Welcome to our new series on Game-Changing Women!
We’re profiling women who’re working to significantly shift the dial on an issue they care about. They’re leaders, innovators and serious disruptors.
Cassandra Heilbronn’s been on our radar for a long time, particularly for her advocacy work for women’s sport and women in law.
In 2016, she was named Emerging Leader in the Legal Sector at our 4th annual Women’s Agenda Leadership Awards.
Cassandra’s the current president of Women Lawyers Association of Queensland, a senior associate at Minter Ellison, the coach of an Under 9’s boys soccer team, and the creator of @CareerGirlInspo.
Independent from an early age, she shares how she grew up in a housing commission before leaving home at 17 to study law. She believes her tough childhood — as well as her fathers’ constant encouragement — prepared her for the career she has today and the work she’s now doing.
Cassandra answers our questions below.
If you’d like to suggest a woman for this series, please get in contact.
Who or what do you lead?
I lead the Women Lawyers Association of Queensland. It is the peak representative body of female lawyers in Queensland. My role as Senior Associate also requires mentoring and guidance of junior lawyers.
How did you get here?
I had always been associated with WLAQ, but not in terms of the Committee until I met then current President, Natalia Wuth, during a Masters of Law class. She suggested that I run for Secretary (in 2014), which I did. I then held the position of Vice-President in 2015, and I recently started my second and final term as President.
So what’s the ‘game’ you’re changing?
The game of law. Too long have we heard about the ‘boys club’ mandating when and how changes are made. There is a shift coming through the ranks, females hold majority up to Senior Associate level and I am pushing for that to soon be majority at Partner and leadership level.
What inspired you to do this?
Not one person necessarily, but I have always been driven to do everything I absolutely can. I don’t want to reach a certain level and look around and simply yes, ‘oh yes I am comfortable where I am’, if I have the ability to help change the game. My upbringing certainly has a lot to do with my level of discipline and drive to create change.
Where did your game-changing skills come from?
My skills came from playing sport at a young age (hockey from age 4), and all that came with that. We had to fundraise, knock on strangers doors asking to buy raffle tickets (pre stranger danger days!), speak on stage. Growing up in Bundaberg, I was also a victim of child charity events (think Tiny Tots, debutante ball) which continued through to high school. This also included a lot of fundraising, public speaking and having to make connections.
An average day for you?
Oh this question is hard because I invariably receive calls from more senior lawyers telling me to get some down time! Up at 4.55am, and pre broken leg I would walk into work, and get ready here. Post broken leg I will drive in and go to the gym. Breakfast at my desk, reading the papers online, setting my social media posts for the day and doing any updates for WLAQ website. Meetings will start anywhere from 7am and can continue on until 6.30pmish depending on the day. I love 11am because that is when Women’s Agenda daily email comes and I get up, make some tea and come back and have a read of the articles.
If I can, will have at least one day where I have the full hour lunch out of the office and catch up with colleagues. I try and go have a chat with a different work colleague each day, or put in a call (or email) to a someone who has contacted me recently and may be struggling. Sport plays a huge part in my life; if it is a Wednesday I leave pre 5pm so I can go and coach my team of U9 boys in soccer.
Very rarely do I eat dinner at home and if I do, cheese and tomato on crackers it is! Post that, I have a guilty pleasure of scrolling Twitter and the Daily Mail for updates in the entertainment world. If I have a Masters subject going at that time, I will do my research, or otherwise I am back on the WLAQ website planning new events, or helping a junior lawyer/barrister with their resume and life planning. I try and go to bed early, but falling asleep is not a strong point. I have to keep a notepad beside my bed so I can write down the random ideas I think of before I actually fall asleep.
What’s helped drive your career to date?
I was independent from a young age, and then our mother left when I had just finished high school. While she was physically there during childhood, she wasn’t and dad worked away a bit. Dad always encouraged me to the be the best I could and that I was not limited by my surrounds. This contributed to my drive and I decided from a young age I wanted to be a lawyer. Dad made that possible, so each time I achieve something in my career, or win an award, it comes down to my years as a child; it was all preparing me for this, I just didn’t know it at the time.
Some of the best things you’ve learnt about leadership?
I have learned that through leadership sometimes you have to make personal sacrifices for the good of organisation, team or committee. While it may serve my long term interests to do something one way, if it is not for the benefit of the, for example, organisation or in line with the overall objectives, I won’t do it.
How do you look after your wellbeing?
Sport, sport and more sport! Oh and I do not mind a gin after work on occasion. I am a big advocate for “Cassa time”, which is time I actually schedule for myself. Every Saturday before coaching the boys in soccer, I will take myself out to breakfast and read the Australian. I won’t check my phone, I will just take that hour for me.
What are you juggling, when has it fallen apart?
Previously juggling a very demanding job at a past firm and a relationship. Very hard when the relationship had ‘old school’ expectations of the female cooking dinner, but yet I was at that step up stage in my career. Career won out, not before a very big life lesson being learned.
What are you doing to inspire more women and girls into leadership?
I’ve realised I need to share my story more. Not my, ‘I work in a top-tier, President of WLAQ, Captain of my soccer team, went to a private high school story’. My story of growing up in a housing commission for the best part of my life, never having left over money to buy the latest CD, go to the school discos, or buy the new clothes. The story of leaving home at 17 to move to Brisbane solo and obtain my law degree. That is the type of story that inspires the young girls – the majority of the population don’t come (from what I called it in my childhood) the fairytale life. They need to know that there are women that are willing to break the cycle and step out of the family comfort zone.
What makes you angry?
Women who are bitches just because. I am all for taking a stand on issues, standing up for a friend and pushing a client’s case, but women who respond negatively, put down your idea, simply ignore you or worse, bag you out because you may be having a good run are the women that need to take a good hard look at themselves and chill. If they continue to carry on like that, yes we will have it like the men’s club, but not in a good way. I would rather have a chauvinistic male beside me than a fake female who was suffering from professional jealousy. Big call I know, but those women can tear you down and do more harm than any 1980s style male.
First thing you do in the morning?
The moment I get out of bed I will do 10 push ups, 10 squats and plank for as long as I can.
If you could have an extra hour to yourself every day, what would you do?
I’d have a “dating hour”, to look for a boyfriend!
What advice would you like to tell your 18-year-old self?
Slow down. Don’t be in a rush to get the full time job, to have the adult life. Take time to enjoy being a kid and having no responsibilities. I would give anything to be able to have my time at university over again. I would go to more classes, get involved with more clubs and just be a student!