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According to Merit?: Keeping memories alive

Every Issue

Cite as: (2009) 83(06) LIJ, p.83

Several current projects are recording the oral histories of legal professionals, especially women.

Our ancestors passed down oral histories and family anecdotes from generation to generation as a matter of course. However, in today’s fast-paced life we make fewer opportunities to sit down with each other and listen to stories of times gone by.

One consequence for our profession is that important legal “war” stories are frequently left untold. The internet, however, can be an effective and efficient tool to communicate oral histories. For example, a Victorian Bar Council initiative instigated by Michael Shand QC and Philip Dunn QC, which commenced in 2004, is the oral history section of the Bar’s website.1

Audio and video interviews (effectively short films) were commissioned by the Bar Council and conducted by the Victorian Bar’s oral history consultant Juliette Brodsky, an experienced broadcaster and current affairs journalist and researcher.

Interviewees included retired and practising barristers and judges.

By capturing the stories of those who have retired from the law, the Bar oral history ensures that legal anecdotes and recollections remain vibrant and available for everyone.

Also continuing work with oral history is the Women Barristers Association (WBA).

Last year, the WBA released a film, Even It Up, which appears on the oral history section of the Bar website.2

Produced by myself and Ms Brodsky, it was directed by film-maker Sarah McLeod (who also directed Raising the Bar, which can be viewed on the website oral history section under separate topics).

In Even It Up Ms Brodsky interviewed a roundtable of past and current WBA members about the WBA’s history, current practices and thoughts for the future.

As then WBA convenor, I also worked with the Victoria Law Foundation and Ms Brodsky to prepare the 2007 exhibition Women Barristers: Then and Now3 which has been circulating the courts and universities for the past two years. It is available for loan and appears in digital format on the Victorian Bar website.

While working on this exhibition, we realised that the personal anecdotes of these pioneering women were at risk of being lost.

As a result, for Law Week 2009, together with Ms Brodsky, I have produced a multimedia slideshow for the WBA titled And What Do We Have Here? Some personal reminiscences about the first 25 women to sign the Bar roll in Victoria. [The slideshow title was inspired by a judge who peered over his dais and exclaimed at the sight of Mary “Molly” Kingston, the seventh woman to sign the Victorian Bar roll, imperturbably waiting to open her case.]

In conducting interviews for this slideshow, Ms Brodsky noticed a recurring theme where some early women barristers who appeared in court were the subject of comments about not being “dressed” or who were not able to be “seen”, due to their attire or hairstyle.

The slideshow includes unscripted audio interviews as well as photographs, news clippings, cartoons and music. As it progresses chronologically, some previously undocumented information is revealed, such as biographical details on Beatrix McCay, the second woman to sign the Bar roll.

In some cases where women barristers were no longer alive, the slideshow features the recollections of relatives or work colleagues. Bar roll signatory no 23, Peg Lusink, speaks about her mother Joan Rosanove QC (Victoria’s first woman barrister).

Justice Betty King (the 24th woman to sign the Bar roll) speaks both about herself and her great friend, the late Lillian Lieder QC.

Work colleagues fondly reminisce about the late Fay Daly (previously a court stenographer) and Molly Kingston (who before signing the Bar roll co-founded the first all-women legal practice in WA during the 1930s).

As Ms Brodsky says, “Tracking down those who retired from practice long ago or uncovering information on those who are no longer with us is never easy, but it has its unexpected rewards and delights as well as sadness”.

During the course of her research, Ms Brodsky was given access to original news clippings (such as pioneering woman lawyer Flos Greig’s admission ceremony in a 1905 edition of The New Idea), Flos Greig’s sister’s diary (containing musings about her law lecturers before her early death in 1913), as well as family photos previously never released.

I note with interest that ANU’s Kim Rubenstein is likewise canvassing names to be put forward for a women trailblazer project where suitable women will be interviewed and the record kept at the university. Potential interviewees may include judges, solicitors, academics and barristers.

Oral histories are a meaningful and lively way to connect the younger generation with the past and for us all to gain perspective on the present and our future. It is likewise of general interest to clients.

The slideshow was screened on 12 May for Law Week 2009 and will shortly be made available for viewing on the oral history section of the Bar website.

Simone Jacobson is a barrister and committee member and former convenor of the WBA.

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