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A firm Jones built

News

Cite as: (2006) 80(12) LIJ, p. 25


From borrowed beginnings in the midst of the Depression, Septimus Jones & Lee has matured over the past 75 years to become a practice with a firm grasp on its future.

Septimus Jones was an ambitious, determined and independent young man.

Establishing himself as a sole practitioner during the Great Depression, Septimus borrowed 50 pounds from his brother, a wooden table and a chair.

He chose an office on Collins Street and opened his doors for business as Septimus Jones Solicitor. It was 1931.

Seventy-five years later and the firm he founded is still going, having witnessed the growth, decline and disappearance of a number of Melbourne legal firms.

It continues to act for many of its founding clients, or their successors.

“There are probably firms which have been around for longer but few would be operating independently under the same name,” senior partner David Jones said.

And fewer would have the lineage of Septimus Jones & Lee.

In 2006 the firm has six partners, three women and three men – Septimus’ sons David and Howard, and his grandson Gareth.

David has worked at Septimus Jones & Lee since 1959, while Howard was on his own for 15 years before joining his brother in 1989. Gareth Jones joined his father and uncle in 2004 after four years as a solicitor at Russell Kennedy.

However, any suggestion of a family dynasty is quickly dismissed.

“I don’t think my brother and I ever envisaged that we would be working in our father’s firm together, let alone together with my son,” David Jones said. “We have no intention of having the firm dominated by Joneses”.

The brothers believe a strong desire to remain independent has underpinned the firm’s longevity.

“My father certainly had some lean times in the beginning,” Howard Jones said. “He started out doing conveyancing and pro bono work, but vowed he would not marry my mother until he could guarantee five pounds a week for the housekeeping. They had a very, very long engagement – six or seven years.”

In 1938, Septimus moved his growing practice to the Royal Bank Chambers in Collins Street, but had to relocate when General McArthur required most of the building to base his command during World War II.

During this time, Septimus began providing advice to a life insurance company which marked the beginning of the firm’s mortgage and finance department.

After being knocked back by the army on medical grounds, Septimus volunteered for the army’s legal corp during World War II. He received about 25 cents a day in allowances but never bothered to cash the cheque.

The cost pressures which make the law more a business than a profession have made it harder for today’s lawyers to pursue pro bono work, Howard Jones said.

“Today you have to treat most files as if they are going to bring you something and you can’t really help people to the extent you could have in the past,” he said.

The post World War II era brought a property boom as immigration grew and people started to purchase land. This triggered a major expansion of Septimus’ land division practice because in those days a firm could act for both the vendor and purchaser of a property.

In 1953, after 20 years and desperate for a proper holiday, Septimus invited Ron Lee to join him and a longstanding partnership was born.

Ron complemented the existing property skills of the firm and also handled commercial, litigation and family law work. He remained as a partner with Septimus and David (after 1960) and later as a consultant until he retired in the 90s.

Septimus Jones & Lee has taken over the practices of other firms over the years, including most recently Royston Cahir & Martin. However, while the partners wish to grow the firm, they do not wish to grow so much that the firm becomes large and institutionalised.

“I guess firms of this size have been swallowed up by other firms,” David said. “We have never wanted to do that. We have expanded strategically and we are still in that process.”

So will the firm reach the century mark?

“Who knows? Who knows?”, chorus the Jones brothers.

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