It’s not what you know, it’s who you know

Or more to the point, that you know anyone at all

One of the hallmarks of the legal profession, from the orators of Ancient Athens to the heads of planet-spanning multi-disciplinary mega-firms, has always been collegiality. In essence, the law is about relationships; of trust and confidence with clients, honesty and courtesy with opponents, respect and deference with those on the bench.

Until recently, these relationships were begun through the time-honoured traditions of articles of clerkship and pupillage. Young lawyers made connections by trailing their masters to court and conference, or when sharing the mild misery of filing documents, registering titles and toiling through interminable research tasks at the court library.

In the coffee shops and food courts clustered around courthouses and government buildings they forged friendships strengthened by the fact that they were all going through the same experiences. They bonded through sharing the process of working out the complicated and oft-arcane art of practising law.

These professional friendships were stronger the earlier they formed, gaining strength and meaning much the same way that concrete increases its strength over time.

For example, I cannot remember too much detail from my admission almost 25 years ago — not what the Chief Justice said (indeed, I had to consult Wikipedia to remember who it was) nor who sat next to me at my swearing in; and I have but the vaguest recollection of how small it felt being one of only four who took an affirmation separately from the main host, our uncertain voices echoing weakly through the belly of the old Banco Court (since demolished in the name of progress).

I do remember, however, that it was a barrister called Rod Hoffensetz who moved my admission — a good barrister and even better mate who was a year ahead of me at high school and law school. In those days, some movers were determined by the law firm at which you did articles, and there were admittees who sought out very senior counsel to ensure that their admission was moved early, which is fair enough if that was what was important to them.

For my part, it was much more meaningful to have my admission moved by Rod — only slightly senior to me, but someone who I knew and with whom I had plotted case strategy and sat with in the trenches fighting the good fight. That early professional friendship meant that Rod was always among the first names I considered when I needed to brief someone in the years that followed.

Opportunities for young solicitors and barristers to forge the collegiality which leads to the relationships that sustain lawyers throughout their careers have become vanishingly small. The system of articles is long gone, replaced by Practical Legal Training, which leads to earlier admission but keeps graduates from the coalface for longer. The menial tasks that once brought young lawyers together are now achieved from the desk with a few keystrokes (or even automatically via algorithm), and provide no reason to mill about the court registry making friends and soaking up professional culture.

In addition, an explosion in law firms and lawyers, and the globalisation (not to mention the commoditisation) of the legal profession has meant that time and work pressures preclude young lawyers from attending the traditional social activities of the profession. When young lawyers gather now, it is usually to ensure they keep up with continuing professional development obligations.

The breakdown of these networks is to the detriment of our profession, and threatens to erode professional courtesy and trigger a rise in sharp practice. Simply put, the better we know people the better we treat them, and vice versa; if we don’t make an effort to get to know our colleagues, we do our profession a disservice — and in any event, it is bad for business.

Those professional friendships are often the source of the referral work — sometimes the only source, early in a career — that keeps a lawyer afloat long enough to establish themselves. Without the opportunity to build such networks, many lawyers new to the profession will not survive.

The law is unlike any other profession, in that lawyers owe a duty to the courts and the administration of justice — one which overrides our duty to our clients and ourselves. It derives from the fact that we are the agents of justice, the eyes and ears of the courts, and as such even when we work against one another on behalf of opposed clients, we are working towards the same end: a fair and workable justice system. If we are to achieve that noble goal, it is imperative that we know one another as something more than an email address.

Technology has made us more efficient, but has also driven us apart. We bill more and work harder, but spend more time at our desks and working online; not needing to research cases at a law library or attend settlement personally has made us more efficient, but less sociable.

Our profession needs to re-discover the benefit of getting together for no better purpose than the fact that it is good to get together. Invite some colleagues to lunch, get some junior barristers to join graduate lawyers for Friday drinks or, (if you really need a business reason) organise a joint professional development session with another firm.

With effort, we can re-establish a genuine legal community, to the benefit of all concerned, but the effort must come from us. The good old days aren’t coming back, but the spirit of collegiality can be revived if we work at it. So, let’s get to it — or, to borrow a parable: practitioner, heal thyself.

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