real life

The single mum of seven who went above and beyond to keep her son out of jail.

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Johanna Byrne is not your average florist.

She’s a mum to seven kids, for one thing.

Five of her own, and two step-children to her partner, Jaimie. She was living in Coffs Harbour, doing her floristry thing when her eldest son, who has an intellectual disability, got in trouble with the law.

He was an 18-year-old with an intellectual disability.  So so she did what any mum would do, she went into bat for him, but had trouble finding a legal eagle who would help her.

Then he finally found one.

Scott James, a Coffs Harbour Solicitor, who told her to go away and build her case.

And when she did, presenting him with her argument for a scheme that would divert him out of the criminal justice system, and into the treatment he needed,  he told her she was wasting her time as florist.

Instead, he said, she should pursue a career in law.

So the 45-year-old took this advice, swapped tulips for Torts, and went back to University as a mature age law student. After 16 years arranging flowers, she says it was….well….a culture shock.

“It was scary. I had no idea.  After not studying after twenty years, I thought, ‘Oh my God, what have I got myself into? I have no idea what these people are talking about.” she said.

Her friends said she was crazy, too. Insane.

“They said ‘Why are you swapping? You are leaving a career you’ve known all your life. Why would you want to do this?'”

Now a graduate lawyer with plans to study the bar.
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Her husband of nine years, Jaimie, said she should "go for it",  and took the kids out of the house at every opportunity so she could hit the books.

But then, almost a year into her studies, he died.

It was sudden. Unexpected. And left her a single mum to seven kids, aged between 23 years to 8 years old.

Grief-stricken, she relocated from her hometown of Coffs Harbour to Perth for a fresh start, and thought about quitting.

But the University rallied around her, and she continued her studies online. Lecturers called every week. Mentors stepped in. Her family, and the driving force to make a change in community kept her going. And perhaps, she thinks some divine intervention from her late husband.

"I think there's been a bit of divine intervention along the way. Some of the grades I've been getting, no one understand where they're coming from."

Johanna Byrne, Law Graduate

"I'd study on the train on the way to and from work. When I got home, I would study from 10pm at night, when the kids have gone to bed, until 1-2pm in the morning.

"On weekends when they slept in, I would study. If we went to the beach, it would be them in the water and me with the laptop and the law books. And I would listen to recorded lectures in the car, while one was having a driving lesson, and the other was playing Pokemon Go" she said.

The final exam folder (L) and two of Johanna's seven children (R)
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Then, just when you think she's not kick-arse enough already, she had an idea for a legal clinic at Southern Cross University that would provide legal advice to the Indigenous community. An idea that is now in development, and that earned her the title of National Indigenous Law Student of the Year.

After working at Legal Aid Western Australia in the Appeals Department for more than a year, Johanna is now a graduate lawyer at Perth top-tier firm Lavin.

Her floristry days are truly over.

"I miss it. Particularly Valentines Day and Mothers day, I'll think 'oh...these were the days I was working 24.7". she says. But the skills, the emotional intelligence, and the problem-solving in floristry all prepared her for a career in law.

"In floristry, you are still dealing with people's problems. Fights with girlfriends. A death in the family. People just want you to fix their problems. It's the same in law. I'm fixing people's problems,  but now it's just not with pretty flowers."

She graduated this month and has now set her sights on further study, to become a barrister, and to specialise in mental health and intellectual property.

As for all the people that thought she was crazy the first time? "They still think I am crazy" she says.

"I want to make a change in the community. After my son's incident, I thought, "There are a lot of problems. If I can just help one or two people, at least I am making a difference somewhere." she said.

Mamamia Out Loud is the weekly podcast with what women are talking about. With over three million downloads, it's the number one podcast for Australian women. Subscribe in iTunes or listen to the full episode here:

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