The seven most important things a young lawyer should know

The following is an edited extract of remarks given by the Hon John Chaney SC, Chair of The Piddington Society, delivered at Meet the Grads on 19 January 2019.

Meet the Grads offers an opportunity for members of the legal profession to meet the Piddington Justice Project graduates.

I was originally asked to speak on “the five most important things a young lawyer should know”, but the when I wrote down a few ideas I came up with the following seven things.

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The Hon John Chaney delivering these remarks on 19 January 2019.

1. The right to practice law comes with obligations

The privilege of practising of law comes with rights and responsibilities.

Section 12 of the Legal Profession Act 2008 makes it an offence for a person to engage in legal practice unless permitted to do so by the Act.

Why should that be so?

The answer lies in the role of the legal profession in the political and social fabric of a Western democracy. The judiciary is the third arm of government. When a lawyer is admitted to practice, they become an officer of the Supreme Court. So much is specifically prescribed in section 29 of the Legal Profession Act.

Our society depends on a strong independent legal profession. While the courts sit at the top of the profession, they depend on an efficient and effective functioning of lawyers playing their role in the administration of the law. That is not confined to litigious work, but extends to all forms of legal work.

So, when you get admitted to practice, you become subject to rules of professional conduct and a disciplinary system all of which are designed to ensure that lawyers play their proper role in the administration of law, the public is protected from inadequate legal representation, and public confidence in the legal profession is maintained.

All that may seem trite, but it is important that it be borne in mind in everything you do as a lawyer. If you remain mindful that you enjoy a privileged position in the community by reason of your admission to practice law, and your primary duties are to the court and to the administration of law, most of the questions or dilemmas that confront you in your practice can be answered relatively easily.

One of the primary obligations you undertake when you are admitted to practice is to put your duty to the court and your duty to your client before your own interests.

The law is a service industry. A lawyer’s role is to serve the administration of justice and their client.

The law recognises the lawyer client relationship as one of the clearest examples of a fiduciary relationship.

2. Honesty to your client and to the court is an absolute requirement

The proper role of the legal profession is undermined if there is any dishonest conduct by a lawyer.

Misleading the court is a disciplinary offence which commonly results in striking off. Likewise misleading a client is also dealt with seriously.

I am sure that no lawyers, when they begin their career, would countenance any possibility that they would ever mislead the court or their client. But it happens more than you would expect, as my experience in the legal disciplinary jurisdiction of the SAT demonstrated.

Lawyers get into trouble when they tell what might be thought to be “little white lies” that grow until they are uncontrollable.

For example, a lawyer may tell their client that they will get some task completed by a certain time. Work pressures build up, and the lawyer does not get around to undertaking that particular task in the time promised. But then the client rings to find out if the job has been done. The lawyer knows that the job will only take a couple of hours and thinks that she can get it done pretty quickly, so rather than disappoint the client, she says that the job is done and she will provide it to the client the next day. Something then comes up and the lawyer is unable to do the work.

The client rings again and asks for the work, and the lawyer has nowhere to go except to admit to their lie.

So what starts out as an effort to keep a client happy ends up with a very unhappy client and the possibility of the lawyer facing severe disciplinary consequences.

These are faults we can all be tempted into, but honesty is always the best (and only) policy. Admit to the client that you have been unable to do the job because of whatever reasons, and then provide assurance that the work will be done as soon as possible. It should go without saying, that it is critical that the work is then completed in the newly agreed timeframe.

Similar risks exist in the context of appearing in court. It is easy for someone to wish to avoid the wrath of the court or their opponent by saying that something has been done when it hasn’t. There is no room for any intentional or careless inaccuracy when addressing the court. Absolute honesty is required regardless of the consequences.

3. Your reputation is critically important

Our profession functions best when we trust each other.

Clients’ interests are best served when as fellow lawyers we are able to communicate frankly, openly and efficiently.

You will find that it doesn’t take long to develop a reputation in the legal profession. If you become known as competent and trustworthy, opposing lawyers will listen to what you have to say and you will enjoy credibility. This is very much in your client’s interests.

So you need always to act in a manner that enhances your reputation. When you do something that causes other lawyers or your clients to question your honesty and integrity, not only is your personal reputation undermined, but the integrity the profession overall suffers. That in turn erodes the confidence that the public has in the legal profession, and ultimately threatens the rule of law.

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The farewell ceremony to the Hon John Chaney SC from the Supreme Court of Western Australia in 2018.

4. The practice of law is hard

It would be surprising if the first time you are given the responsibility of dealing with and advising a client, you do not feel wholly inadequate for the task.

While law schools can teach you the law, the application to real-life situations which involves judgement calls, the need to identify what the client wants and what is in the client’s best interests, and the responsibility of making decisions that actually affect a person’s life, are all new challenges.

The law is a world where you are always learning.

After 42 years of practice, from being a junior solicitor to partnership, as a barrister and then a judge I was always learning new things — even in my final weeks and months at the Supreme Court.

At every stage of my career I have wondered if I am up to this.

The law is complex, and it is getting more complex, while it can seem like a burden, especially when we are busy, we should relish and embrace the continuous learning. It exposes us to new ideas, knowledge and developments that stimulate our own thoughts and advances our practice.

There are, unfortunately, no shortcuts. You must take the time to follow developments in the law and to understand what they mean to our practice and to our clients.

5. There are always people to turn to for advice and assistance

The good news is that while ours can be a testing profession, it is a collegial one.

When I sat as President of the State Administrative Tribunal in its legal profession disciplinary jurisdiction, I noticed that in a high proportion of cases, the lawyers are concerned had got into trouble because they simply got out of their depth and did not turn to anyone for advice or assistance.

When I was first admitted there were, roughly, 500 lawyers. If we didn’t know each other personally it was very easy to find someone to introduce us.

WA now has a much larger profession and there are now fewer personal relationships among its members. I have a sense that it is now much easier to become isolated in your practice than was the case back in the 1970s.

One of the advantages of the Piddington Justice Project is the opportunity that you all have to get to know each other over this week and over the coming year. That can be a useful network of people to whom you can turn in order to bounce around ideas or seek guidance.

There will be other groups of people with whom you come into contact in your practice. Your colleagues within firms or community legal centres should always be available to support you.

As a junior lawyer I recall speaking to lawyers whom I hardly knew other than by reputation to give me some guidance in a field that was new to me but very familiar to them. Advice was willingly given because of the recognition that it was important to the proper administration of the law that all lawyers act competently and efficiently.

Though our profession has grown, I would still expect practitioners at all levels of seniority to uphold these values and be prepared to assist another practitioner for the good of the profession and the community.

Senior Counsel, too, are there to help you. Silks are available to members of the profession for ethical advice. It is part of the role of a silk.

That is not to suggest that you should call on other practitioners to answer your legal problems instead of you doing the necessary work yourself. Rather, other practitioners can provide assistance in relation to matters of process or procedure, ethical dilemmas, or practice management issues. If there is a legal question you do not feel confident in answering then a formal brief to counsel is the solution.

6. Courtesy and respect need to be observed with everyone you deal with

As a judge I would find that some practitioners, and self-represented litigants, would not always be calm, polite and respectful.

It is easy to fall into the trap of emulating their performance and showing agitation or even disrespect in retaliation. But it is far more effective, and you will be held in higher regard, if you respond in a measured and professional way. Your credibility will be enhanced.

That holds true as much in the content of correspondence as it does in exchanges in court or in any other forum.

In relation to court appearances, it is always worth bearing in mind that, for many people, going to court is extremely stressful and often involve very important issues affecting their lives. You should respect this gravity and be composed and deliberate.

This will only aid your reputation.

7. Being a lawyer is not only a privilege but it’s a great job

While it is hard, the practice of law can be extremely rewarding.

It is an intellectually challenging and rewarding undertaking. It can provide enormous satisfaction that you have assisted people in their time of need, that you have solved their problem and somehow made their life better.

There is great satisfaction in the knowledge that you have performed a service to the community and to the administration of the law. You can enjoy standing and respect in the community.

If you become involved in your profession, by joining and being active in professional organisations like the Law Society, Women Lawyers, specialist legal organisations and of course Piddington, you will find lots of like-minded people who are well motivated and fun to socialise with and you will feel part of the profession.

As an incidental benefit, it can provide you with a comfortable living, although that should never be your primary driver.

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The 2019 Piddington Justice Project participants along with the Hon John Chaney SC (centre), course directors and consultants. Photo: Andrew Clarke.

The Hon John Chaney SC is the Chair of The Piddington Society.

He was sworn in as a judge of the Supreme Court of Western Australia on 10 February, 2009 and retired in June 2018. He was the President of the State Administrative Tribunal (SAT) from 10 February 2009 till 10 February 2014.

Chaney graduated from the University of Western Australia with the degrees of Bachelor of Jurisprudence and Bachelor of Laws in 1975. He was admitted to practice in 1976.

He was employed by Northmore Hale Davy and Leake (now Minter Ellison) and was a partner in that firm for 14 years before moving to Francis Burt Chambers as an independent barrister in July 1994.

He was appointed Senior Counsel in 2002 and became a judge of the District Court in April 2004. Justice Chaney was appointed Deputy President of the SAT when the Tribunal was created on 1 January 2005 and served in that role until his appointment as President.

Chaney was president of the Law Society of Western Australia in 1991 and is a Foundation Director of the Australian Advocacy Institute Ltd. He served as a Commissioner of the District Court on three occasions between 1995 and 2001.

In 2001, he was counsel assisting the Gunning Inquiry into Statutory Boards and Tribunals. He served as Deputy Chairman and Deputy President of the former Town Planning Appeal Tribunal between 1998 and 2004.

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