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Inside stories: Five generations in the law

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Cite as: August 2015 89 (8) LIJ, p.95

The Stewart family boasts a succession of members in the legal profession since 1895. By Carolyn Ford

All parents are proud when their son or daughter is admitted as a lawyer. But for Mary Stewart, her son’s Supreme Court admission ceremony on 26 May was especially satisfying; William Gubbins, 26, became the fifth generation of the Stewart family to practise law.

Mr Gubbins’ mother, cousin, grandfather, great-grandfather, great-grand-aunt and great-great-grandfather were all lawyers before him – an extraordinary and rarely seen milestone in the legal profession.

All practised in the Goulburn Valley – as will Mr Gubbins, at SMR Legal in Shepparton where his mother, who moved his admission and is an accredited Wills and Estates specialist, is a consultant. “It’s exciting, daunting, but there is a sense of pride as well. I hope I can do the family justice,” Mr Gubbins said.

The first of the Stewart family to be admitted to practice law in Victoria was James Burt Stewart, on 15 July 1895. He was the son of a Scotsman who went to Rushworth, lured by gold. He played for the St Kilda Football Club and practiced in Rushworth and Murchison. Second to be admitted as a lawyer was James Burt Stewart’s son, Galloway Stewart, whose admission was moved by future Australian prime minister Robert Menzies, on 3 October, 1921. Galloway practised with his father in Rushworth, Murchison and Tatura.

Galloway was a colourful character. At 16 he ran away from Scotch College to join the Light Horsemen and saw action in Egypt and Palestine during World War I. As a 42-year-old, he enlisted in World War II and was taken prisoner by the Japanese when Singapore fell. He spent years in a POW camp working on the Thai-Burma Railway alongside fellow officer Sir Edward “Weary” Dunlop. Letters between Galloway and his father are with the Australian War Memorial.

Remarkably for the era, Galloway’s sister Sheila was also admitted to practice in Victoria, and another sister Alison was a law clerk.

The third-generation Stewart to be admitted to legal practice was Galloway’s son, James Burt Stewart II, or Jim, who was named after his grandfather. Jim wanted to be an engineer but Galloway was ill and the practice needed another lawyer. He was admitted to practice on 1 March 1956.

“He told me that he didn’t question it, just did what he needed to, for his parents and younger brothers,” said Ms Stewart.

Jim’s brother John did want to be a lawyer, but he was shot down over Germany in WWII aged 19. Jim practised in Tatura for more than 30 years, eventually retiring to become a Presbyterian minister.

Jim Stewart tried to talk his daughter out of the law – he thought it a hard path for a woman – but Ms Stewart had enjoyed working in her father’s office during her childhood. “I enjoy people, problem solving and writing, so it’s been a good career for me.”

Ms Stewart’s admission to practice in Victoria in 1984 was moved by another lawyer in the family, her father’s second cousin James Merralls QC. The fourth generation of Stewart lawyers, she helped found SMR Legal. Ms Stewart said she appreciates and is still motivated by the loyalty many clients have shown to her and her forebears. She recalls a 92-year-old gentleman telling her that his first will had been drawn up by James Burt Stewart. Ms Stewart presumed that he was referring to her father, but he corrected her, saying, “No, I mean your great grandfather”.

Mr Gubbins did a postgraduate JD at Monash University after a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Melbourne, then did an honours year, with a thesis focusing on paleo-ecology. He did internships at Thompson Geer, Kellehers and Soho Legal then returned to Shepparton, completing his traineeship at SMR Legal where he is in general practice.

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