In early March 2006, the then-CEO of the Law Society of NSW, Mark Richardson, gathered his 120 staff at the Law Society’s headquarters at 170 Phillip Street and told them he was leaving.
It was unexpected. Within an hour or so he was gone – no farewells or handovers; barely time for the news to sink in. It marked an abrupt end to a turbulent time in the Law Society’s history.
The then-COO, Michael Tidball, was also due to make an exit later that month. But Richardson’s fateful departure ensured it would never happen.
On 15 May 2006, Tidball stepped into the role of Acting CEO. And only now – more than 14 years later – is he finally preparing to leave the building.
“Life is always moving so quickly at the Law Society,” says Tidball over a final lunch at one of his regular haunts, the Bambini Trust, just down the road from Phillip Street.
“The end has crept up very quickly. This year has been a menace with COVID, and with the responses to COVID. Suddenly I realise I am going, and I feel a strange mixture of gratitude and sadness.”
Tidball is leaving for very good reason, having been appointed to the role of CEO of the Law Council of Australia. After more than a decade at a state-based organisation – albeit one that is among the strongest, most influential voluntary membership bodies in the world – he is ready to sink his teeth into the challenges that come with guiding and uniting a national profession with vastly different needs.
“The role plays to a real interest I have in politics and negotiating but doing it with an eye to securing the … law-making process and public policy contributions that lawyers make, and I am really excited by that,” Tidball tells LSJ.
Tidball has long been a champion of a uniform law governing the profession and, since the commencement of the Legal Profession Uniform Law on 1 July 2015, which created a common legal services market across NSW and Victoria, he has worked to broaden its reach. This is something he will endeavour to achieve at the Law Council, though he recognises the myriad challenges that come with this task.
“Uniformity across a number of areas of legislation is a very important thing, but it should never be imposed from the top or be centralised, and that is the challenge,” he says.
“Australia is a diverse federation. Each state and territory has a different culture, history, geography and economy. It is terribly important to have the ability to negotiate legislative outcomes through a process of rigorous dialogue and compromise so the benefits of micro-economic reform and efficient, accessible legal systems are developed and maintained, but without crushing the vital need to recognise that the nature of legal practice in Sydney is vastly different to the nature of legal practice in cities like Hobart, Darwin or Perth.”
When Tidball took stewardship of the Law Society, voluntary membership had been underway for two years. Against the odds, membership numbers remain remarkably high, though Tidball has never rested easy next to what many other associations around the world would perceive as a success story. There is simply no room for complacency if the Law Society is to remain strong and relevant, he says.
“One challenge is maintaining our role in co-regulation, because co-regulation and our model entrenches checks and balances, and ensures the Society is not conflicted. It also underwrites an independent profession, and an independent profession is vital,” explains Tidball.
“The other component of that is a membership organisation which is diverse yet united, and our membership absolutely ensures that. So the challenge for the Society is to do both of those things well, because if one goes the other is substantially diminished. That was the challenge 16 years ago. It is a challenge now. But it is becoming more and more difficult.”
The reason for this, he says, is that the profession is growing significantly larger, with year-on-year growth of around 5 per cent. A large profession brings with it more complex issues – some of which, admits Tidball, the Society has been sluggish to address in the past.
“I think historically we have been too slow to recognise that with the very strengths of humanity, the flip side is the vulnerability of our humanity, and in there is mental health and wellbeing and currently sexual harassment and other issues,” he says.
“We are better now than we were 10 or 15 years ago at looking at the entire human dynamic in a profession that relies on the brain … there is a whole support system required for the brain, and we historically could have done more.”
Tidball is proud of recent steps taken to support the profession’s mental health and wellbeing, with the overwhelmingly positive response to the launch of the Law Society’s Solicitor Outreach Service a final jewel in what is undoubtedly a shimmering crown.
But, says Tidball, it is time for him to go. He believes all CEOs should know when to call time on their appointments and says they should do so when things are going well. He is also moving on from his role of Secretary-General of LAWASIA – an organisation which he has led for more than five years – but will continue to chair the Song Company, which he has done for four years and which brings him immense satisfaction.
“The role played by music in marking history and place is vital to human beings, and it is a privilege to chair Australia’s leading classical vocal ensemble,” he says.
Tidball leaves behind an impressive legacy and a resilient Law Society. He also departs with no doubts about what he will miss the most.
“I will miss two things,” he says. “The people, and the rich intellectual stimulation that every hour of the job has brought. That’s the truth. There are very few moments in my job that have been boring. Very few.”