Some of you might have watched the Netflix series, ‘Last Dance’, about Michael Jordan, the Chicago Bulls and the incredible journey that he and his teammates shared that culminated in Jordan’s retirement after their successful campaign in the 1998 NBA Finals. Many things struck me about the story that unfolded in this series. The Bulls were successful – not just because they had a bunch of talented players, but because they had a bunch of talented players who respected each other enormously and wanted team, as opposed to individual, glory. And the person who drove that culture was perhaps the greatest basketballer of all time.
Since having the honour of becoming the President, I have thought a lot about the culture of the Victorian Bar – the companionship and collegiality, our camaraderie, and the cooperation between us that our shared chambers and open-door policy foster. While we are individual practitioners, our reputations depend on the standing of the Bar as a collective of barristers who act with skill, integrity and respect for others. We are the greater sum of our parts.
Having a strong and vibrant culture is an essential foundation of the Bar’s reputation and our individual success; and that means that every one of us is responsible for respecting other members of our college and those who come into our professional orbit.
Respect is at the core of our strong professional culture – respecting the opinions, work, contribution and life choices of the many diverse individuals at the Bar and with whom we have dealings.
Through the years, I have worked and interacted with many, many barristers who are respectful and humble with each other and those with whom they work. I have learned much from these colleagues – many of them junior to me – who have led by example in the way they deal with others. These are the people who demonstrate the truth of what I have drummed into my long-suffering children since they (my children) were tiny: be courteous and respectful to others, not just because you should, but because it gets you further in life. As opponents, these advocates are the most dangerous because of the positive way judges, witnesses and juries respond to them; as team members, they are the ones you want to work with again; as colleagues, they are the ones for whom you would bend over backwards to accommodate.
The events of the past three months have been a source of anxiety and stress for many of us – with financial pressures, working from home, adapting to new technologies, and uncertainty about what the future will bring. As professionals, we have had to pivot fast to a new environment and we have been helped to do this by the extraordinary efforts of the courts, other professionals and the VicBar and BCL staff. This crisis has brought out the absolute best in so many people, and it has been a real privilege to work with a great number of them over the past few months.
So … it seems that it can also bring out the worst. It bursts the bubble of pride I feel in the way our college has responded when I hear and see, all too frequently at the moment, people treating others with whom they work or deal professionally with rudeness and disrespect. Call me old-fashioned, but courtesy, respect and consideration for others have never been more important than they are now. They are – and should always be – the foundations on which our individual and institutional reputations are built. There are times to be tough, there are times to be firm, and there are times to stand your ground; but there are never times to abuse or humiliate others. Those who think that is good advocacy, or clever social or business interplay, are mistaken and way behind the times. When people think of the Victorian Bar and Victorian barristers, they should think of advocates who are dangerous and effective … but fair, and not ones to reach for the ‘abuse’ button when things get tough.
This applies not just to our dealings with clients, solicitors, employees and colleagues, but to VicBar and BCL staff – who have done a heroic job of keeping the wheels moving in this difficult time. Our milieu is not a conventional workplace, but we are still obliged to provide a safe working environment that protects both the physical and mental health and wellbeing of members and staff. They are under pressure, too.
The above certainly isn’t intended as a lecture; that’s not my place. But what I was seeing had come to the point that it needed to be called out and so I have – because we’re better than that. I hope you will see it as a rallying cry.
Of course, if you are feeling the pressure and excessively frustrated and stressed, I would urge you to make use of the health and wellbeing resources offered by the Bar - the link to our H&W page is here.
Another core attribute of our Bar is mutual support and I’d like to take the opportunity to reiterate the call for contributions to the Barristers’ Benevolent Fund. We know that many members are undergoing financial hardship and for those in ill health or with additional financial difficulties this period has been especially difficult. If you can find a way of contributing to the support of your colleagues in particular distress, I urge you to do so by donating here.
Finally, last week the hearings in the Bourke Street inquest concluded, and I’d like to acknowledge the extraordinary pro bono assistance provided to the Coroners Court by members of the Victorian Bar during a total of 31 appearance days, including two days of oral submissions preceded by detailed written submissions. Too often, public service of this kind, which is in the best traditions of our college, goes unacknowledged beyond the small cohort directly involved. I’m sure that all of you will join me in thanking Sue McNicol AM QC, Áine Magee QC, Marko Cvjeticanin, Elizabeth Ruddle, Fiona Ryan, Maria Pilipasidis, Barbara Myers, Fiona Spencer, Andrew Sim, Kylie Weston-Scheuber, Mathew Kenneally and Gayann Walker for their considerable efforts in a significant and very valuable undertaking in the public interest. If their efforts inspire you – as I hope they will – you will be interested to know that the VicBar Pro Bono Platform has (finally!) gone live and members can access the platform here.
And, finally, thank you to all the other members who have truly “stepped up to the Bar” through these difficult months. I hope we will look back on this time with real collective pride.