How An Immigrant Girl Became An Australian Immigration Law Partner: My Journey From Hong Kong To Sydney

When I was just two years old, my family left Hong Kong and moved to Australia.  My father, a chef, was offered a job at a then-popular Chinese restaurant in Sydney, so my parents packed up our stuff and, with my 6 month-old sister and me in tow, flew South.

My parents didn’t speak much English, which meant that at home, we spoke mostly Chinese.  Indeed, both my parents had to learn English as they started their new life in Australia, and even though my sister and I grew up in Sydney, we still had to take English as a second language, since English was not, admittedly, our mother tongue.

As a teenager, due to my culture and upbringing, I wanted to go into the medical field.  In high school I started working at a local pharmacy during the weekends, thinking it would be a good job and a foot in the door of the medical profession, and I ended up loving it.

I helped mix creams for clients, learned all the active ingredients in all the medication we had, and otherwise immersed myself 100% in the business.  It was a small pharmacy and the owner took note of how much, and quickly, I was learning.  Over time, as he trusted me more and more, he gave me more responsibilities too – I started to learn about not just the drugs themselves, but the business of it all.

So when I finally went off to school at the University of Sydney, I focused on and got a degree in pharmacology, thinking I would stay in the field as my profession.  While at university, I got a second job with a company analysing radiology images and preparing reports alongside American doctors who were living in Australia.  The idea was that, given the time difference between the US and Australia, these doctors were working while their counterparts in the US were sleeping.  It was an interesting job, and when I think back on it, my first exposure to business immigration outside my own family’s journey (though I didn’t realise it at the time).

I worked these two jobs – the pharmacy and this radiology imaging company – for about three years until I completed my bachelor’s degree. I was a workhorse – I took no days off, I barely spent any money, and I was doing well in school.  I was a textbook immigrant child: working, doing well in school, on track to maybe getting a Master’s, MD, or Ph.D.

At least I thought so.  And that’s because soon after I graduated, I came to a realisation that changed the course of my career.

A career pivot from pharmacy to law

After I graduated from the University of Sydney, I stayed on with both jobs for a full year – working at the radiology lab and the pharmacy.  Eventually, I left the pharmacy because, despite really having a knack for remembering different medications and really liking all my colleagues, I just didn’t like how, at the end of the day, a pharmacy was ultimately a retail job.  I wanted something more cerebral, and where I didn’t have to be on my feet for 12 hours at a time.

The radiology job seemed to fit the bill, but after two more years, I was honestly getting bored.  By this point my mum really wanted me to be a dentist, and I even took all the necessary exams and was accepted to dental school! I mean, I could have been pulling teeth and filling cavities now! But ultimately I realised that I wanted a new challenge and one that wasn’t science-centered.  That’s when I decided to go to law school.

During my first year of law school I still had my job at the radiology lab, but by the second year, I left that too.  You see, in order to graduate law school in Australia, you have to complete 75 working days of practical training in the legal field under the supervision of an unrestricted lawyer.

Most law students do this in their third year of law school, but I decided to complete this required practicum during my second year, so I got an internship at the Law Society of New South Wales.  I ended up really loving the work, and even stayed on pro bono after my hours were complete and I was in my third year of law school.

Eventually, toward the end of my degree, I needed to get a paid job, so I applied for a job at an immigration law firm called Immigration Solutions Lawyers.  It was a paralegal position, since I was still in law school and hadn’t graduated yet.  I applied for the job, got an immediate invitation to come in for an interview the next day, and not long into the interview got an offer… to start the next day.

I was elated! I didn’t think I was going to get a job offer at all, let alone to start so soon.  I accepted the offer and showed up to work the following day.

I started the job working with and eventually leading the firm’s review team, which looked at denied visa applications and helped those applicants file appeals to the migration review tribunal and the minister’s office.

It was my first paid legal job, and so I remember a lot about it, but there was one particular instance that made me realise just how passionate I was for the law, particularly immigration law.

I had been working on a case that had reached the last stage of appeal – the client had one last chance to make their case, and the required paperwork had to be turned in that day by 6pm.  In theory, I had plenty of time to submit the paperwork that afternoon.

As we often did, everyone on the team went out on their lunch breaks.  I did the same, planning to complete the application and fax it over when I got back.  But when I got back to the office, all six of my team members were gathered outside the office door.

“What’s going on?”, I asked. “Why is everybody outside?”.

We were locked out.

The last person to leave, who is typically tasked with locking the office and taking the key, forgot to take it!

I panicked.  The application I was working on had to be faxed over in just two hours, and if I didn’t get it over in time, the applicant could lose their lawful status.  We called a locksmith, but they said they would be there in an hour, or so.

“No!” I yelled at the phone.  “You can’t be here in an hour, we need this door open now!”  Thankfully they felt our urgency, and this guy appeared shortly after and basically rammed the door open.  It was a dodgy job, but I didn’t care – I was on a mission to get this done.

I got in and started feverishly typing away.  I finished the submission and ran over to the fax machine to start faxing. 5:58, still faxing.  The submission was thick, and as page after page slipped into the machine, I was watching the clock.

5:59, I was cutting it too close for comfort but the final page flew into the machine before 6pm.  I had made it!  The last page of the appeal was confirmed.  I had never felt such relief.

That story, which I remember so vividly to this day and I can now look back on and laugh about, showed me just how much I cared about my work.  It was the day that I realized how much I truly care about every one of my clients.

Three months into my first immigration lawyer job

When I finally finished my law degree and graduated, I really wanted to keep working at this law firm, but now as a lawyer.  It was a small firm, though, and they weren’t really looking to hire another lawyer, so I had to start looking for other jobs.  I applied to a couple of entry-level Australian immigration lawyer positions and was lucky enough to get an offer from Berry Appleman & Leiden LLP.  Their presence in Australia was still pretty small, but I saw that it was a bigger firm and I was excited to get the offer.

And with that, my legal career was off to the races – I had a good job practicing Australian immigration law at a growing firm, and with a team I really got along with.  About a month or so into this new job, one of my teammates left to join Deloitte.  I was happy for her but didn’t think anything more of it until I received an unexpected phone call about two months later.

It was a partner from Deloitte, asking me to come into their office for a meeting. “Uh, sure,” I agreed, kind of nervously. When a partner from Deloitte calls you and asks you for a personal meeting, you take the meeting.

Then that former colleague who was now at Deloitte called me too.  We hadn’t worked together for that long – only about a month when she moved from BAL to Deloitte – but she told me that I had made a good impression on her, and so when she heard that Deloitte wanted to bring someone else on board, she recommended me.

Aha, that’s what the partner call was all about.

Long story short, my conversation with the partner went great, and shortly after they offered me a job.  It was a hard decision, but at the time I wanted to go bigger, and faster.  Deloitte, one of the Big Four, is a well-known company with a big immigration team in Australia.  I had really liked my experience at BAL during the time I was there, but I felt that the best thing for my career, at this time, was to move to Deloitte.  So I accepted the offer.

My team at BAL was understanding, and I’m forever grateful to them for helping me make that big life decision with confidence.

For the next three years, I bounced around Deloitte, working first as an Australian immigration lawyer and then, for about a year and a half, working on purely corporate matters just to get the experience.  In law school, before I was first exposed to Australian immigration law, I always dreamed of being an M&A lawyer.  When the opportunity to be in-house legal counsel at Deloitte came up, I figured that could get me closer to trying out M&A, knowing that my passion for and experience in immigration could bring me back there if anything.

So I made the internal move.

I stayed in Deloitte’s in-house legal team for long enough to work on multiple acquisitions and learn to draft commercial contracts, but more importantly to discover that this was not my passion.  So much so that one day, I just quit.

No job. No interviews lined up. No plan. I had to explore my dream and I’m glad I did – but this just confirmed that I actually immigration law.  I wanted to find something that felt right, for me.  And that’s when I came across Gilton Valeo.

Finding my way back to Australian immigration law

After two interviews with other members of the Gilton Valeo team, I met Troy Andres, the firm’s founder and managing partner.  Troy, however, was not like any other lawyers I had previously come across.  He came into the interview wearing a t-shirt – with a stylish pocket on it, tattoos on both arms, and when he sat down, we just started talking.

Our interview was substantial, but also casual and comfortable. It was a conversation, not a test.  This time, I wasn’t looking for an idealised version of what I thought my career should be – big corporate corner office at a large multinational. No, I was looking for a firm that fit my values, let me be me, and would give me room to take charge.  This time I was going to work where I wanted to work, and those were exactly the vibes I got during my interview with Troy.

At the same time, I was interviewing with another firm that, actually, made me an offer pretty quickly.  That firm was really nice, and the offer was good, but something drew me to Gilton Valeo.  I called Troy and told him that I had just received an offer from another firm, but that I was really interested in joining Gilton Valeo.

After a bit of back and forth, Troy called me with good news – I got an offer!

Truth be told, I really liked the other firm too, and, honestly, their offer was actually higher than Gilton Valeo’s.

But I connected with Troy and Gilton Valeo on a level I hadn’t with anyone else during my entire legal career. I knew I had to follow my gut, and so I accepted.

It’s been almost five years, and during that time we’ve brought in more clients, added a lot more staff, and grown as a firm.  The progression has been quick, perhaps quicker than I even imagined, and because I came from the corporate world and had cultivated relationships, those relationships started bringing me clients, almost immediately.

As the years went on, I was getting promoted at the firm time and again.  I couldn’t have imagined the kind of growth anywhere else, and it felt good to finally grow at a rate I knew I was capable of.

In the fall of 2019, about three years after I joined Gilton Valeo, I started thinking about next steps for me at the firm, and with my life.  In other words, a promotion to partner. I knew that I was ready to go all-in and that Troy and the team were impressed by my initiative and felt that I could bring real value to the business.

So we started negotiating.  By the way, if anyone reading this has ever negotiated for equity in any business, whether a technology company, an accounting firm, or a law firm, it doesn’t happen overnight.  But it was the fall, and I wanted to go into 2020 with certainty that my career was continuing to move.  As we kept negotiating, and as time kept moving forward, we were getting closer to the end of the year.

If my 5:59pm immigration filing was foreshadowing to other times in my life, this was certainly one of those times.

It was New Year’s Eve, and I was getting ready for a party at my house when I got a call from Troy.  “I have the agreement ready to sign,” he told me.  So I asked myself – could it wait?  Probably.  But did I want to wait?  No way.

I told him I’d see him soon.  I hung up, put on my shoes, hopped into my car and drove to Troy’s house, where a party was also underway.  I signed the paperwork, popped some champagne, and got a built-in celebration for my partnership agreement!

That’s how my 2020 started.

What’s next for me and Gilton Valeo

As 2020 recently came to a close, thinking about how the year started for me as compared to how it ended is its own story and one that I won’t get into now.  But despite the challenges that 2020 brought, it also brought learning and growth for many around the world, including us.

The firm has had to restructure the way we work, offer new services, and bring value to our clients in new ways that made sense during the COVID-19 pandemic but I suspect that a lot of what we’ve done this year will continue to bring value, even after the world regains some sense of normalcy.

Plus, we’re now doubling down on our online presence and branding, reaching new audiences, and using our legal expertise to truly change lives.  Moving forward, we’re building differently, and as we enter 2021, instead of feeling like I’m personally in over my head with all these changes during my first year as a partner, I feel ready to roll my sleeves up and meet the challenge.

If you want to learn more about the firm and everything we offer, visit our website or connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn or Twitter.

And of course, if you want to chat with us directly, we’d love to hear from you!  Connect directly on LinkedIn with me or Troy, and let’s chat!