Agnes McWhinney’s legacy lives on in Townsville

The 2022 QLS Excellence in Law Awards are now open for peer nomination, with the added inclusion of four new award categories this year.

Queensland Law Society’s awards program seeks to acknowledge the extraordinary efforts of Queensland’s legal practitioners, and provide solicitors, teams and organisations the chance to showcase their contribution to the legal profession and the wider community.

Do you know a practitioner who deserves to be recognised for their incredible work? Read more about the 2022 QLS Excellence in Law Awards and nominate now!

QLS Proctor is featuring some of the many past QLS award recipients who continue to make a significant impact to this day.

Michelle Morton – ‘Agnes McWhinney Award’ recipient, 2015

In 1910, a teenage Agnes McWhinney commenced her articles of clerkship with Townsville firm Hobbs Wilson and Ryan, as it was known at the time.

Five years later, in December 1915, Agnes was admitted to the legal profession and became Queensland’s first female solicitor.

That same firm, Hobbs Wilson and Ryan, soon became ‘wilson/ryan/grose Lawyers’, and would eventually welcome a Grade 12 student – Michelle Morton – for work experience, who would go on to become one of the first women to join the firm’s partnership. Now Managing Partner of the firm, Michelle has been a workplace relations and personal injuries lawyer for more than 30 years, and holds QLS specialist accreditation in both practice areas.

Michelle Morton

Michelle won the Agnes McWhinney Award in 2015, 100 years after Agnes became the first woman to be admitted as a Queensland solicitor. The award recognises outstanding professional and community contribution from a female practitioner who has forged new pathways for themselves and those around them. A local to the Townsville legal profession, Michelle has also been heavily involved with regional community groups throughout her legal career.

QLS Proctor spoke with Michelle to learn more.

QLS Proctor: Could you tell me more about your current role at wilson/ryan/grose Lawyers?

Michelle: I am the Managing Partner of the firm and broadly speaking that role involves me overseeing the strategic and operational objectives of the partnership, including human resources. I am the Partner in charge of our workplace relations team and practice in the area of personal injuries and workplace relations law. I really enjoy assisting both employers and employees in a wide variety of claims, anything from a sexual harassment claim to enforcing post‑employment restraints. 

QLS Proctor: I understand you’ve been with the Townsville firm for 37 years. How have you seen the regional legal landscape change over time?

Michelle: Over my career, I have seen the decentralisation of the practice of law and the specialisation of lawyers within our firm. Since COVID, I have seen a rapid take‑up of the use of technology to engage and provide legal services to clients regardless of their geographical location, and a willingness by clients to have the advice provided by lawyers who are not necessarily located within the region in which they live or operate businesses.

Some of the key issues facing regional practitioners today include access to courts, ensuring there are judges with sufficient allocation of time to hear matters regionally, and the challenges of attracting and retaining legal practitioners to the regions.

QLS Proctor: What advice would you give to a legal practitioner who is considering moving to the regions?

Michelle: You can work and live in the regions and have the same career satisfaction and pathways as you would in a city, and many of the regions are great places to live, bring up families and experience all that Queensland has to offer recreationally and professionally. The reduced travel time assists with work-life balance and many of the regions offer excellent opportunities to be involved in a wide range of extracurricular activities, including not‑for‑profit boards and community organisations.

QLS Proctor: What attracted you to the legal profession, and has it lived up to your expectations?

Michelle: I was attracted to becoming a lawyer because I completed work experience at the Law Courts and two legal firms (one of which was wilson/ryan/grose Lawyers) when I was in Grade 12 at school. The practice of law has exceeded my expectation – it has provided me with an opportunity to assist members of the community, be involved in great organisations, support and sponsor important and valuable community groups and events, and to continuously learn and challenge myself.

QLS Proctor: Could you tell me more about your community and voluntary work?

Michelle: I have over the years always volunteered on boards including my prior involvement as a board member and chair of the JCU Townsville Fire (Women’s National Basketball League team). I have also volunteered and continue to volunteer for not‑for‑profit organisations.

I really enjoy being involved in mentoring and have been involved with many programs and provided structured mentoring for over 20 years. The rewards of volunteering far outweigh the effort. Volunteering has provided me with excellent learning opportunities and networking, and I have made great friends that I would not have otherwise been able to make had I not been involved with various organisations in our community.

QLS Proctor: What did receiving the QLS Agnes McWhinney Award in 2015 mean to you?

Michelle: I was extremely humbled to receive that award and overwhelmed by the effort that my staff had taken to put in the nomination without me knowing. I have always been inspired by the story of Agnes McWhinney. The fact that she was the first female solicitor in Queensland and that she completed her articles at Hobbs Wilson and Ryan (later wilson/ryan/grose Lawyers) – and I am a Partner today of wilson/ryan/grose Lawyers – makes me extremely proud.

I hope in some small way I have inspired others to be the best version of themselves in the practice of law. I often wonder what Agnes McWhinney would think if she was able to see the opportunities that now exist for women in law because of what she achieved in 1915.

I would encourage others to nominate those they work with, who they believe espouse the values the award recognises. I think it is important that we celebrate the great work that many in our profession do in our day‑to‑day practice of the law, but also in the communities in which we live.

Do you know a practitioner who deserves to be recognised for their incredible work in the profession? Nominate today! For more information on the 2022 QLS Excellence in Law Awards, visit the website.

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