Colleagues have said goodbye to Keith Steele - their mentor, leader and friend - after the former Freehills chairman died unexpectedly on 7 June.
Keith Steele's early life gave an indication of his impact on commercial law in Australia. He was a Girdlers Scholar, an honour given to just one New Zealander at his time, and a Law (Honours) graduate of Cambridge University.
Prior to joining Freehills in 1977, Steele spent four years with the Crown Solicitor's office in Auckland, advising New Zealand government agencies as an advocate in criminal prosecutions and civil actions. According to Freehills consultant and former colleague Kevin Broadley, his cross-Tasman courtship with Margaret L'Estrange led Steele to make the move to Sydney, where he consequently needed to find a job.
"He was interviewed by a number of partners, including me," remembers Broadley. "We were all very impressed with him and we offered him a job with me in litigation, which he accepted. He was very successful as a young litigator."
Having become partner in 1980, Steele built up his litigation practice and became involved in some of the firm's biggest cases. Later, he was appointed Sydney chairman and senior partner of the firm from 1997 to 2001, and played a leadership role in the national integration of Freehills in 2000. Broadley says the integration was a big challenge for the firm but it was one that Steele was passionate about achieving. "It sounds easy to do, but it was difficult, and Keith expended a huge amount of energy and effort putting it all together until ultimately, in 2000, we finally achieved a fully integrated national firm."
Steele continued as head of litigation nationally from 2005 to 2008, where he maintained his position on the firm's executive and led a group of 65 partners, 230 lawyers and 150 other staff.
As well as this, he played an instrumental role in establishing the firm's pro bono program in Sydney. In 1992 he played a lead role in establishing the Shopfront Youth Legal Centre to serve homeless young people in Kings Cross. He also served as director of the Public Interest Law Clearing House for 10 years from its inception
Steele is remembered as a hard worker, but also a man of good times. "When he and his team had had a successful win in a case he loved to go to Phillip's Foote, which is a pub in The Rocks," says Broadley. And there were plenty of successful cases to celebrate.
"We had many happy Friday afternoons at Phillip's Foote celebrating the latest win or the latest wedding or birth or whatever, and he loved sitting at the top of a table in a room or the beer garden at Phillip's Foote with the young people and enjoying lunch over a drink or two."
Managing partner Peter Butler described him as the "modern colossus in this firm," noting Steele's role as a prime architect in the Freehills litigation group. "He mentored literally scores of people here, both partners and non-partners," says Butler. "He was liked and admired by every single person here. He was an amazing, loyal friend."
Describing Steele as a man of strength, morals, courage and friendship, who was devoted to his family, Butler says his loss came as a huge shock to the firm. "He was our rock - what he stood for defined the very best parts of Freehills," he says. "I know I speak for so many people when I say we are going to miss him terribly. He was a great friend, a great mentor. He had absolutely outstanding values and he was a complete gentleman."
As well as authoring a number of works, Steele also served as a member of the Administrative Law Committee of the NSW Law Society, the Law Council of Australia and as Chairman of the Customs Law Committee.
He was a member of the International Trade and Business Committee of the Law Council. He was a past chairman of the sub-committee on trade for the International Bar Association (IBA) and a past vice-chairman of Committee O (international litigation) of the IBA.
Steele was married with three children. He died on 7 June.
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