Having recently celebrated 150 years of practice in the rural town of Young, the five partners of Gordon Garling Moffitt law firm share their wisdom.
The office of Gordon Garling Moffitt sits on Lovell Street in Young, down the road from an historic flour mill, colourful cottage gardens, and a welcome sign adorned with giant cherries. The law firm recently celebrated 150 years of service to the region, known for its rolling hills and stonefruit orchards.
As its five partners (above from left), Andree Rowntree, Vanessa Gibson, Rina Van Ommeren, Eris Gleeson and Peter Moffitt, arrive for lunch at S&AJ cafe and homewares store, some stop to greet a table of clients.
It’s a typical experience for these lawyers, who have been working in the communities of Young and nearby Grenfell for decades.
“One of the satisfying things about rural practice is you get to be involved with your clients throughout their working lives and with their families as well,” Gleeson says.
Gibson, who is based in the firm’s Grenfell office, says: “In a small town, people think you can solve all their problems, legal or not. They come to you with everything.”
Rowntree laughs: “It can take ages to do the groceries.”
Moffitt is a third-generation partner who followed in the footsteps of his grandfather and father and is deeply immersed in the Grenfell community. The office in that town – population 2,000 – has been on Main Street for 94 years.
He says being a rural lawyer brings both great challenge and meaning. He reflects on the sky-high interest rates that pushed farmers to the brink in the late 1980s.
“Eris and I became not so much lawyers, but almost social workers, to get people off the land and to keep their dignity. We had a lot of clients we were worried about, with their mental health. We still have a bit of that now.
“It’s not the sort of thing you learn in law school, but I love it.”
Approaching his fourth decade in the law, Moffitt is preparing to step aside as a partner and his daughter Rachael Power will take on the role.
She will be a fourth-generation partner, and her children are the fifth generation to live in the family home.
Gordon Garling Moffitt is made up of six women and two men, which is a point of pride. Gleeson says he’s seen a dramatic change for female lawyers in the country.
“Rural towns were very blokey. In the days before mobile phones, at the end of the day much of the business contact was done at the pub and those were largely dominated by men. In more recent times, it’s been much more inclusive for women in law, as well as other professional women.”
Around the time things were starting to shift, Van Ommeren moved from Sydney to work at GGM in Young in 2000. She and her husband visited on a sweltering January day to explore their new town.
“There was nothing happening, so we were wandering the main street. Eris drove past and luckily picked us up. Eris thought, ‘I better pick them up and keep them entertained for the day or it’s not going to happen’. It was a very different town 20 years ago, but I’m pleased we made the move.”
Similarly, junior lawyers have found a comfortable place in rural practice, Gleeson says.
“When I started as a lawyer, the only way you could find out a recent decision of the Supreme Court was to get your agent in Sydney to go to the court, pay $2 a page to photocopy the judgment, and post it up or fax it up to you. Now it’s all online.
“A very long time ago, a young graduate thought their life was over if they couldn’t see the stock exchange or the Supreme Court. But now in a rural town once they’ve got their computer on their desk they’re in the same league as their colleagues.”
Gibson points out the 30-year age span between the oldest and youngest partners, and the firm’s remarkable ability to instil loyalty and retain staff.
“For a country business, we’ve got a lot of staff. We’ve got 25 employees – that’s 25 families we’re keeping in the towns,” she says.
“This was the fifth law firm that I worked in and [Peter] was the first person who actually wanted to teach me anything. The rest of them just said, ‘There’s your desk, off you go’. Peter didn’t want me to make him look stupid, I guess (laughs), so he taught me well from the beginning. That’s why I stayed.”
Rowntree says the variety of practice in the country has kept her in the law.
“It keeps it more interesting, a diverse range of work. In big firms, you might just do mergers and acquisitions, but it’s a pretty narrow field for a 40-year career. I’m glad that’s not all I do.”
Towards the end of lunch, the sky turns grey. Diners at every table pause to take in a rare sight.
“Is that rain? Good heavens!” Moffitt says.
Gibson: “I haven’t used my wipers since I bought my car in October. Or probably only to wash the dirt off.”
The conversation moves to the toll work can take when it regularly involves stressed clients. Gleeson says the firm encourages a supportive and non-competitive culture.
“I think one of the lovely things we’ve been able to maintain is that everyone – all lawyers, all support staff – are prepared to do whatever is required.
“There might be a distressed older lady or gentleman who urgently needs power of attorney or enduring guardian and requires a home visit, and everyone will drop everything and get up there and get them organised. No one worries that that’s beneath their dignity or not cost effective.”
Van Ommeren says it’s rewarding to be in a position to help people.
“What I like is that when someone comes in and they’re very worried and nervous and they have problems, and by the end they say, ‘I feel much better now’.”
For Rowntree, who is also a pig farmer, country living eases some of the pressures of working in the law.
“We can leave work for an hour and go to the kids’ school assembly and come back because we’re not having to get through Sydney traffic.
“I wouldn’t live anywhere else for quids.”
We ate at:
S&AJ Cafe and Homewares Store, Young, NSW