LAST WEEK young lawyers gathered in the Sydney offices of Colin Biggers & Paisley to hear Justice Ruth McColl of the Supreme Court of NSW Court of Appeal deliver the NSW Young Lawyers “2008 State of the Profession Address”.
Justice McColl, the NSW Young Lawyers patron for 2008, compared the current state of the legal profession to that of 1981, when the NSW Law Reform Commission was nearing the end of a six-year investigation into the structure, organisation and regulation of the legal profession.
“It was tolerably apparent that the winds of change were flowing through the corridors of the legal profession,” she said. At the time, Justice McColl said, issues that the profession now takes for granted — the requirement to give clients an estimate of costs, the system of investigating complaints against legal practitioners, the right of senior counsel to appear without junior counsel and the liability of legal professionals for negligence — were still up in the air.
However, following the Commission’s findings, and the passing of the first, and successive Legal Profession Acts these matters have been clarified so that today virtually none of them are in issue. “These changes went a long way to making the profession more accountable to its clients and the community and more transparent,” McColl said.
Law firm advertising, which at the time was completely banned, was also the subject of considerable debate in the early 1980’s, McColl said.
The Commission’s recommendation to permit advertising was taken up despite vehement opposition from the NSW Bar Association and Law Society of NSW, which saw advertising as an “affront” to the profession. However this newfree-for-all position, McColl explained, soon became the subject of its own controversy, thanks to some overly enthusiastic personal injuries lawyers.
“Once permitted [advertising] was embraced by apparent glee by members of the profession … but solicitors advertising their personal injuries services on the ceiling of the hospital lift was seen as a step too far,” she said. For good reason, she said, the ability of legal professionals to freely advertise has since been reigned in.
McColl also observed that since 1981 the profession has become more “outwardly focused” and engaged with the community. Going forward, she believes that the profession will become more concerned with climate change litigation, and depending on the outcome of the “charter of rights” debate, human rights issues.
McColl went on to acknowledge that a number of features of the profession today were excellent, namely the standard of professionalism, the standard of advocacy and the level of pro bono work undertaken by lawyers.
However she believes that a number of cultural issues remain unaddressed — the most notable being depression and the position of women and indigenous people in the profession.
Citing the recent study by the Brain and Mind Research Institute, McColl noted that the rate of depression amongs lawyers is four times that of the general population, but she acknowledged that the issue has also not being ignored by the profession. However, while the profession had set up groups to support both barristers and solicitors suffering from depression, she believes it is up to individual sufferers to take advantage of this support.
“The success of [these organisations] depends on people acknowledging they have a problem, and then being prepared to do something about it,” she said.
In terms of the position of women in the profession, McColl said that she was disappointed to see that while the proportion of the profession of women in the profession continues to rise, the pay gap between full time female and male solicitors remains.
In the Federal Court, McColl noted that only 5.8 per cent of appearances by senior counsel are female, and her own personal experiences at the Court of Appeal had reflected a similar trend.
“In the five and a half years on the Court of Appeal the disproportion of women and men is staggering,” she said.
In closing, McColl told the young lawyer audience that they now had the chance to address these issues to ensure the law was accessible to everyone
“Don’t squander this opportunity,” she advised.