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Legal Leaders: Quest for justice - Arnold Bloch Leibler's Mark Leibler

Legal Leaders: Quest for justice - Arnold Bloch Leibler's Mark Leibler

While establishing himself as one of Australia's leading tax lawyers, writes Briana Everett, Mark Leibler AC has devoted much of his life to social justice and the rights of Indigenous…

While establishing himself as one of Australia's leading tax lawyers, writes Briana Everett, Mark Leibler AC has devoted much of his life to social justice and the rights of Indigenous Australians.

DEVOTION TO SOCIAL JUSTICE: Mark Leibler has devoted much of his career to improving the society around him / Photograph by Kristoffer Paulsen
When Mark Liebler AC, senior partner of Arnold Bloch Leibler, says he became a lawyer to make the world a better place he's not being facetious. The Hebrew phrase tikkun olam, which effectively means 'repairing the world', has been the inspiration underlying many of Leibler's life choices, including his decision to become a lawyer and "do some good in society" - and since 1966, when he first joined Arnold Bloch Leibler (ABL), he has done exactly that.

"I was born here in Australia but my parents emigrated here three or four years beforehand from Belgium. My mother's parents ended up in Auschwitz," says Leibler, revealing where his life-long dedication to social justice stems from. "My parents were imbued with a very strong sense of justice with an emphasis on the importance of education."

Presented with the choice of becoming an academic, going to the Bar, or becoming a solicitor, Leibler ultimately decided he wanted to "operate in the real world" -and ended up as a lawyer. "To me, human interaction and solving practical problems, in a practical way, was important," he says.

Apart from a brief period spent at Yale University to obtain a Master of Laws with honours, Leibler has spent his entire career with ABL ever since he completed his articles with the firm in the mid-60s, becoming a partner in 1969.

Knowing your audience

Achieving change has always been an important focus during Leibler's legal career. However, one lesson he's learned since his younger days is the importance of relationships within the community and how crucial interaction with the community is in achieving change.

"Lots of lawyers like making big submissions to government which end up in boxes and never come out," he says. "My focus has always been to get some sensible change but focusing on particular areas where I believe what I have in mind to do is in fact doable ... I've come to the conclusion that the interaction is more important than the black letter of the law."

And knowing who, rather than what, you're dealing with is an important part of being a successful lawyer and leader, according to Leibler.

"Of course you need to know your law - any lawyer needs to be competent - but at the end of the day what's written in statute, or in the textbook, or in the case is impacted by administrators, by regulators who have their own procedures and let things go. You need to understand that and know the people you're dealing with," he advises.

"I've come to the conclusion that the interaction is more important than the black letter of the law."

Of course, as Liebler admits, it helps if you know the right people, in the right places, at the right time.

"I've known the top people at the tax office for some decades now and I've known senior politicians, prime ministers, treasurers over many, many years. Obviously that's been helpful in terms of trying to get things done," he says. "You've got to have good relationships with regulators, with politicians and with opinion makers."

The energy Liebler has put into building relationships throughout his career is, in part, thanks to his mentor and late partner, Arnold Bloch, who taught Leibler a very simple but valuable lesson.

"One of the first lessons he taught me - and I try to emphasise this to my partners, senior associates and lawyers - is when you get a call from a client, try and return it the same day," says Leibler. "It's what you call service and it's very important."

The biggest challenge yet

The impetus for Leibler's legal career - his Jewish background and dedication to tikkum olam - has also been the inspiration behind his ongoing pursuit for social justice and the rights of Indigenous Australians.

"I suppose because of all the suffering the Jewish people [endured] for the last couple of thousand years, I became particularly empathetic to our Indigenous Australians who live in conditions which are worse than in third world countries," explains Leibler, whose dedication to the community and Indigenous affairs saw him appointed a Companion in the General Division of the Order of Australia in 2005.

"All of that impacted on me and I figured, if you're going to do some good in society, lawyers have the capacity to do that."

Appointed to the board of Reconciliation Australia when it was established in 2000, Leibler became co-chair of the not-for-profit organisation in 2005 and only stepped down in February this year. His retirement from the board of Reconciliation Australia comes after his December 2010 appointment by Prime Minister Julia Gillard as co-chair, with professor Patrick Dodson, of the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians.

The expert panel has the task of developing options to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution and to help generate community support for the proposal. In developing options, the panel is considering a range of views and will propose options for change which are deemed to have the best chance of success at a referendum - which the Australian Government is committed to holding within the current term or at the next federal election.

"Probably the most difficult thing I've ever taken on is what I'm in the middle of at the moment and that's being co-chair of this panel. We've got to report back [to the Government] by the 1December and it's very, very difficult," he says.

Despite the challenges associated with his significant contribution to the Jewish community, which includes his position as national chairman of the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council and as life chairman of the United Israel Appeal of Australia, Leibler says his involvement in Indigenous affairs has proved to be the most difficult undertaking of his career.

"I think governments are, more or less, at long-last on the same page in terms of what needs to be done," he says. "But there are real question marks over whether or not the bureaucracy, at a grass-roots level, can deliver."

As he tackles his biggest challenge yet fighting for Indigenous rights, Leibler still manages to maintain his full-time commitment as a senior partner at ABL - albeit with a little less sleep.

"I do a full day's work absolutely - more than that," he says. "Where I suffer is my sleep. I'm very much involved."

The key to juggling the growing number of things on his plate, he says, is organisation.

"I find that if you're very well organised, it's amazing what you can pack into a day - and at night. I'm working every night basically. My lifestyle balance is probably not ideal but it's a result of my choice."

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