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Tom Goudkamp is the owner and managing director of NSW personal injury and compensation firm Stacks Goudkamp. On 9 March 2023 he marks the 50-year anniversary of his admission as a lawyer, and more than 40 years of acting for injured plaintiffs and sharing his expertise on personal injury law.

It was a series of happy accidents, Tom Goudkamp believes, that resulted in a long career of serving those to whom fate has not been so benign.

By his own admission, it was a “complete fluke” that delivered him into the arms of his career, a career that has seen him act for the best part of half a century as an accredited specialist in personal injury law.

“I thought I’d be a schoolteacher,” he tells LSJ. When he fell short of gaining the necessary high school marks, the Amsterdam-born, Murwillumbah-bred youngster adopted a scattergun approach to university applications and was “astonished” when Canberra’s ANU accepted him for a law degree.

After doing his articles in Queanbeyan and working in Canberra’s local courts, Goudkamp heeded the siren call of Europe. Here a happy coincidence again changed his life’s course. In what he calls “the ultimate sliding doors moment”, at a crowded Amsterdam Central Railway station he bumped into an acquaintance who was working for a personal injury law firm in London.

“He asked if I wanted his job. I said that would be nice, and did I need an interview? No, he said – ‘just turn up, they like Aussies’.”

And turn up he did, for both the London job and for another 45 years as a practitioner of personal injury law, a specialty that has taken him all over the world.

“I seemed to find a niche of acting for people who were in Australia on holiday or on business when they came to grief in an accident here,” he explains. “Once repatriated, they’d contact me somehow and I’d go to wherever they lived to interview them, their doctors and their carers, to prepare a case for hearing in their country, or for settlement.”

Goudkamp is co-author with Dr Andrew Morrison SC of the Personal Injury Law Manual NSW, an authoritative guide on this legal specialty. He observes that he has seen the evolution of personal injury to a “narrower, more difficult and paper driven” area of the law. This, he believes, has brought largely positive change.

“Personal injury law has been shrinking, there’s no doubt, because of government intervention,” he says, adding that with the use of mediations and settlement conferences there has been a marked decrease in the number of cases that wind up in court, thereby freeing up precious judicial time.

Personal interaction in personal injury law

By definition, Goudkamp’s area of expertise requires up close and personal interaction with plaintiffs and families involved in his cases. Asked whether he is able to distance himself from emotion to the degree necessary for the application of the law, he answers with the empathy and compassion of a father of three.

“What pains and hurts me is when I’m acting for parents who’ve lost children at the same age as mine. [But] I certainly stay strong for my clients.”

To deal with this aspect of his work, Goudkamp has found it helpful to take a philosophical approach.  He makes a point of appreciating his own good health and recognising his fortune in not having loved ones suffer serious injury. He is also acutely conscious of his role on this human frontline of the law, and it’s this facet of his work, and the ability to make a difference, that bring him the most joy.

“I like helping people and [putting] lives back together,” he says.

Perhaps it’s Goudkamp’s consciousness of the impact his work can have on people’s lives that accounts for his longevity in an industry with a well-documented – and growing – turnover.

He genuinely enjoys his work, and, perhaps more importantly, the company of his colleagues, who have included members of his family. His younger son is the CEO at Stacks Goudkamp, and Goudkamp has also worked with his daughter, a doctor, and his other son, who is now a professor at Oxford and at the Bar in London.

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Left: Tom Goudkamp with his father, Maarten Goudkamp, c. 1951, and right: Tom Goudkamp as a young lawyer

Goudkamp tells LSJ that he has also worked with, and mentored, a good number of paralegals, who have gone on to become barristers and silks, and in one case a Supreme Court judge.

“That gives me great satisfaction,” he says, admitting with a laugh that this also makes him feel old. “I love to see bright young lawyers doing well and developing into terrific lawyers.”

Goudkamp’s advice to fledgling lawyers is simple: “Work hard. There is no substitute. It all comes from within, and if you’re prepared to work hard, the rewards and the satisfaction come.”

But he adds a warning note to those who ignore the importance of maintaining a life beyond work.

“Time recording – where you get on the treadmill – leads to ridiculously long hours. I encourage my lawyers to have a work–life balance. But I’ve also never found my work boring; there hasn’t been a day in my life as a personal injury lawyer where I haven’t wanted to come to work.”

The tendency of big firms to turn their people over too quickly also adds to the profession’s increasing leakage, Goudkamp believes.

“I’ve known equity partners in big law firms to be gone by age 55. I’m 73, and still going strong,” he says. “Sometimes young lawyers get stuck in one area or specialised too quickly. It’s important to look around and do different things.

“Find something you really enjoy doing. Look around to see if there’s some other area of law that might be more challenging and rewarding.”

Goudkamp advises those starting out on a legal career to go above and beyond, as he has done.

“Contribute to the law, by joining committees at the Law Society. I’ve been the head of the Specialist Accreditation Personal Injury Committee since 1992. That gives me a lot of satisfaction. You feel like you’re putting something back into the profession. That’s important.”