The Law Council of Australia will play a decisive role in 2010 - especially on the expected reform of the legal profession. Angela Priestley speaks to 2010 president Glenn Ferguson
The next 12 months will be a decisive era for the Law Council of Australia. Change is afoot in the legal profession, and the Law Council is set to heed its own call to represent the ideal that the profession must retain its own independence and ultimately be responsible for the rules and regulations that govern it.
Such cards will play out in the hands of Glenn Ferguson, a Sunshine Coast lawyer, the former president of LAWASIA and the Law Society of Queensland, principal of Ferguson Canon Lawyers and now the Law Council's new president.
His predecessor, John Corcoran, made steady headway on reforms to the national profession through 2009, having extensively represented the Law Council and its constituent bodies on what such reform should look like. His leadership culminated in the Law Council's response to the Government's Legal Profession Taskforce's Regulatory Framework paper in late 2009.
In 2010, Ferguson awaits the draft legislation before potentially leading law societies and bar associations in the conclusion of what national reform will look like under new legislation to govern the entire profession.
"Communication is our priority," he says. "We need to make sure that we get the message across and advocate where things are wrong ... Out of all this, it has to be an independent profession."
Ferguson adds that after so much debate regarding the reform, the wheels are finally in motion for changes to be initiated. "It was such a big issue that it's taken a long time to get into sprint mode," he says. "But I think we are there now and everyone is working well and I want to ensure that everyone from our constituent bodies has their say."
While national reform will consume much of Ferguson's time through 2010, he is adamant that such a focus will not draw attention from other fundamental issues facing the legal profession.
Meeting the needs of rural Australia
Close to Ferguson's heart - given his experience practising on Queensland's Sunshine Coast - is just how to comprehend and deal with the dire shortage of lawyers in rural and regional Australia.
The true extent of the shortage - as well as the lack of succession planning structures in place for lawyers in regional and rural Australia - was made clear through the Law Council's Rural, Regional and Remote Areas Lawyers survey. The study found that 42 per cent of legal practitioners in regional and rural areas do not intend to practice law in five years time, while 40 per cent of those surveyed reported that their practice does not have enough lawyers to support their client base.
"We all knew the problem was there, but we never quite knew the extent of it - some of those statistics are frightening," says Ferguson.
The research is what it is, but transferring such knowledge into decisive action is a different matter altogether and one that Ferguson admits the Law Council still needs to make more headway on. He sees an opportunity in talking to other professions that have faced the shortage of their members in regional and rural areas - such as the medical profession - and seeing if any programs that may have assisted can be adapted for the legal profession.
He also notes that it might be the culmination of small steps that will ultimately have the biggest impact in addressing the issue - such as the implementation of better technology for practical legal training, assistance in offering airfares for lawyers flying in and out of regional Australia and even starting conversations with local school students on the potential impact that their pursuing a legal career could offer their community.
"I don't think that a lot of communities really understand at the end of the day just what a lawyer does, so even just getting into schools will help a little - especially through Legal Studies - in explaining what a lawyer does and the advantages of what you can do if you get qualified," says Ferguson
Meanwhile, Ferguson says he will also seek to explore initiatives for helping more Indigenous Australians and Torres Straight Islanders to pursue a career in law - initiatives he believes may also assist with the shortage of lawyers in regional and rural areas.
Expanding into the future of Asia
Another area Ferguson is keen to explore at the Law Council is working to open up international markets for Australian lawyers. He has a soft spot for Asia, a passion ignited through the work he has undertaken in and out of the region as part of his practice and also as part of his 2009 presidency of LAWASIA. Ferguson says he has seen the amazing work that Australian lawyers are already undertaking in Asia, and is certain that Asia is the next great expansion base for Australian law firms.
"I'm always amazed that in somewhere like China you will be speaking to the lawyers from the Magic Circle firms in the UK only to realise that many of the young lawyers are Australian," he says, noting just how qualified Australian lawyers are to get in and make a difference across Asia.
"The future for Australian legal market expansion is Asia ... "It (Asia) is a natural fit for Australia and it's very important that we continue relations, [so it] is one of the important things for the Law Council to ensure those linkages," he says.
Ferguson says he's looking at 2010 with optimism but also some trepidation - and is prepared for any new grey hairs he might encounter by the end of it all. "I'm wondering what I'll be like by the end of the year," he says.