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From the President: Embracing change

Cite as: December 2013 87 (12) LIJ, p.4

In an evolving legal profession we need to be innovative. 

So it's December and my final column as LIV president. It’s an appropriate time to reflect on the past 12 months, although it will be incoming president Geoff Bowyer who will be making new year’s resolutions for the LIV.

The theme of my presidential year has been embracing change and diversity in a dynamic and evolving legal profession.

While change has been most obvious in places such as the United Kingdom, where private equity houses investing in law firms and new entrants like Brilliant Law (established by Betfair’s founder) have become de rigueur, our own backyard has not been immune from the winds of change.

We can see it in the statistics where, for the first time, female members of the LIV outnumber men. We can see it in the partner movements among our larger firms as a fallout of the international mergers which continue apace. And we can see it in the debate over legal aid and the move to have only a barrister or a solicitor act in a matter or, in some cases, no lawyer at all.

These forces will fundamentally alter the nature of legal practice in the coming years and, if we are to respond to them, we need to innovate and reshape the profession. I am the first to admit there are no easy solutions (otherwise I would have quit practice to become a law firm consultant).

However, I am encouraged by members that I have spoken to who are open to changes such as moving away from time charging to alternative models for billing that go some way to reflecting the “value” derived by the client. LIV CEO Michael Brett Young has written about billing methods in his column over the page. The LIV will continue to work on tools to help members in this regard, and our Future Focus Committee will be examining disruptive technologies with a view to making suggestions as to how we can ensure those technologies work for – rather than against – us.

I have always been convinced of the need to move towards a single unified legal profession in Australia which will better equip us to compete internationally. However, the reality of being a federation means that it is an idea that is easier to conceptualise than implement.

While we are not quite there yet, I remain hopeful that we will see the first buds of this reform emerge in the new year. We can then move on to other things to support our international competitiveness, like implementing a single national professional standards scheme and facilitating standard international legal practice structures such as the limited liability partnership.

I recently attended the LAWASIA conference in Singapore which confirmed my belief that Asia remains a real opportunity for the Australian legal profession provided we build our cultural diversity and awareness. We have now established an Asian Australian Lawyers Association to focus on this very task, and the LIV is well advanced on a pilot program to allow for the exchange of young lawyers between China and Australia (see p24).

One initiative that I have championed this year, of which I am immensely proud, is the establishment of the Wellbeing and the Law Foundation. It is the first foundation in Victoria to focus on the mental health and wellbeing of lawyers and has goodwill and support across the profession, from our law schools to the judiciary. At the launch, our ambassadors spoke with passion about their own experiences which were both moving and demonstrative of the fact that you can manage your mental health and succeed in the law.

On a personal level, serving as your president has been a privilege and has provided many opportunities to move outside my comfort zone as a tax lawyer – opportunities that have seen me read at St Paul’s Cathedral to mark the opening of the legal year, perform comedy in front of more than 800 lawyers at the Athenaeum Theatre, speak to the media on the steps of the Supreme Court and address an audience of international lawyers at Harvard Law School.

But it hasn’t all been beer and skittles. Legal aid has been a major issue for us and our members, particularly criminal and family lawyers, throughout the year. We have also had to deal with the decision of the Legal Services Commissioner to remove the complaints handling delegation from the LIV and its consequent human impact here at the institute.

Of course, the reality is that I am just the tip of the iceberg and nothing would be achievable without the support, encouragement and assistance of Michael Brett Young and the dedicated staff at the LIV. I also record my thanks to my team at Corrs Chambers Westgarth who carried much of the load during my frequent absences. Last, but not least, I wish to thank my wife Cherry and children Hadyn and Adele for their love, support, understanding and patience, and bringing me back down to earth whenever my ego was a little too inflated!

And I wish Geoff Bowyer every success for what will be a challenging but immensely rewarding year ahead.

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