Last week, the Law Institute Journal (LIJ) recognised Eugenia Mitrakas for her achievements and hailed her as a “trailblazer” in the legal profession. As a woman and migrant, Mitrakas overcame barriers in a then white male-dominated field.

Mitrakas arrived in Australia from Greece at the age of nine without any knowledge of English and went on to make history as the first female lawyer to be elected to the Law Institute of Victoria (LIV) Council. Her contribution to the field is further evidenced by the 17 international medical and legal conferences she has organized over the past 30 years. Mitrakas’ outstanding accomplishments have earned her recognition, including a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM).

In 1984, when thinking of standing for the LIV Council, she was told by a friend that it would be impossible as “a woman” and “an ethnic.” As the first woman and sole suburban practitioner, Mitrakas faced the odds but persisted and served nine years on the LIV Council. During her tenure, she chaired multiple committees and represented LIV on the Victorian Law Foundation and the Board of Examiners.

Eugenia Mitrakas grew up in an impoverished village on the island of Lesbos, spent her school days assisting in her family’s Albert Park fish and chip shop, and cleaning for the boarding house catering to single Greek men that they ran. Despite these humble beginnings, Mitrakas attended Mac.Robertson Girls’ High School, which was conveniently located nearby and which she credits with giving her “a great head start.” Her father convinced her to go into law. “He wanted to be a lawyer himself but was unable to attend university for political reasons, so he wanted me to see out his dreams instead.” Mitrakas continued to overachieve and won a scholarship to Melbourne University, where she completed a double degree in law and arts, with majors in politics and classics. She was once again conscious of class and the chasm between her and her fellow students.

“The other students were the sons and daughters of the elite, and all from private schools.”

In 1972, Eugenia Mitrakas was one of 100 graduates admitted to the legal profession, and the only woman among them. The Sun newspaper highlighted her achievement with a page 3 photo and the sexist headline, “Putting a very pretty case.”

Mitrakas broke barriers as the first Greek female lawyer in Melbourne and the only Greek lawyer in South Melbourne. However, working for the Greek community had its challenges, as Greek men were often hesitant to engage a woman lawyer due to the misogyny prevalent at the time. Undeterred, she found work in property matters, workers’ compensation, and personal injuries. Despite her legal expertise, family law was too risky in the close-knit Greek community of the time, which Mitrakas deemed as “too dangerous.” “One day a client warned me that her husband was on his way over with an axe.”

It was soon after that she decided to put up her hand for the LIV Council. Despite being a migrant, not attending an elite private school, and being a sole suburban practitioner, Mitrakas served on several committees, including Accident Compensation, Conveyancing, Council Law Reform, Ethics, and House Committees. She also chaired the Admission to Practice Committee and the Liquor Licensing Committee and represented the LIV on the Victoria Law Foundation for five years.

As the Council’s representative on the Board of Examiners, Mitrakas also chaired the ad hoc committee for Court Interpreters Services. Observing unprofessional conduct by interpreters in court, she formed the committee to push for reforms such as a code of conduct and ethics.

Mitrakas strove for higher standards for translating and interpreting professionals beyond bilingualism alone, resulting in the establishment of NAATI. She organised the first Greek Australian Medical and Legal Conference, attracting prominent speakers and raising almost $200,000 for charity. Joined by her husband David Roylance in 1999, Mitrakas continued her legal practice until his passing in 2010, and her stepson later became a partner. As the first female Notary Public in Victoria, Mitrakas broke barriers and served as president of the Society of Notaries for two terms.

The lawyer still dreams of restoring heritage buildings on her home island of Lesbos, but says she’s too busy with her legal work to take a three-month break.