city, where we retain our staff. We’ve got a brilliant team at the moment and the last thing we want to do is upset that team, they’re fantastic. But we do want to grow on it a bit, so we’ll be managing that.
DTL Family Lawyers will be moving into the city along with the DTL Crime Lawyers, while our Property and Wills Lawyers will remain in Newtown.
Longer-term goals are potentially opening a branch in Melbourne or Brisbane, we were approached to open up in Melbourne, but we shied away from it at the time because we were in that period that I was referring to earlier. Still, it would be nice to do that.
In a bigger picture sense, I want to see DTL grow to the point where it can sustain itself. Where it doesn’t matter if management changes, people move out, people move in. We want to see it grow as an entity on its own.
Finally, what’s something about you that readers would be surprised to hear?
They may be surprised to hear I have a degree in music radio! Once upon a time – in a different incarnation – I read the news on the radio. And I used to do voice-overs for advertisements!
Stacey Dowson is a partner at Dowson Turco Legal, a law firm servicing all diverse communities. The team, comprising highly competent conveyancers, practising in all states and territories, handling property, commercial, criminal, employment, family, wills and estates and probate.