Sunday 10 December, Queensland Performing Arts Centre
I stand before you not only as the President of the Queensland Law Society, but more importantly as a proud alumni of QUT and I am honoured to be here tonight to welcome and congratulate this Year’s graduates. I would especially like to thank Professor John Humphreys for his personal invitation to address you. I would also like to thank and acknowledge:
- Acting Chancellor Dr John Puttick
- Acting Vice-Chancellor Professor Scott Sheppard
- Members of the official party
- Ladies and Gentlemen
In keeping with Queensland Law Society reconciliation commitment, it is culturally appropriate to acknowledge the First Nations people as the original inhabitants of the land on which this presentation is taking place here in Meanjin. We recognise the remarkable country north and south of the winding Brisbane River, home of the Turrbul and Jagera nations, and following cultural protocol, we pay our deep respects to all Elders past and present as well as our emerging leaders of tomorrow, and thank them for their wisdom and guidance.
The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers
An odd way to start a speech in front of a room full of future lawyers and their loved ones, I grant you-but if you thought it sounded controversial here, you should have heard how it sounded when I started a speech in the Banco Court with that line earlier this year.
You couldn’t just hear a pin drop, you could have heard it being let go-followed by more gasps than an Agatha Christie marathon. I invoke that quote, however, not as a true desire to see lawyers wiped out-at least -but because this quote-from Shakespeare’s Henry VI-is the Bard’s recipe for Chaos. He is not saying the elimination of lawyers is a good thing-the character quoted, Dick the Butcher, suggests this as the best way to overthrow the government. This was before we realised we could do it by raising questions about their citizenship.
I realise that not everyone here will go on to join our esteemed profession-there are many careers where the possession of the skills and background that a law degree provides can be a boost. You may end up working in policy, crafting succinct and just legislation for the state, or you may end up as politicians, where you will take that succinct and just legislation and turn it in to unworkable jargon.
For those who do join the legal profession, however, the Bard’s observation that a world without lawyers leads to chaos will prove prophetic very quickly. You will come to see what an important role we play in our democracy, providing checks and balances to the ambitions and excesses of the political class, and standing up for the rights of those who cannot stand up for themselves. You will learn that it is not by accident that the first thing despotic regimes around the world do is jail the legal profession. Turkey, China, Russia-all these countries jail layers by the dozen, for one reason-we speak out; we fight for the weak and stand up against the merciless. You will do that too, even if you think you are not involved in that area.
Whether you are doing cottage conveyancing of prosecuting war criminals in The Hague-and anything in between-you are performing an essential role in the justice system, contributing to the rule of law and standing fast against chaos. You will learn that without you, democracy doesn’t work. That isn’t hyperbole, it is the unvarnished truth. Those of you who become admitted as Australian Legal Practitioners-will be officers of the court, sworn to discharge your duty to the court and the administration of justice; you will learn that this duty is not mere lip service, but a vital cog in the justice system.
Even if you do not pursue a career in the law, and are never admitted, the fact that you have completed a law related degree has imbued you with knowledge of the law, and an understanding of what can happen if the rule of law fails or rights are applied unevenly across our society. One of my favourite quotes from Albert Einstein, is that he said that those who have the privilege to know, have the duty to act. The privilege to know is not bestowed by the achieving of a degree or a position but rather through understanding by experience and hard work, how our society works. The achievement of a degree is a valuable start and shows your capacity for hard work, synthesis of ideas and critical legal thinking, but it is only the key to the door, it is not the door itself, nor the room beyond the door.
The duty to act is a far more complex and intriguing idea from the man who explained the theory of relativity. He wasn’t talking alone of standing on the ramparts defending a country, a family, or an ideology, he wasn’t saying we should all become social media commentators, which has degenerated to an endless round of self-promotion of the likes of Milo Yiannopoulos. He wasn’t talking about becoming a legislator passing laws for the betterment of others, though this could be part of it. Rather, Einstein was focusing our attention to the daily struggle of standing up and speaking up, for what is right and good in our society. We all fulfil important roles whether we are bakers, street sweepers or high court judges. It is the collective effort of all that makes our society work. But as you have the privilege to know that the rule of law underpins our society, you then assume the duty of ensuring that this ideal is kept alive and at the forefront of our lives.
That brings with it an obligation to speak out when you see injustice-you have the privilege to know, and it carries a duty to act; you can never stay silent in the face of injustice.
My path to the presidency of the Queensland law society, the third largest peak professional Legal body in Australia, started when I was sitting very much where you are now if not beforehand, by speaking out on the things that matter. My earliest experience of this was being outraged at commentary on Triple J in the 1990s about the reasons law graduates could not to get jobs. Not much has changed. Nor was I aware at the time that half QUT student body were listening. For some strange reason it had not occurred to me when I made that call that anyone would be listening, I simply thought what was being said was so outrageously unfair it needed it to be called. I guess not much has changed for me. Whatever you do in the future that obligation will follow you as well, and you should take care to discharge it and do so with integrity. It will take you to some amazing places.
I stand before as an example that there is not one true path to leadership roles, to quote a famous American baseball Manager Yogi Berra “when you come to a fork in the road, take it”. He is of course also famous for saying “it’s like de ja vu all over again”.
There were many forks and I took them all, sometimes over and over again, but progress is often achieved with single steps rather than frequent flyer miles obtained. I learnt along the way that study never ceases, that hard work is always rewarded, and that sometimes knowing people is more important than knowing things. To this end, cleve to your fellow graduates, not only are they qualifying at the same time, but they are on the same journey as you and it is good to have friends along the way.
I found my niche area of practice early as a succession lawyer. Many people want to be criminal lawyers, not everybody commits a crime but everybody dies. Hence I have a thriving practice. Having built a successful practice and developed what I believe is a highly regarded career, I felt that it was time to contribute to a profession that had given me so much. I have been a Councillor, Deputy President and currently President of the Queensland Law Society. Next year I will continue on as Immediate Past President.
If there was one insight I can share with you, it is through my interaction with judges, politicians and people of power, I have observed they are all just like you and me. We all have the right to be heard. So I say exercise your voice and share vision for a better world.
Part of our privilege is that we live in a free liberal democracy, where debates even on emotive matters can be done respectfully, without blood flowing in the streets, where governments can change and laws can be passed without the clash of arms or the foment of revolution. In Queensland we have something of an “elected dictatorship”, a phrase used by the reformist Tony Fitzgerald QC , as we only have only one House of Parliament and as such the party in power can pass whatever law it likes, without the judgment of the ballot box, for now 4 years at a time. This can be dangerous in the development of legislation and lay the ground work for powerful partisan appointments, especially to the bench. Thus I have found that the Queensland Law Society’s role in reviewing legislation and making submissions to parliamentary committees is an important check and balance to any parliament that properly and fulsomely consults. We provide this service to government, for no cost to the tax payer, but at the entire expense of our 13000 members, who have charged us with the responsibility of promoting Good law and Good Lawyers for the good of the community.
I said earlier that a law or law related degree is a key to the door and it is not the door itself, you will find in whatever role you take up in life, whether it is a lawyer in private practice, in academia, or any of the numerous gig economies, not foreseen by the Priestly 11 that your time at QUT has in fact prepared you for a real life in the real world.