LAST WEEK Professor Hal Wootten returned to the University of New South Wales, of which he is the founding Dean of Law, to personally deliver the Law faculty’s annual Hal Wootten Lecture.
Professor Wootten — whose legal career spans the Crown Solicitors Office, the NSW Bar, the NSW Supreme Court, and the Aboriginal Legal Service — tackled the tricky question of whether its possible to live a worthwhile life as a lawyer, or whether it really is just about the prestige and the money.
Wootten said that he became a lawyer really by accident. Growing up in the lower middle class in the Great Depression, his mother engrained in him the value of obtaining “a safe job” and “improving” himself through study. So, by default he studied law: “The alternative was economics, about which I knew even less,” he said.
As a student of law, Wootten said he was given conflicting messages from different lecturers about whether the practice of law could lead to a worthwhile life. From one professor he learned that the law was “an evolving part of society, accountable to it”. From others, he got the impression it was “a tightly controlled profession, ruled by a narrow clique mainly concerned with the welfare of the profession, enforcing its restrictive practices”.
But Wootten’s conclusion, which he impressed on his audience of law students, was that it is up to each individual to make their life in the law worthwhile. “Life in the law was what you made it, not what some miserable lecturer in Legal Ethics reduced it to. It was not about achieving eminence or wealth — but realising oneself,” he said.
However Wootten believes that in recent times the growing emphasis on the pursuit of wealth has threatened the legal profession as well as “the crumbling world around us”. An example of this, Wootten said, is the appearance of large law firms, employing over 1000 lawyers, structured on a business model designed to generate income for equity partners.
“It is destructive when the pursuit of wealth becomes an end in itself, to which the good life must be sacrificed, or refined simply as ‘more’ — more assets, more palatial houses, more luxurious holidays, more powerful or ornate boats, more ostentation,” he said.
The global response to climate change is a devastating example of this mentality, Wootten said.
“Amid mounting evidence that climate change is much faster than predicted, no government has had the courage to take the lead in reducing a country’s carbon input into the stratospheric commons, because it might impinge on the pursuit of wealth,” he said.
Wootten made a telling comparison between the recent Government response to the financial crisis, and its less enthusiastic response to climate change.
“[With climate change] we sit like the frog in the water awaiting our fate as temperatures slowly rise. By contrast, when the water boiled and actual money — not just the future of the world — was at stake, frogs leapt everywhere. Billions that could not be found to tackle climate change appeared from nowhere to bail out delinquent banks,” he said.
His advice to the audience was in pursuing a career in law, don’t let the accumulation of wealth come at the expense of leading a worthwhile, fulfilling life.
“Life is not about the pursuit of wealth, of GNP, of getting more. It is about nurturing and respecting the precious self, and realising its potential to do worthwhile things, no matter how small the nudges you give to the world may seem,” he said.
“Always be true to that self; never surrender it to greed or a cause or ideology. Don’t enter law if you really want to do something else … don’t let the bastards get you down and don’t forget about climate change.”