Women of MLS: Alana Kushnir

Alana is a lawyer and curator who has merged her areas of expertise by founding her own art advisory and law firm, Guest Work Agency. After studying a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Laws at the University of Melbourne, Alana worked as a Solicitor at Mallesons (now King & Wood Mallesons) where she specialised in trade practices and consumer law. She then moved to London where she completed a Master of Fine Arts in Curating at Goldsmiths College. Since returning to Melbourne, Alana has worked as the General Counsel & Cultural Program Executive for the Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival and lectures across curating, contemporary art and arts law subjects at the University of Melbourne.

What attracted you to study and work in law?

Prior to my final years of high school, I had only really considered becoming an artist. I took Legal Studies as a VCE subject and it became the first subject outside of the arts that I enjoyed. Although I have always been a very creative person, I also needed a sense of stability and certainty in life. I love analytical thinking, developing strategies, thinking outside the box and offering advice to people, and I was enthralled by the idea of having a 9 – 5 job and working in a business. I realised that becoming a lawyer would give me the ability to achieve these goals and interests. I decided to study law at university, with the intention of working as a lawyer, leaving my passion for the arts to develop in a more organic way.

When you reflect on your career, what are the highlights that stand out to you most?

Getting a job at Mallesons was a real highlight. As a top-tier commercial firm, joining Mallesons was a symbol of the fact that if I put my mind to it, I could make it to the top. This appealed to the perfectionist in me and although I didn’t necessarily see myself being there long-term, I saw working at a top-tier firm as the best way to open up other opportunities for me in the future.

To me, my studies also form a big part of my career and completing my Honours thesis in Art History part-time, while working at Mallesons, was another special highlight. Studying and working at the same time allowed me to achieve a sense of balance between my interests and feel comfortable with my legal work, which at the time was not at all art related.

A turning point in my career came when I got into Goldsmiths and made the move in favour of the classic London stint that many Australian young professionals aim for. My growing interest in curating and exhibition-making made it impossible for me to stay at Mallesons. I was ready to take a break from the law at that point and immerse myself in art practice, something I wasn’t ready to do when I finished high school or my undergraduate studies. However, it was a challenge to work within the art world without being viewed as just a lawyer. Moving to a different country and studying a Masters gave me a blank slate to start again. With all its challenges, coming from a legal background was also a great positive; Goldsmiths value multidisciplinary interests and I have no doubt this was one of the reasons I got in. I began to think seriously about how art and law relate from a theoretical perspective and this has remained a strong research interest of mine.

Since returning to Melbourne, my career has progressed more naturally. Being able to come back to Uni as a sessional lecturer is another highlight – I love teaching both art and law alongside my other pursuits.

Having worked in commercial law, as in-house counsel, and for your own practice, could you describe any similarities and differences?

At a very fundamental level, you’re always working with people and you’re always working with words on a daily basis, across each sector. You’re also always thinking about how best to achieve whatever it is that you’re trying to achieve. This means there are similar patterns of thinking and operating across the sectors, but there are important differences as well.

The relationships between you as a lawyer and your client are different and the nature of the work is different. When working at a large commercial law firm, your contact with clients is limited, especially when you’re a junior lawyer. As in-house counsel, your contact is also usually limited to other lawyers. I found this quite sheltered experience of law and practice okay when I was a junior, but the experience was a very narrow subset of how the law affects people day to day.

When I worked as in-house counsel at Cadbury, Telstra and the Fashion Festival, I really loved working with non-lawyers on law related issues as well as seeing the many roles non-lawyers play in the functioning of a big organisation. For example, while working at Cadbury I was often appointed as the legal advisor for product development. Watching a product evolve – from recipe experimentation to packaging to design to advertising – and tracing how the law was relevant at each stage of the process was fascinating.

By contrast, in private practice I am often working with people who may not have ever worked with a lawyer before. I like the challenge of building each relationship delicately and the rewards of this are limitless. It is so special to be able to empower people to be more confident in their pursuits. Having my own practice and building my own client base, on my own terms, has allowed me to do that.

Photography by Sarah Pannell

Could you speak about your experience as a woman working in law?

I don’t think my gender has been relevant in my studies or in my practice as a lawyer personally. I have not made my gender relevant to what I do, placing my knowledge, resilience and integrity at the forefront. These are not qualities that are bound by gender and they are always relevant to success as a lawyer.

Having said that, I am proud of the fact that I am a woman working in the law and I am even more proud of the fact that I am a working mother. It is a challenge to juggle being a mother to two young kids with running my own practice. This has made my gender relevant in a way that it wasn’t at all when I was working in commercial law at the beginning of my career. Though challenging, running my own practice has allowed me to achieve a balance between being a primary carer and having a career. This is something I probably wouldn’t be able to achieve if I was working for someone else. It gives me the flexibility I need to prioritise my family – at the moment, my career is very much informed by my role as a mother.

Have you found any overlap between your legal and non-legal pursuits?

There’s a strong overlap for me in my thought processes as I always try to think creatively in problem solving of any kind. Having training in arts practice, art history and law, forces me to constantly think about thinking and come up with different ways to approach issues.

I’ve found amazing ways to integrate art and law, both in terms of my legal practice and my curating practice. I am also deeply interested in artists who work with the law, either by using law for the benefit of their practice or to expose the grey areas of the law.

What differentiates a good lawyer from a great lawyer?

Empathy.

This is something I have learned more keenly since working in private practice. Building strong relationships of trust with your clients is integral to becoming a great lawyer.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

With two kids under the age of 5, I don’t have much spare time. If I did, I would love some extra sleep. Running my own practice also makes it hard to fully switch off.

I love doing art related things with my kids – taking them to exhibitions, sharing my knowledge and passion for art with them, and seeing art through their eyes is incredible. I want them to grow up with art as a part of their everyday life.

Photography by Sarah Pannell

What books do you recommend all students (law or otherwise) read?

Running an art advisory firm is not a trained profession so I do a lot of self-study on the art market. For those interested in gaining an insight into how the international art market works I recommend Don Thompson’s The Orange Balloon Dog and his previous book, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark. It’s amazing to see how much the contemporary art market has changed in a short space of time.

What are your professional goals moving forward?

I’m focused on growing Guest Work Agency and expanding it into a full-service firm for the art industry. I want it to fill the gaps for galleries, artists, collectors and arts organisations by functioning as a studio manager, talent agent, and legal advisor in one. Many individuals and organisations in the arts industry are overstretched and can use our help on a project-to-project basis.

If you could turn back time and give a younger version of yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?

One thing that I think is very important is to be a generalist before you become a specialist. Don’t underestimate the importance of studying and practicing more areas of law than what you want to end up in – having a broad understanding is always going to be useful.

Interview by Reetika Khanna
2nd Year JD Student & Purely Dicta Co-Editor

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