Stuart Westgarth's journey in law has taken him from Bathurst to the island of Kiribati, and then to a partnership in large law and now running the NSW Law Society. He talks to Stephanie Quine about learning from others and making his mark.
CALM AND CONSIDERED: NSW Law Society president Stuart Westgarth is recognised as a proactive and committed leader in the legal profession.
Unlike many, however, the conclusion of studies did not coincide with interview after interview for a highly sought-after graduate position; he knocked on his great uncle Dudley's law firm door instead.
"I knocked on the door and said, 'I'm your country cousin. Can I have a job?" recounts Westgarth.
Having never met the firm's senior partner (his cousin John Westgarth), nepotism nonetheless prevailed and he was given a position at Dudley Westgarth and Co (DWS) in Sydney, where he stayed from 1973 to 2008.
"That's more than the lifespan of most people I know these days," he says.
A great grandson of the founding solicitor of the NSW Law Society, George Charles Westgarth, and a grandson of Scone solicitor George Mansfield Westgarth, he was certainly not the first in his family to follow a path in law.
Growing up in Bathurst, Westgarth relished his city role and says he was well mentored by a number of senior partners throughout his career, including his cousin John, who he remembers as a "very solid and sensible person".
"He didn't engage in emotional outbursts, he was very controlled and he had the most brilliant, economical writing style. He could express complex ideas in a paragraph," says Westgarth.
Starting out in commercial advisory work and later moving into banking and finance litigation, Westgarth says he admired such skills and strove to emulate it in work he describes as "complex and analytical, involving a lot of technical issues and not too much emotion".
|'In Conversation with Stuart Westgarth': Click here to watch our video interview with the NSW Law Society President, as he discusses working overseas, his legal mentors, and tips for legal leadership.|
"People are different, you can't be a personality that's not natural to you," says Westgarth. "I tried to observe people and pick up what I thought I could take on myself."
While experiences amongst family were valuable, Westgarth says it was on various international sojourns where he was taught a thing or two about the law and life.
In the late 1980s, Westgarth found himself in a bamboo hut on the tiny Pacific island nation of Kiribati, observing a grass skirt and sandal-wearing minster for trade with whom he was about to negotiate.
"I thought, 'This guy's not going to be very sophisticated, because he's wearing a grass skirt' ... but he spoke with the most beautiful Oxford accent. He'd been at Oxford for three years and had a degree in arts or geography ... and was a really sophisticated person," says Westgarth.
The pair ended up setting up the third ever company on the island register.
"It's funny how you shouldn't judge people by their appearances"
Stuart Westgarth, president, NSW Law Society
"It's funny how you shouldn't judge people by their appearances," says Westgarth, who recalls it as one of the most memorable transactions of his career.
Ten years prior to his Kiribati experience, Westgarth was sent to Norfolk Island to negotiate a mortgage. When the local - and only - solicitor on the island told Westgarth he must go to the site and "ceremoniously" be handed a clod of earth in order to acquire a mortgage over the land for his client, Westgarth assumed he was pulling his leg. But he was wrong.
"I did some research and found out he was probably right," he says, explaining that the system of conveyancing on Norfolk Island at the time was that which existed in 19th century England and did indeed involve handling dirt.
While neither island transaction ended up being successful, Westgarth says both experiences were immensely valuable.
"[Overseas travel] is very beneficial for lawyers, because it's a way of seeing how other people do things and whether we can pick up beneficial aspects of the way they go about their business," he says.
An appetite for travel and learning has persisted throughout Westgarth's career but, after a stint in a London firm where he satisfied his interest in maritime law, Westgarth eventually took up a partnership at DWC.
By 1994, DWC had merged to become Corrs Chamber Westgarth (CCW) and Westgarth was managing partner of the firm for over four years - an experience he admits was "quite demanding" and stressful.
"I'm pleased that I did it in the sense that I got satisfaction out of it ... [but] I was pleased when it was over too," he says.
"[Overseas travel] is very beneficial for lawyers, because it's a way of seeing how other people do things and whether we can pick up beneficial aspects of the way they go about their business"
In 2008, Westgarth finally left the firm at which he had worked for over 25 years. He went on to join HWL Ebsworth, and says that "a very persuasive managing partner", a desire to be refreshed and a strong banking and finance client base at HWL were the reasons behind his move.
Westgarth now heads HWL's national litigation group, although he says 90 per cent of his time is tied up with the NSW Law Society.
When he was appointed to a casual role on the Society's council in 2007, Westgarth says he happily accepted it because it coincided with his desire to "speak up" for the profession. Four year later, he took up the position of president - and this is a role he has since used to try and affect change and tackle some of the big issues in law.
"I thought there had been excessive and unjustified criticism about lawyers and the legal profession and I thought the Law Society - given its strong and long-standing reputation as a solid and impartial communicator on related issues - really needed to reenergise itself and be much more on the front foot," he says.
When strong criticism was made about hourly billing by noted legal figures such as the former NSW chief justice, James Spigelman, Westgarth says he encouraged a balanced discussion by defending its benefits alongside its deficiencies.
"We need to not take the criticism in a timid and reactive way, but rather reject it if it's wrong and be open about that, or accept it and deal with it if it is correct," he says.
He has also made his views about national professional reform known, and while acknowledging the potential benefits, also questioned whether uniformity alone was a desirable goal.
Women in law has also been a focal point for Westgarth and, when it became apparent to him that an average of 20 per cent of women were principles or partners in law firms and that many were leaving law prematurely, he made the advancement of women in the profession a priority. This culminated in the launch earlier this year of a "thought leadership" initiative aimed at encouraging the advancement and retention of women in the profession.
Although his term as president will come to a close at the end of this year, Westgarth says he will continue to take an active interest in the affairs of the profession and defend it where he sees necessary.
Though modesty would perhaps prevent him from admitting it, Westgarth is also known as someone who has mentored and inspired many people within the law through his proactive and considered leadership and commitment to the profession, and this is something he hopes to continue.
"I'm lucky I've got a wife who runs the family and I can devote my time and attention to my career," he says.
And with four children of his own - one practising as an in-house counsel and another in her final year of Arts/Law at the University of Sydney - it seems that the law genes will live on in the Westgarth family.
>> Watch out video interview with Stuart Westgarth as he discusses his career highlights, including his interesting work overseas in the UK, US and Norfolk and Kiribatis Islands, his legal mentors and the value of learning from others, and his tips for legal leadership.