Greek Indigenous lawyer Matthew Karakoulakis was named the Australasian Law Awards’ Most Influential Leading Lawyers in Australia for 2023.

Regardless of his status, the awardee says he reverts to being a kid in both his Greek and Aboriginal families.

Karakoulakis points to similarities in Greek and Aboriginal cultures, such as, “Respect for elders, as well as the significance of extended families, villages, and clans, is common between both cultures.”

“Greek and Aboriginal families are similar in ways; for example, so many aunties – Greek and Aboriginal and even as an adult and a lawyer, I must listen to them just like when I was a kid.

Love and understanding

Speaking from Adelaide, his hometown where he returned after 20 years away, carving out a legal career in Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney, Karakoulakis tells of experiences most of us understand – immigrant Greeks or Indigenous.

“At family events [Greek or Aboriginal], my childhood memories are a sense of loving discipline. If you did anything wrong, you would expect a hundred slippers would come at you from everywhere at any time.”

AMK Law, which he founded, focuses on “resolution and commercial law extensively for First Nations businesses” however, Karakoulakis says his team also does lots of mainstream work. “We’ve never taken an exclusionary approach; we love diversity in the firm, how can I not? “I am equally proud of my Greek and I Aboriginal heritage; my wife is Brazilian.”

Karakoulakis, like many of us, has experienced “forms of racism growing up.” However, he says it was complex, “when it happened in the Greek family, I put it down to a lack of understanding and developed my ways of navigating through it.”

His wife and he recently visited a Greek uncle who said he would vote No in the Voice for Parliament Referendum this Saturday. “My Yiayia, bless her, she’s in her 90s and healthy, was there, and my uncle just straight out said, ‘If they set up an Aboriginal Voice to Parliament, then we should have the same for Greek people because we have an opinion too’.”

Karakoulakis felt the sting, yet he knew that his uncle loved him – he put it down to the fact that his uncle saw him as Greek only.

“It was painful for me that he held that view, as I love my Greek and Aboriginal cultures equally; his attitude showed a lack of deep understanding of history, of the dispossession of Aboriginal people, of white Australian policies and so on.”

It’s not racism as much as ethnocentrism, and he says he is “loved by his Greek side”. Karakoulakis’ father though is “very passionate for Aboriginal culture and will vote Yes.”

“They all love me; they see me as Greek and family, but there is a lack of understanding about the Yes vote, which worries me.”

The Voice to Parliament, Karakoulakis says, is “simply about having a voice on issues affecting First Nations people”.

The lawyer has continually involved himself in Greek culture; this year, he had a “profound” experience with his father and partner at the Greek Orthodox Church for Anastasi.

Proud of both cultures

“I am proud of both worlds, and there is much similarity between both…so many cross-overs.”

His father, who is Greek, met his Aboriginal mother while working in a fashion store in Adelaide. Karakoulakis attended Flinders University and then made his way to Melbourne. He attributes his wife with wisdom, saying that she decided they move back to Adelaide in 2020 “just before Covid struck, and a month or two after arriving in Adelaide, Melbourne went into almost two-year lockdown.”

Karakoulakis did not grow up immersed in Aboriginal culture; that side of his life was something he began investigating as a teenager. Government policies such as removing Indigenous children from their families are one reason for many Indigenous people’s gaps in family histories.

“There was lots of separation, in my family, other Aboriginal families and Indigenous society through government policies – so I had to find out as I grew up.”

Seeking the intrinsic good through law

His passion for law began at a young age.

“I was around ten years old, walking with mum and dad down King William Road, [Adelaide], when I said, ‘Mum, dad, I want to be a lawyer’, I could see even then how laws impact on people’s lives.”

“As a lawyer, I have always believed that could make an impact and be a cause for good,” says Karakoulakis.

The lawyer seems guided by Aristotle’s ‘intrinsic good’ “I am motivated and moved with the view that I can do good through law.

The law, Karakoulakis says, “is not always able to deal with morality, with cultural issues, or what is wrong or right.”

“I battle to bring out the best outcomes based on law, and other times, I try to navigate the law, to use the law, to bring out the best possible moral outcome.”

The balance between rights and obligations at the core

AMK Law and Unearth Risk developed a governance program specifically for Aboriginal organisational boards for those purposes. “When you see the complexities and dynamics, also some of the wrongdoing that can occur in Aboriginal organisations, you realise they often arise due to misunderstanding of rights and obligations,” says Karakoulakis.

The Indigenous Greek legal expert says there can be “a big gap between black fella law and white legal systems” but quickly points to “some real similarity.”

“A careful application of ‘cultural principles can result, he says, in proper outcomes when it comes to Aboriginal boards and requirements for community service.”

While on the one hand, a lack of understanding might be an issue, other times, though, Aboriginal community obligations and Australian law are not entirely different”.

“Just as the legal system has laws governing directors and works within the Corporations Act, Aboriginal leaders act in the best interest of their mob.”

He reflects on a mentor and says he won’t forget,” The law is not perfect. Still, Australia has one of the better legal systems, and a good lawyer’s role is to try and get the best outcome for the right and moral cause operating in the law.

Matthew Karakoulakis is adamant that good and morality can be pursued and advanced through the law. He employs Greek and Aboriginal culture and virtues to create a better life for as Cicero said, ‘Law is the highest rationale.’