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Thrills, scandal and diversity celebrated

Thrills, scandal and diversity celebrated

Scandalous divorces, expensive leasing arrangements signed just prior to recessions, and encounters with "flamboyant" lawyers over multi-million tax bills were fondly reminisced as Freehills…

Scandalous divorces, expensive leasing arrangements signed just prior to recessions, and encounters with "flamboyant" lawyers over multi-million tax bills were fondly reminisced as Freehills celebrated its history last night (5 April).

High-profile current and former members of Freehills celebrated the launch of Suzanne Welborn's new book, Freehills - A history of Australia's first national law firm, at the firm's Sydney office in Martin Place.

The book traces the development of the firm from 1838 until 2000, when the firm changed its name from Freehill Hollingdale & Page to Freehills and became a single partnership.

"So much courage has run throughout the history of this firm," former journalist and author Welborn told Lawyers Weekly. "It is such a wonderful story, with its themes of courage, enterprise and intelligence fascinating me."

Welborn said that particularly under the stewardship of Brian Page, who was a partner for nearly 50 years with the firm before retiring in 1988, the firm championed an open employment policy that did not discriminate against Catholics or Jews who might have had their career paths blocked at other firms.

'The firm would not be here today without him," said Welborn. "He was a wonderful man, charming and intelligent, and he would hire people on ability."

Page died at the age of 96 in 2008.

The book deals with many interesting episodes in Australia's legal history, and in particular, the story of how the firm came to represent the former Attorney-General and High Court Justice Lionel Murphy on charges that he attempted to pervert the course of justice. Freehills partner Gary Kelly told Murphy not to give evidence as a witness in the successful appeal case in the NSW Court of Appeal and he was eventually acquitted.

The book also tells of how the firm's first Vietnamese clients were sourced after a partner heard a conversation between two disgruntled businessmen in a bar, and a cautionary tale about how alliances with overseas firms can become costly exercises.

In the 1990s Freehills had ties with Indonesian firm Makarim & Taira. Freehills was left with a multi-million tax bill after it severed ties with the firm.

Welborn writes that when senior partner Martin Hudson flew to Jakarta to sort out the problem, "a flamboyant partner from Makirim & Taira threatened Hudson with unspecified consequences if he and the firm's resident partners did not do as they were told".

Freehills paid the tax bill.

Speakers at the book launch included Welborn, Freehills partner and board chairman Robert Nicholson, and one of the firm's early female partners, Rebecca Davies, who was appointed to the partnership in 1983 and remains a consultant.

"I hope this firm remains one that is prepared to take a risk sometimes without 5000 business plans behind it," she said.

The book was officially launched by David Gonski, the chair of Coca-Cola Amatil and the Australian Securities Exchange, and a Westfield Group director, who was appointed a partner at Freehills at the age of 25 in 1979. He left the firm in 1986.

"It is an honour to launch the book," Gonski said, before adding with slight tongue-in-cheek: "It is a privilege to be with a firm that accepted me as a partner".

During his address, Gonski made the point that lawyers and law firms should not be afraid to delve into other areas and be "much more than the commodity of the law".

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