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Human rights go hand in hand with business sense

Human rights go hand in hand with business sense

The co-existence of commercial acumen and social conscience should not be viewed as an incompatible skill set for corporate lawyers, writes Tracie Stewart.

At university orientations, graduations, and on the day we are admitted to practice, justice is avowed as the foundation of the work of the legal profession. However, in practice, the pursuit of social justice is often misconstrued as exclusively for lawyers who desire a career in human rights.

While corporate firms must operate as businesses, executive management and practitioners must not blindly focus on profitability as a path to commercial success. Human rights are an objective threshold and should be advocated by those within and outside of the field alike.

The culture within today’s firms may suggest otherwise. Despite mounting pro bono commitments, there is a widespread but skewed belief among recruitment panels that an expression of compassion for human rights is a sign of commercial weakness for the corporate lawyer.

In interview situations, candidates with these balanced interests commonly report being questioned about whether they are compatible with commercial practice. Interviewers have reportedly asked candidates with bewildered expressions: "Is your human rights advocacy work just something on the side? How will you ensure those values don’t conflict?"

Through mentoring, well-intentioned senior corporate lawyers continue to share stories with young practitioners and law students of sitting on law firm recruitment panels and baseless doubt being cast about whether candidates with dual interests in commercial law and human rights would stick around. Never mind the transferrable skills, candidates are told.

This unfortunate discourse suggests that an interest in human rights must remain the corporate lawyer’s best kept secret – at least until one reaches the senior ranks – as though the interest may be a real deal-breaker for a job opportunity or may unduly portray the young lawyer as a commercial liability to the respective corporate law firm. Remove every skerrick of human rights interest on your CV, candidates are told.

However, often some of the most talented corporate lawyers hold these dual interests, even if the interests don’t always blossom until their later careers when they actively pursue them. Take, for example, Julian Burnside AO QC, who successfully practices in commercial litigation but is also renowned for his commendable human rights advocacy.

Why are alternative interests such as sport encouraged, yet an interest in human rights advocacy viewed as conflicting with commercial practice? Are commercial lawyers incapable of acting in the firm’s commercial interests, with the additional consideration of human rights?

The benefits of supporting a corporate lawyer’s interest in human rights include the creation of a strong foundation for commercial success. While not all corporate law firms have the budget or resources to provide pro bono services, encouraging lawyers to pursue these interests is fundamental in maintaining trust between corporate law firms and the community.

Even if lawyers pursue these interests in their own time, the community appreciates engagement and relish in the fact that firm recruits are helping out. The goodwill and reputation benefits are limitless, with a collaborative culture also fostered where practitioners feel their time is not entirely subjugated by work that solely enhances the interests of the firm.

If not viewed as antithetical to commercial considerations, but as an additional consideration, human rights as a discourse can be beneficial to the work of a corporate firm. These considerations seep through all areas of practice and are duly considered by the judiciary when imposing minimum standards when reaching a verdict and imposing penalties.

In return for the privilege to practice, the community rightly expects that the legal profession will acknowledge responsibilities which override the considerations of financial reward. As eminently stated by former Chief Justice Murray Gleeson: "The conferring of privilege and the acceptance of responsibility are two sides of the one coin."

Tracie Stewart is a final-year law student at La Trobe University.

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Human rights go hand in hand with business sense
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