The managing partner of Salvos Legal talks to Stephanie Quine about founding the world’s first self-sustaining humanitarian law firm.
Luke Geary was ready to pack it in after his first year of university
He’d moved to Canberra to study an arts/law degree and enjoy the spoils of campus life away from his Bondi home. But that same year his mother, who had persuaded him to consider law over journalism, tragically died. Geary soon found himself back in Sydney going through a difficult time.
Disillusioned with the idea of studying for the next four years, he enrolled in the army, passed the interviews and exams, and was just about to go to the next stage when fate stepped in, in the form of a small sugary parcel.
“I went to dinner with some friends and I got a fortune cookie that said: ‘you would make a fine lawyer for no detail escapes your attention’, so on the whim of that I gave it another year,” he says.
That year turned into a decade as Geary fell in love with the law.
Beyond his years
Sleep-ins worthy of a uni student and late-night bar shifts at the Bondi Hotel were soon replaced by early risings and a clerkship at local Bondi firm James A. Moustacas & Co.
“It was back in the days where you could appear in court a lot easier than you can now by asking for leave,” says Geary, who recalls the very practical experience he got at a young age.
On one occasion, Geary was in the Supreme Court running an injunction application in a duty judge matter when the judge stopped halfway through proceedings and asked: “How old are you? … Are you admitted?”
“I think I was about 20 or 21 years old and I said, ‘your honour, I started by asking for your leave’, and he got a bit flustered and looked down at his associate … and he let me continue,” says Geary.
Someone else who was surprised to encounter him was Daren Curry. A lawyer at Sydney firm McLachlan Chilton at the time, Curry came up against Geary’s tenacious litigating skills when the pair acted for opposing parties.
“He impressed me so much I thought he was much more senior than he was and I was shocked when I learned he was only a junior lawyer,” says Curry.
At 22, Geary was asked to join McLachlan Chilton, a firm that advised the “big bad insurance companies” in building law and acted in various cases for the government rescue package for HIH and FAI insurance.
Geary, Curry and their team moved across to national law firm Mills Oakley in 2006, where the work was similar: litigation for insurance companies on construction disputes. Geary also ran a wide variety of commercial litigation disputes for various clients when he was made a partner, aged 28.
Pro bono pioneer
The view he had then from level 34 of the glossy Met Centre is slightly different to the one he has now.
Hiding in a quiet street in Surry Hills, the cream brick building housing Salvos Legal is largely nondescript. Bar-shrouded windows and an intercom fixed to a locked security door seem at odds with the bustling legal practice that thrives within.
Inside, a dim hallway leads into a small, mostly open-plan office; a modest home for the headquarters of an organisation that made global history in 2010.
Leading the bustle is Geary. He appears suddenly in the hallway entrance then rushes off again saying: “I’ll be with you in one minute”.
When we sit down for the interview, surrounded by piles of case-files and folders crammed into shelves, Geary can’t help but laugh at the man yelling obscenities from below the tiny barred window.
This is a law firm with a twist. In November 2010 it became a ‘first-of-its-kind’ commercial legal practice. Charging market rates for its speciality legal services, Salvos Legal funnels the profits straight back into its humanitarian arm – a free legal program for society’s most needy.
“We give them the same level of service as if they were the richest person we’d come across as a client and that doesn’t matter if it’s a one-day case or a one-month case,” says Geary.
The fees generated by non-controversial property and commercial advice and transactional work for big clients like Transport NSW, Anglicare, Commonwealth Bank and Colliers International, allow Salvos Legal Humanitarian to serve in more than 260 free cases every fortnight.
A combination of advice work, full-time representation and ongoing assistance is provided on a pro bono basis in the areas of criminal law, family law, debt, housing, Centrelink, migration and refugee law.
“It’s a lawyer’s mecca,” says humanitarian partner Rizpah Jarvis, who previously worked with Geary at Mills Oakley, “it lets us use all our legal skills to make a big difference.”
“It’s amazing,” agrees Geary, “you see literally transformations of people’s lives.”
Last month he helped a Persian couple, whose lives in Iran were in danger because of their beliefs, gain protection visas.
“They can now practice their religion without fear or concern and they can do it with complete freedom,” he says.
More than fixing the legal issue – which is often one of a whole host of problems for disadvantaged people – Salvos Legal connects clients with the full range of services they may need, including Salvos’ crisis accommodation, financial counselling, employment assistance and drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs.
“I’ve seen people, who have nothing [in their minds] but the thought of drugs going into their arm or alcohol into their throat and committing horrible criminal offences, having their lives transformed,” says Geary.
“In terms of job satisfaction, I find it greater [than commercial work] in terms of an outcome, to be able to observe those other elements being worked on.”
Soldier of justice
On first impressions, Geary comes across much like the organisation he leads: humble, straight shooting, practical and endlessly committed to using the law to help the disenfranchised.
While his remarkable work ethic has been recognised formally, the 2010 Anzac of the Year, and the winner of the Pro Bono Award at the Lawyers Weekly Australian Law Awards last year has no air of self-importance.
“Luke lifted everyone around him [with] his great sense of humour … he never took himself too seriously, which I think is still one his best qualities,” says Curry.
Geary could easily have enjoyed success in the commercial world but that’s not what drives him.
When he established Courtyard Legal, a free legal service, in a small Auburn hall in 2005, he didn’t quite know what a social enterprise was.
He would work a full day at Mills Oakley, travel to Auburn to see clients at night, then be the first one back in the office in the morning, says Curry.
“I always thought Luke would either end up either on the High Court one day or doing what he’s doing now; I knew we wouldn’t keep him forever. He’s built differently to most people.”
In the past year, Salvos Legal has gone from a firm still finding its feet to one that is fully self-sustaining.
“Currently we have a great level of enthusiasm, which hasn’t waned … because [partners] don’t own the value of the firm, everyone does and that’s a pretty empowering thing [for staff],”says Geary.
Geary now lives in Kingsgrove with his wife Heather and their baby son Jake. He credits the Salvation Army for the rare opportunity to turn ad hoc pro bono work into a more sophisticated full-time gig, but it’s unlikely Salvos Legal would exist today without his vision.
In the future, Geary sees himself doing a lot more rolling around on the floor with Jake. He can see Salvos Legal operating right around Australia and overseas (he’s already had talks with Canada, the US, England and New Zealand), and other blue-chip clients following those that have been “trailblazers” in trusting the firm in its infancy.
He may not have the equity carrot or the harbour view, but for Geary the rewards of giving selflessly to the service of the public are something money can’t buy.
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