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Judge Mark Ritter on the treatment of young lawyers, getting to the bench and leading by example

Newly appointed West Australian District Court Judge Mark Ritter SC recently spoke with Lawyers Weekly about improving the treatment of emerging practitioners, as well as reflected on the journey to the bench and how His Honour plans to “illustrate the appropriate way to practice”.

user iconJerome Doraisamy 24 March 2023 The Bar
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Treatment of younger practitioners

Last month, during a special sitting to welcome His Honour to the West Australian District Court, Judge Mark Ritter (appointed in January) called out the bullying, sexual harassment, unreasonable work hours and expectations placed on the youngest members of the profession and floated collective bargaining or unionising as a solution to such scourges.

In conversation with Lawyers Weekly following that welcome address, Ritter J further discussed His Honour’s perceptions on the mistreatment of younger practitioners by certain employers.


“From discussions I have had, the same issues seem to be present, including unreasonable workplace expectations about hours of work, the performance of tasks and billing, bullying (both subtle and not-so-subtle) and harassment, including sexual harassment,” Ritter J detailed.

“Tackling these issues in the new normal I believe to be possible, but will require significant change in some workplace cultures.

“An economic recession with any concomitant tightening of the legal work available and greater over-supply of young graduates could be reasons why the working conditions of young lawyers could worsen.”

Legal employers need a “clear and obviously supported process” for young practitioners to have their complaints heard, Ritter J went on.

“The way in which Chief Justice [Susan Kiefel] handled the complaints of sexual harassment against Justice Heydon was, with respect, an example of the sort of process that can be adopted in dealing with workplace problems faced by young practitioners,” His Honour noted.

Ritter J’s journey to the bench

Since His Honour was appointed, in 1995, to be a part-time judicial registrar of the Industrial Relations Court of Australia, he has felt that he would like to become a judge one day.

“I liked the judicial and analytic processes, including the writing of reasons,” Ritter J recalled.

Speaking about what excites him professionally with his new role, His Honour said that the District Court in Western Australia “is a good place for me given the amount of criminal law the court does”.

“I have always found criminal law and jury trials very interesting. It is an intersection between the state, the accused and victims that is complex but fundamental to our way of living,” Ritter J submitted.

“With respect to civil matters, I am looking forward to the process of working out what the real issues are between the parties, analysing the evidence on the issues and writing a judgment.”

His Honour’s “foundational moments”, over a 37-year legal career prior to judicial appointment, included being an articled clerk at a firm then-called Dwyer Durack and Dunphy in 1985, joining Wickham Chambers as a barrister in 1995, being made a senior counsel, becoming the acting president of the Western Australian Industrial Relations Commission in 2005, and being appointed to conduct two ministerial inquiries, into workplace safety at BHP in the Pilbara and to review the state’s Industrial Relations Act and the Western Australian Industrial Relations Commission, respectively.

Setting the right example

When asked how His Honour sees the appointment to Western Australia’s District Court as an opportunity to drive meaningful change in the legal profession, Ritter J said that, in a practical sense, “the main thing I can do is to try and set an example, in and out of court, to illustrate the appropriate way to practice”.

His Honour touched upon this idea in the recent welcome address, under the phrase, “therapeutic litigation”.

“I want to try and be professional and courteous to litigants, practitioners (and in particular young practitioners), court staff, witnesses and juries in the court. I also want to interact positively with the other judges at the court and all the other people who diligently work behind the scenes to keep it running so professionally,” Ritter J said.

For emerging practitioners — especially those intending to make a positive difference — His Honour said that firstly having a commitment to doing so is critical.

“I think it starts with the basics of being professional and ethical. The practice of law is undoubtedly difficult, but I think [it] can still be practised with humanity and courtesy,” Ritter J opined.

“That does not mean being weak or not pursuing a client’s needs with vigour and determination — but trying to be professional at all times.”

“People can also think outside their immediate clients and workplace in contributing to the wider community or legal education. Lawyers taking positions on educational boards or sporting or other community organisations or perhaps tribunals can also be ways of contributing more widely than in day-to-day work.”

For those professionals who aspire to the bench, Ritter J believes there is an “element of luck or serendipity” in being appointed. 

Such luck includes “being on the radar of the Attorney-General, head of jurisdiction and the others who are consulted about judicial positions, at a particular point in time”.

“There are also many pathways that can lead to judicial appointment — but, in my view, a good grounding for becoming a member of the bench is in being a hard-working and busy counsel in the courts.

“This is a way of showing your diligence, professionalism, ethical qualities and sound understanding of law and practice to the people who recommend or make appointments,” His Honour mused.

Personal reflections on judicial appointment

However, while there is much that excites Ritter J about joining the bench, the emotions surrounding the appointment are also difficult.

“My wife Deborah Milton, herself a very distinguished legal practitioner, suddenly passed away in October 2022, after an unexpected illness of lung cancer. That left a devastating hole in my life, which I doubt will ever be fully filled again,” His Honour explained.

“Deborah should have been part of all the celebrations of my appointment to this position and everything that has followed and will follow. That she cannot be is simply unfair to a wonderful woman. Deborah was a major part of what led to my appointment, yet [she] is not here to enjoy what it might bring.”

Ritter J does not think, he noted, that he could have had the opportunity to be appointed to the bench without the love and support of his wife.

Otherwise, for His Honour, the opportunity to become a District Court judge came “at a very good time”.

“After Deborah’s passing, I think I needed a new direction in my career, something different. And this is a very good job that I am lucky to have, and I am working with some very able and generous people, including my associate and usher who, fairly soon, should both be legal graduates,” Ritter J concluded.