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Obituary: Harry Curtis

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Cite as: September 2015 89 (9) LIJ, p.25

5 December 1936 – 27 April 2015

Harry Curtis was an outstanding and widely respected lawyer, an astute leader, and a teacher who guided by example. He was also a husband, father, grandfather and friend. He had an active intellectual life outside the law, and knew much about art. He was a collector and a benefactor. He was admired and respected for the breadth and richness of his private life as well as for his adherence to the highest legal and ethical standards, and the precise use of language and analysis, that characterised his life in the profession.

Born in Queenscliff to a family who ran guesthouses and hotels, he lived there until his family moved to Melbourne. He attended Ivanhoe Grammar, where he was a first class student and dux of the school in 1954. There he was introduced to literature, language and art, which remained central passions throughout his life.

During his matriculation year he was devastated by the death of his father, and this formed his acute awareness of the fragility of the human condition.

He studied law at Melbourne University, graduating in 1958. For those who knew Harry’s gentle, impeccable manners and good taste, it may be surprising to know that he is remembered there for the Harry Curtis Trophy, awarded to the law student who committed what Gareth Evans once described as “the worst social atrocity of the year”. Harry was a gentleman, but he was not a prude.

In his third year Harry became a partner at the legal firm Lander & Rogers. He built the leading Victorian liability and compensation practice; when an Act of Parliament introduced a monopoly in this area in 1985, he was central to the rebuilding of the stronger and more diverse firm that exists today. At the beginning of his working life, he had fewer than 10 colleagues; when he died, still working at Landers, the firm numbered 450.

Harry worked hard and intensely. Precise use of language was imperative, and consideration of every facet of complex legal issues was the only way to approach each case. In many ways he was reserved, yet he knew how to make his opinion clear. He was a shrewd judge of character and his approval mattered, because it had to be earned.

Yet there was always time for anyone at his door. He had an unrivalled gift for making relaxed space to talk. No one dispensed wisdom and charm with such equal facility to all comers, whether they sought personal guidance, the answer to a complex legal or ethical problem or advice as to the best places to visit in Siena. And of course for detailed discussion of the latest victories of his beloved Swans.

Harry met his wife Sue, a student and then secondary and tertiary teacher of fine arts and design, at university. They married in his articles year and were inseparable thereafter. Their shared love of contemporary art encouraged Harry to study fine arts and philosophy part-time while working full-time in the law, to serve on gallery boards, to be a benefactor, and to own several galleries, with Christine Abrahams and David Rosenthal. Harry and Sue visited Paris regularly, and entertained friends there; the city of light and of art, in the country of food, fashion and wine, suited them both to perfection. Family was central; he spoke of his children and grandchildren, their different adventures and goals, with pride and a kind of wonder.

Harry was able to balance work and other interests; to remain curious about, and engaged with, the world beyond work. The legacy left by Harry Curtis is more important, and more elusive, than the size of a successful business or numerous awards as best lawyer. At the core of Harry’s daily conduct, and an ongoing influence on the culture of Lander & Rogers, were beliefs about what civilised work should look like and how we should treat one another even when under pressure. He will be missed every day at the firm, but even more deeply of course by his wife Sue, his children Linda and Andrew, their partners Rob and Justine, and his grandchildren Hannah, Alice, Ruby, Ike, Bon and Sterling.

Contributed by the partners of Lander & Rogers and the family of Harry Curtis.

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