Good evening, Your Excellency the Governor, Chief Justice and distinguished guests, colleagues, friends and family.
I acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, and thank Uncle Allen Madden for warmly welcoming us to country tonight.
I acknowledge my predecessors – the Past Presidents of the Law Society of NSW, many of whom are here with us tonight.
I particularly want to acknowledge the immediate past president, Richard Harvey, and to thank him for his leadership and steady resolve last year. And of course, I want to acknowledge my fellow councillors.
I would also like to acknowledge Sonja Stewart, CEO of the Law Society of NSW, who has warmly welcomed me into my new role.
Thank you also to the Chief Justice for your words tonight. Your ongoing support of this event is greatly appreciated.
And importantly thank you to my family, friends, colleagues and former workmates for being present this evening. I am truly grateful.
Many years from now, a future president of the Law Society is going to commission an updated history of the legal profession and this association.
And you can bet that when that history is written, it will include the dramatic events of COVID-19, beginning in late 2019 and continuing all the way up until well, we don’t know when.
That’s the thing about living through history. The textbook hasn’t been written yet to tell you how and when it’s going to end.
But we do know some of what will be included.
In NSW it will tell the story of how a united legal profession confronted the greatest public health crisis in a hundred years, and found ways to continue to serve.
How when our skies went quiet, our roads were emptied, and our CBDs became deserted, we went to work.
And we went to work from kitchen tables and living room corners; on Teams and Zoom and via social media apps; in suit jackets and stretchy pants; with dogs barking in the background and cats on the keyboard and home schooling kids on the floor - our profession found ways to keep the administration of justice going.
The Chief Justice captured something of this zeitgeist when he told newly admitted lawyers at the Supreme Court’s first ever virtual admissions ceremony that [quote]:
“I didn't know what a vlogger was until last week but I guess I am one now."
This ability to adapt was shared by solicitors right across NSW, and by our colleagues at the bar and judicial officers on the bench.
It was a powerful illustration of our commitment – regardless of the circumstances – to the principles that underwrite our peace and prosperity, including the rule of law and the checks and balances inherent in a civil society.
Tonight, as I begin my presidency and outline my priorities for the year, my overwhelming sense is one of pride.
Everyone who takes this office is different. But we are united by a deep and abiding respect for our colleagues and the work we do and great pride in our profession - pride in what we have achieved and pride in what I believe is still to come.
It’s usual in these addresses to share a little personal history, but I can’t really tell you I always had a burning ambition to be a lawyer.
I didn’t come from a legal family - Dad was a pathologist, Mum was a nurse and a talented artist, my sister is an interior designer and my brother is a foreign correspondent with a terrifying penchant for going into war zones - so nothing really legal pops out.
In fact, we all used to say that what we really needed in the family was a vet. Because we always had loads of pets and most of us still do. But so far no vet.
But what I always had was a love of language and debate, a passion for history, a curiosity about solving problems (really of any kind) and a strong sense of fairness.
And I also had a touch of some of those classic characteristics of a firstborn - reliable, structured, cautious, sometimes seen as bossy – but I would say a “natural leader” – and of course a touch of the conscientious desire to overachieve.
So you can see that if I fell into law I was probably going to land on my feet.
But I can’t say that my passion for the law was ignited in the first year at university. Quite different passions were ignited that year.
I met lifelong friends on the very first day of the very first subject of my law degree – and they are here tonight – and not very long after that another friend whispered to me in the middle of a very dull German grammar class “Come to my house on Saturday night – have I got a boy for you!”
So off I went and met the love of my life. And not just for that week - which is what generally happens when you are barely old enough for a drivers licence and you think you’ve met the love of your life – but for every week since then my husband, Mark, has been the love of my life.
We have grown up together, raised our girls – Lizzie and Rosie – together, mourned parents together, supported each other and now we are grandparenting together. And whatever I have achieved has only been possible because of the support of Mark and our girls.
But I didn’t learn a lot of law in that first year. That came later, as did the passion for the law and for what we do. That passion really only kicked in when I started at Freehill, Hollingdale & Page.
I went into the Litigation Group - and litigating just ticked all the boxes for me. I loved it and I always have.
I think ultimately it was the problem-solving element that had me hooked – how do you find a way through an awful problem to find the best solution for the client – and do all of that within the bounds of the legal and ethical framework in which we operate?
Freehill, Hollingdale & Page morphed over the years to FHP to Freehills and now Herbert Smith Freehills or HSF. But whatever it has been called, the firm has always had very high standards to which I have aspired – in legal excellence, in ethical conduct, in exemplary professionalism and of course it has pro bono in its DNA.
It’s always been a terrific firm doing great work and I have worked with some very talented people at the firm. Some have moved in-house, or into business roles, many are now partners, and it’s been a great training ground for many excellent barristers.
But whilst I have predominantly worked with one firm, in the course of a long career, I have worked with vast numbers of lawyers from other firms and counsel from many different Chambers. I have to say that by and large, and with very limited exceptions, I have observed exactly the same dedication to legal excellence, ethical conduct and exemplary professionalism as I have seen within my own firm.
And that is the basis for my respect for, and pride in, our legal profession.
Which brings me to the Law Society of NSW.
Whilst in general terms it is fair to say that I have spent my career as a litigator, that is not all I have done. Indeed, I first came onto Council to fill a casual vacancy for the Large Law Firm position because of my managing partner role.
And that is when I first realised the vast breadth and depth of policy and advocacy work undertaken by the Law Society and the hundreds of solicitors who volunteer to undertake such work for the benefit of our communities. That is when, again, I became hooked – this was problem-solving writ large.
The Law Society of NSW remains the largest and most influential legal membership association in Australia. Its more than 36,000 strong membership of solicitors equates to almost half the total number of lawyers in Australia.
Our Law Society exists to serve the profession in NSW and to amplify its voice; to develop policy and advocate for change for the benefit of society, and to offer leadership and legal support to every solicitor in this state.
Under my predecessors, we have earned the trust of government and the respect of our fellow citizens, which is reflected in our list of statutory powers.
As a co-regulator, we ensure solicitors understand their responsibilities to the courts and their fellow citizens and help them meet the very highest ethical and professional standards.
It is a privilege to be a part of this organisation, and never more so than as President.
While borders may be opening and closing, now more than ever it’s important we continue to be ambitious in our thinking and outward in our vision.
In looking now to the year ahead, I have a number of objectives:
- To support solicitors through the present crisis and raise the profile of the profession;
- To offer compelling thought leadership;
- To ensure we emerge stronger, but also more diverse and inclusive; and
- To advocate for more resources for our courts and tribunals.
Priority – supporting the profession through COVID-19
Last year was a year like no other.
While some parts of the profession have seemingly survived without too much damage, others are barely hanging in there. JobKeeper was very necessary.
And even those who have found themselves in better shape than they originally expected, have watched as some areas of business have dropped off, and some areas of practice have become busier.
It’s important that the Law Society continues to support the profession, particularly as we will be living with COVID-19 and its impact for some time.
In the short to medium-term, there may well be significant levels of business disruption and uncertainty.
To date, the Law Society has played an admirable role in supporting the profession through this crisis.
From the one-off reduction in our membership fees to the launch of the Solicitor Outreach Service; from the creation of a dedicated COVID-19 portal and regular COVID-19 e-newsletter, to moving our entire CPD catalogue and events program online – all of this has been to support solicitors in this State during the most difficult of times.
Our working lives are unlikely to ever return completely to what they were in 2019. But crisis can be an opportunity in disguise.
The challenge will be to take the best from our pandemic experience and capitalise on it for the benefit of our clients, our practices and for each of us as professionals.
We need to ask: What have we done differently and what do we want to retain? How can we take these experiences and improve upon them?
As President, I want to capture innovative practices that were successful during the pandemic, many of which have not previously been considered, and share them with the wider profession. I am also keen to include business development topics and skills acquired over the past 12 months in ongoing initiatives like our 2021 Future of Law and Innovation in the Profession (FLIP) program.
I hope this will be of interest to all areas of the profession but particularly to smaller firms and sole practitioners who I think have been hit hardest by the pandemic.
I also want to help raise our profile and communicate with those outside of our profession about the vital contribution we make.
Our profession is a critical part of our democracy. Recent events in the United States underscore just how important a functioning legal system and an independent judiciary are for the health of democracy.
The rule of law is the fundamental platform on which our democracy is built. And solicitors are a key part of this.
We hold a privileged position in society as officers of the court and trusted advisors to our clients, and this brings a great amount of responsibility. The exemplary behaviour of the majority should define us. But that is not how we are always seen.
Everybody knows a lawyer joke.
But when you think about the places where the rule of law has collapsed; or where the system is so corrupt or inefficient that it no longer protects its citizens; or where the system no longer provides certainty to business; or safeguards the weak and vulnerable, you’ll know there is nothing funny at all about it.
Most people I know who become lawyers and stay lawyers do so because they have a fundamental belief in fairness and justice. They want to make things better and they are of course tremendous volunteers.
To quote the Chief Justice from an admissions ceremony address he gave in 2018:
“The worth of any society can be found in the extent to which the rights of its citizens are protected, regardless of whether they are rich, poor, powerful or vulnerable, and especially when they are subject to disability or disadvantage, and unable to enforce it themselves.”
As our new CEO Sonja Stewart has often noted, to a great extent, it is the goodwill and effort of the profession that ensures that vulnerable people in our state receive proper representation and the access to justice that they require.
In country towns and urban centres, in the remote areas of our state and across the Greater Sydney region, solicitors are an important part of their communities, volunteering time, energy and expertise to make our society better. Look, for example, at the way our profession responded in wake of the 2019 and 2020 summer bushfires; how quickly our members were willing to provide pro bono hours to help families, individuals, small businesses and farmers.
It is these ideas that I want to help ventilate during my year as President.
And while I am on the subject of the contribution made by solicitors in regional areas I should note that I hope to spend a fair bit of my tenure travelling across NSW, advocating for the profession, engaging with them and also sharing and promoting the good work that they are doing.
Priority – Thought Leadership
The Law Society exists to not only champion the profession, but to challenge it; to draw our members’ attention to emerging issues that will impact their practice and to highlight developing legal issues.
One of the ways we do this through our very successful Thought Leadership program.
This year, I want to use Thought Leadership to explore how the law is responding to Environmental, Social and Governance issues – or ESG for short.
In the past, 'ESG' issues were often viewed as 'non-financial' or 'ethical' in nature; something good to know about but distinct from a company’s bottom line. Not anymore.
In an era of catastrophic bushfires and extreme weather events; following the introduction of modern slavery and anti-money laundering legislation; and as consumer habits shift and shareholder activism increases; there is now mainstream acceptance from regulators, investors and corporate boards that ESG issues are financial issues.
And not just financial issues - ESG issues are now core strategic issues for many businesses. Further, the ESG landscape is changing rapidly - in part because it is being influenced by international developments.
So, what I am interested in for this year is examining the legal risks and the legal shifts that are already underway arising out of ESG issues and to look at what might be coming down the line.
Take, for example, the risk around climate change - which is not just a risk for emitting companies. Now I have to stress tonight that I am not interested in getting lawyers into a debate about whether human-induced climate change is real or not! We are not experts in that. But what we are experts in is assisting clients to manage and mitigate legal risk.
Many businesses are grappling with how to respond to critical environmental changes to ensure business resilience, to ensure supply chain continuity, to ensure maintenance of access to capital and insurance in a changing market, as well as how to provide greater levels of corporate accountability and transparency. They are also facing shareholder activism and institutional investor and consumer concerns.
That all has the capacity to raise a raft of complex legal issues across a broad range of subject areas, including governance, climate and environmental law, human rights, investigations and regulatory compliance.
The Thought Leadership program is a way to explore these and other ESG issues and how our clients may mitigate their legal risks. This will equip our profession to deal better with advising clients in a future that is already upon us.
Priority – diversity and inclusion
My predecessor Richard Harvey noted in his annual members address that the recent widespread introduction of flexible work arrangements could be a boon for diversity and inclusion. I agree.
I have always been passionate about diversity and inclusion in the law.
I began my career in the 1980s, which was a pretty challenging time for women in the profession.
In general, we were paid less; we were regarded as “not committed” to our careers when we had children, and we weren’t given the equivalent opportunities to those given to male colleagues.
Back then we didn’t speak about unconscious bias because there was nothing unconscious about it.
Today, some thirty-plus years later, the prospects for women in our profession are so much brighter.
I am proud of the many women (and men) who spoke out against those old attitudes and who helped create change over the decades.
I am grateful to the partners at Freehills (as it was known then) who promoted me and who championed my career. I have done likewise with the subsequent generations of solicitors.
I am also proud of the Law Society of NSW’s ground-breaking work in this space, particularly through the Diversity & Inclusion Committee, of which I was the inaugural chair.
The difference between the solicitors’ branch of the profession I will lead and the profession I entered is enormous. This is a testament to our ability to adapt; to reinvent ourselves, and to improve.
This year, then, I want to focus on diversity and inclusion because I believe that a diverse and inclusive profession will be one better able to serve our vibrant and diverse citizenry.
But that is clearly about more than gender.
It’s about getting people from all sorts of backgrounds into the profession, onto the bench and holding positions of leadership. Our institutions and organisations need to reflect the communities they serve.
It’s about having a broader vision of what success looks like and helping every solicitor to feel part of our profession and to thrive in the law.
There are two areas I want to focus on and the first is in the disability space. About six per cent of our membership tell us that they have a disability – we need to ensure that their skills are fully realised and that our workplaces can be set up to make full use of their talents. In practical terms, this will include developing resources to help law practices and legal teams create and sustain disability confident workplaces and our D&I Committee intends to continue to undertake this work.
Secondly, I want to ensure the Law Society continues to champion cultural diversity in the profession.
This includes addressing barriers to recruitment; improving retention and representation; making sure we are tracking the right data, and engaging in meaningful discussion with clients about these kinds of issues. Again, the D&I Committee will have a full dance card this year.
Priority – court resources
This year the Law Society will also continue to campaign for additional court resources. As a litigator, I am no stranger to the inside of a courtroom.
Our courts and commissions have proved agile in the public health crisis of COVID-19. They were quick to transition to online hearings and they have overwhelmingly embraced technologies that allow remote access to justice.
I want to acknowledge tonight the $150 million investment the NSW government has made in the latest budget to maintain and upgrade our courts and other justice infrastructure. As the Attorney General announced last year, this will include $54 million invested over three years to deliver a digital transformation of NSW courts – from upgrading or installing new audio-visual links to digitising court files.
To quote the Chief Justice again: “The shift to a remote system of justice was not without its technical challenges, yet I am confident we are getting better each day, and I see an innovative and flexible future ahead.”
I believe much good will come out of this “innovative and flexible future.”
But one thing hasn’t changed – the need for adequate court resources and support of the human kind! NCAT, for example, clears some 80,000 civil cases each year. The Local Court clears some 78,000 civil cases and 340,000 criminal cases a year. The workload of current magistrates and Tribunal members is ferocious and it seems to me that they can do with some cavalry! So, I intend to - very politely - lobby the government for further resources.
Priority - President's charity
It is also tradition during tonight’s address to introduce the President’s Charity for the year. This year I have chosen the Dementia Australia Research Foundation. – the research arm of Dementia Australia.
Every three seconds, someone in the world develops dementia.
In 2020 there was an estimated 459,000 Australians living with dementia and around 1.6 million people involved in the care of someone with dementia.
Dementia is the second leading cause of death of Australians. It is expected it will become the leading cause of death within the next two years.
It is already the leading cause of death of Australian women. Females account for 64.5% of all dementia related deaths.
Like many Australians, I have witnessed the devastating impact this disease has on those who are living with dementia and those caring for someone living with it.
It is not just a disease of the elderly; it also strikes the young.
My mother developed early onset Alzheimer’s. It was a confronting journey for Mum and for all of us who loved and cared for her.
I thought her disease was like a thief in the night. It robbed her of the very things she needed to make sense of a terminal illness; her speech, her memories, her ability to think.
And it makes other people uncomfortable – so many people living with dementia become very isolated as their world is shrinking.
I want to use my time as President to raise awareness of this misunderstood disease and raise funds for research. I did some work on the Royal Commission into Aged Care, which has reinforced my commitment to this issue.
The inquiry revealed failures in the aged care sector but in particular, it showed me that more than a decade after my mum had died we are still a long way from understanding the causes of dementia. We are still a long way from effective treatments.
Given the tsunami of cases that will hit over the next ten to fifteen years as the baby boomer generation ages and Generation X is not too far behind, this is an area that is crying out for further research.
Because I know that investing in research into dementia will help minimise its impact in the future.
But I remain a glass half full type of optimist.
One year ago, we were told a vaccine for COVID-19 may not even be possible. Today people around the world are rolling up their sleeves and the first group of Australians will soon be receiving the Pfizer vaccine.
The past twelve months have forced us to rethink what is possible in terms of medical research and developing treatments.
Scientists in Australia are currently working hard to delay, prevent and ultimately find a cure for dementia. And they are looking at some very innovative things.
But they need a lot more funding.
To give our scientists a fighting chance against dementia, we need to maintain a level of funding that allows them to carry out their work. To achieve this, we need your help.
I look forward to promoting this important cause in the year ahead.
I would like to conclude tonight by saying again how honoured I feel to be President. And what a privilege it is to represent the solicitors of this state.
I am also very, very excited about the year ahead. I love to be busy!
I know that the progress we make this year will also be a reflection of the great team I have behind me.
And I hope that, many years from now, when the history of this year is written, it will speak of our commitment to the rule of law; of the strong bonds that united us and which helped us endure; and of the brighter days that followed.