Geraldine Johns-Putra is the Principal Lawyer at her own Law Practice, Geraldine Grace. Here, she works almost exclusively in impact investing, ESG, corporate governance and modern slavery. As a result of her work, in 2021 and 2020, she was awarded the title of Recognised Individual for Mergers and Acquisitions Law.
In her spare time, Geraldine hosts the New Earth Law podcast to inspire members of the industry to build a better world. Today, Geraldine provides readers with insight into her diverse legal career, and offers her advice for young women looking to follow in her footsteps.
Since 2020, you’ve been the Principal Lawyer at your own Law Practice, Geraldine Grace. What have been the highlights of running your own legal practice?
The main highlight has been the freedom to shape my practice as I want.
I can focus on the practice areas that I’m passionate about and that really excite me. This translates into my being more enthusiastic about my work and going the extra mile for my clients. For example, I work almost exclusively in impact investing, ESG, corporate governance and modern slavery. I don’t try to be a generalist.
Similarly, I can choose to work with clients who align with my own values. It can be tempting to accept work from anywhere when you’re practising on your own, especially starting out. But in the long run, it’s more rewarding to take a step back and really ponder about the sort of clients you want to serve as a lawyer, and have the courage to stay true to that. In my case, I choose to focus on helping not-for-profits, social enterprises and clients seeking to make a difference one way or another because I want my service as a lawyer to have maximum impact on the world.
You’ve had a unique career spanning business and human rights law. Most people would see these areas as contradictory, yet it’s a growing area of practice globally and in Australia. What do you like the most about working in this niche?
The intersection of business and human rights evolved from concepts of corporate social responsibility. CSR emphasises the moral if not legal obligations of businesses to consider environmental and social standards in the way they operate. BHR is one aspect of CSR but a critical one. Thinking about a business’s impact through the prism of human rights really requires a broader outlook than many businesses are used to – management and the board must start thinking about how their myriad activities may result in an abuse of human rights even if there’s no direct contractual relationship with the affected people.
The area was boosted by the work of the Professor John Ruggie who was the key author of the UN Guiding Principles of Business and Human Rights. That work is a bible of how businesses need to consider their human rights impact.
What I like about working in this area is that it requires businesses to ‘grow up’ in their perspective. They need to look past making profits and weigh up the consequences of their actions. They need to consider how their existence in the world impacts everyone else. Isn’t that what we learn to do as we become adults?
It’s hard and challenging work, just like developing into a caring, wise and mature adult is hard. As responsible adults, we try to do more than simply obey the law, we strive to ensure we leave the world a better place. Businesses, especially multi-national corporates, have an immense influence in our world, from their marketing to their economic contribution to the numbers of people they employ and the communities they affect, so why shouldn’t they be held properly accountable for their actions?
You’ve worked to help companies integrate and automate their Modern Slavery assessments to comply with reporting regimes and protect their workers. What impact have you been able to see as a result?
Modern slavery reporting is one way to call businesses to account for human rights breaches that they may be causing, contributing to or be linked with. The work to identify modern slavery risks is not easy, but it’s a first step to accurate reporting and thus also a first step to addressing human rights impacts.
Properly integrated due diligence is critical because it shouldn’t be done in a haphazard way. It needs to be embedded in business systems so that problems are identified promptly and awareness of the risks is provided to everyone who needs to know. For example, it needs to be integrated into on‑boarding of suppliers and then it needs to be repeated regularly.
Automating due diligence helps with this, although it’s not something a business should set-and-forget. The system that’s used itself needs to be assessed for its effectiveness, say through an internal assurance or audit.
When an automated due diligence system is properly implemented, it can result in resources being concentrated on addressing urgent or serious problems like modern slavery incidents. It creates efficiencies and can be leveraged for maximum impact, instead of merely increasing compliance burden.
One of your incredible passion projects is the New Earth Law podcast where you host conversations with lawyers who are changing the practice of law to change the world. What inspired you to start this?
I started the podcast because I was looking for a project. Between the time spent on my practice which was slowly building up and my other professional commitments, I felt like I had time to get into something else.
The podcast was an inspiration for me. I felt like I wanted to try my hand at social media and I wanted to push myself beyond my comfort zone. But I also wanted it to be something I could be passionate about and make a unique and positive contribution.
I’d become friends with lawyers doing amazing things in their lives and their work and I wanted to learn more about what they were doing. I wanted to showcase lawyers who were profoundly contemplating their impact - not merely working for underprivileged clients or engaging in environmental legal work as noble as this may be, but seriously re-thinking how to practise law.
What I found is that there are lots of professionals out there who are not satisfied with the way things are going right now and are determined to do something about it. After 10 months of my podcast, I’ve become much more optimistic that we’re changing the world for the better. There’s enough talent, commitment and courage out there doing it.
What would be your advice to young women looking to follow in your footsteps?
Know yourself, for a start. I talk a lot about doing ‘values’ work on my podcast, which is the work that goes into identifying your personal values. Once you know what is important to you, you will understand what kind of work makes you happy and beyond that the work environment and culture, the type of employer, how you work etc. that suits you best.
I call it alignment. Life is too short to separate your personal happiness from the work you do. If you align you values with your work, you’ll be much happier and healthier and more able to create impact.
The next step is to identify your vision and mission. What kind of world would you like to see? That’s your vision. Your mission is to use your unique skills and talents to help bring it into reality. It leads to a life of creativity, because everyday is about creating your path towards your goal. Everyday is about seeking the right opportunities and connections. It’s the way towards a truly fulfilling life.