Sarah Fregon is a Partner and Legal Practitioner Director at Deloitte, where she is leading the Australian firm’s expansion of legal services.
Alumna Sarah Fregon joined the La Trobe Law School in its infancy. Having completed her Bachelor of Legal Studies, she swiftly enrolled in La Trobe’s new Bachelor of Laws – a decision that catalysed her career, practising as a lawyer, solicitor, barrister, general counsel and CEO of the Victorian Bar, before landing her current role as partner with global firm Deloitte.
“When La Trobe announced they were starting a law degree, I was thrilled,” Sarah says.
“I had no connections in the law, but I was fortunate to have a family who supported my goals. And while I was to be the first lawyer in the family, it never occurred to me that being a lawyer or barrister was something I shouldn’t aspire to or couldn’t do. Maybe it was the La Trobe effect?”
Graduating from Melbourne’s newest law school
Being one of the first graduates of a new law school presented both challenges and opportunities. One the one hand, Sarah says, Melbourne could be ‘a little bit snobby’ in its high regard for graduates of traditional universities with long-established law schools. On the other hand, the academic education she received at La Trobe was of the highest quality and among a dynamic student cohort.
La Trobe was different and diverse – culturally, racially, and in terms of socio-economic backgrounds, ages and genders. In all the subjects I took, I was taught to have an opinion, advance a reasoned argument and know that I could and should express my view.
“The legal studies department and the law school challenged the status quo, identifying emerging areas of practice and adopting new ways of learning. For example, they embraced teaching alternative dispute resolution in its very early days – an area that’s now become everyday practice.”
Importantly, studying at La Trobe showed Sarah that challenges can also create new opportunities.
“Opportunity is critical. Challenge is unavoidable. In my experience, the two are inextricably connected. La Trobe taught me to rise to the challenges and to both seize and create opportunities, in my professional life,” she says.
“Sometimes you have to challenge yourself to seize an opportunity. Sometimes you have to challenge others’ assumptions to seize an opportunity. And sometimes, you must do both.”
The university assignment that led to the Bar
Studying at La Trobe gave Sarah her first career break. During an advocacy training subject, she secured the opportunity to do work experience with a barrister. But it was a challenge to get there.
“La Trobe was the first law school I knew of to offer a dedicated advocacy subject as an elective in those days. As part of an assignment on effective advocacy, we were tasked with going to watch barristers appearing in the Magistrate’s Court in criminal matters. And we were encouraged to try to speak with them about their performance in Court,” she explains.
“Now, I had no intention of doing that. But then, on a rainy Tuesday in the Magistrate’s Court, one appearance I saw inspired me to act. I mustered the courage to approach the barrister appearing after the matter was heard. And in the true spirit of the Victorian Bar, he said I could come and do work experience with him over the winter break.”
As it happened, the barrister was a leading criminal ‘silk’, the colloquial name for a senior barrister, whose silk gown is a mark of exceptional ability. Sarah followed up, and what began as two weeks of work experience transformed into a year-long criminal trial.
I continued to turn up, for weeks and months, to watch the case for the rest of the year on my day off uni each week. I think everybody who was acting in the matter thought I was a bit mad and clearly had no social life!
Her dedication paid off. During the trial she met solicitors acting for one of the parties, which led to more work experience. She completed practical legal training (then called ‘articles of clerkship’) with one of the firms acting in the case. And then, after only three years as a solicitor, she went to the Victorian Bar.
Being called to the Bar – then coming back as CEO
Sarah was first called to the Bar when she was aged 28. The Bar is the name given to a highly trained group of barristers who provide specialist legal advocacy and advice. She looks back with good humour on how challenging the move was.
I think I must have had a moment of high confidence, in the vein of the character Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, and thought, ‘What? Like, it’s hard?’ Well, it was quite hard, as it turned out.
“The curse and the gift at the Victorian Bar is that you’re on a continual learning curve and constantly challenged by the opportunities, which come in the form of a brief to appear or advise. But, just like my time at La Trobe, my time as a barrister taught me embrace challenge and to seize opportunity, notwithstanding how scary that might have been.”
Sarah remained at the Bar for almost nine years. Then, in another career first, she moved into a role as an in-house lawyer. This would lead to a broader management role, which built on her in-house experience and added leadership in corporate social responsibility, communications and legal.
But several years later, the Bar called Sarah a second time.
“I always thought I’d return to the Bar; I never thought I’d return as CEO.”
A corporate mentor of Sarah’s had seen the position of CEO at the Victorian Bar advertised and encouraged her to apply. The recruitment process was tough – “I had to convince a panel of four silks and the recruitment executive, that they should give me the opportunity” – but with trademark grit, Sarah won the role.
“I didn’t look and sound like a typical CEO, certainly not one that ran an organisation of 2,100 barristers. And yet, there I was.”
Illuminating the effort behind her wins
Today, Sarah works as a Partner at Deloitte and is a Legal Practitioner Director of Deloitte Legal, where she’s focused on expanding the broader commercial, employment and regulatory legal practice and building the firm’s legal management consulting capacity throughout the firm.
“I’m working with the business to optimise the legal function and find new ways deliver legal services differentiated through our multi-disciplinary approach,” she says.
She feels La Trobe alumni are a natural fit for Deloitte’s culture, which values agile thinkers.
“The fact that Deloitte wants to approach legal services differently, in a value-enhancing way, means that we’re looking for people who think differently, who have exposure to technology and who understand how technology can optimise the delivery of legal services – and this is obviously something that La Trobe encourages, because critical thinking is encouraged across all disciplines.”
And while she’s no longer advocating as a barrister, she’s a passionate advocate for women working in law. A key part of her advocacy is to shed light on the hard work a legal career takes, and reject the pretence that her career trajectory has been anything but hard won.
“I’ve certainly been fortunate in the opportunities I’ve been given and those that have presented themselves to be taken. But those opportunities weren’t always obvious, and often the risk of failure felt somewhere between high-to-certain. And there were many challenges along the way,” she says.
I’d like to say that my first job was presented to me on a silver platter. It wasn’t. I did hundreds of hours of unpaid work in law firms to get work experience. I went to court and followed cases in my spare time. And while I had demonstrated my commitment and passion for the law, I still had to convince my boss that he should employ me, that I was smart enough and that I was tough enough.
Along the way, there were difficult cases, challenging clients, judges and board rooms and feelings of imposter syndrome. On especially tough days at the Bar, Sarah remembers sometimes wishing that the courtroom floor would “open up and suck me in, mid-submission!” But she’s also mindful of the wins – all that she’s learned, the terrific mentors who’ve helped and guided her, and the opportunities that continue to appear when she least expects them.
To graduates, her advice is clear: embrace the critical opportunities that come your way, but also embrace the inevitable challenges throughout your career.
“Challenge won’t break you. It will, and does, make you. And in those challenging moments, in the wise words of Winnie the Pooh, as written by A.A. Milne, remember: ‘You’re braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think.’”
Last updated: 24th January 2020