There are many law associations in Australia. The largest and most prominent are mainstream generalist associations such as the Law Society of New South Wales, the New South Wales Bar Association, the Law Council of Australia and the Australian Bar Association.
Other associations focus their membership on particular criteria. They include:
- The members’ employment status, such as the Association of Corporate Counsel Australia.
- The members’ areas of practice, such as the Australian Insurance Law Association and the Society of Construction Law Australia.
- The members’ geographical origins, such as the Asian Australian Lawyers Association, the North American Australian Lawyers Alliance and the African Australian Legal Network.
- The members’ gender, such as the Women Lawyers Association of New South Wales, the Women Barristers Forum and the Diverse Women in Law.
- The members’ sexual identity, such as Pride in Law.
- The members’ particular attributes, such as the Disabled Australian Lawyers Association.
- The members’ religion, such as the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists, the St Thomas Moore Society and the Muslim Legal Network.
- The members’ cultural identity, such as the First Nations Lawyers in New South Wales and Australia, the Pacific Legal Association of New South Wales, the Australian Italian Lawyers Association, the French Australian Lawyers Association, the Korean Australian Lawyers Association, the Vietnam Australian Lawyers Association and the Hellenic Australian Lawyers Association.
I will use as case studies the Hellenic Australian Lawyers Association and the Asian Australian Lawyers Association.
Whilst there may be both negative and positive aspects of culture-based law associations, the potential positive aspects greatly outweigh the potential negative aspects.
Hellenic Australian Lawyers Association
I am very familiar with the Hellenic Australian Lawyers Association because I was heavily involved in its establishment in 2013. The rationale for its establishment was to provide opportunities for lawyers who had a Greek background to celebrate and express that culture as part of their professional vocation. Non-Greeks who like the Greek culture can also become members. They are generally referred to as philhellenes.
There was a large influx of Greek migrants to Australia after the Second World War, particularly in the 1950s and 1960s. Most of the migrants were from poor rural backgrounds who had a limited education, did not speak English and became unskilled factory workers. They formed Greek associations based on the parts of Greece from which they came for the purpose of companionship and mutual support.
These geographically-inspired Greek associations served first generation Greek Australians well. However, they were less relevant for second and particularly third generation Greek Australians, many of whom became educated and had professional careers. Their profession rather than the place in Greece where their parents or grandparents were born was more relevant to them.
Organisations such as the Hellenic Australian Lawyers Association and the Hellenic Medical Society of Australia offer their members the opportunity to mix with professional colleagues in a manner that acknowledges their Greek heritage and supports them in their vocation. The support they provide is in the form of opportunities to mentor or be mentored by other Greek lawyers or doctors, to make or receive referrals of work, to advocate on behalf of the Greek-Australian community, to establish friendships and to engage in networking. Networking offers many benefits, including enhancement of one’s profile and employment opportunities.
Asian Australian Lawyers Association
I had the pleasure of launching the Asian Australian Lawyers Association in the Supreme Court Library in October 2013. Since then, it has grown enormously in terms of the number of members, its presence in each jurisdiction, the sponsorship it receives and its staffing and other resources. It is an incredible success story.
Part of the success of the Asian Australian Lawyers Association is that it is able to draw its membership from a large number of nationalities that have a presence in Australia, including Indian lawyers, Chinese lawyers, Malaysian lawyers and Indonesian lawyers.
One of the Asian Australian Lawyers Association’s objectives is to increase awareness of the underrepresentation of Asian lawyers in senior roles within the profession and also within the judiciary. It has conducted research to support its case and has used the research to lobby governments to address the issue. It has had some success, with lawyers of Asian heritage being appointed as magistrates and judges in Victoria and some other jurisdictions.
The Asian Australian Lawyers Association conducts an annual national cultural diversity summit which explores issues concerning cultural diversity in the law.
It may be argued that there is only one legal profession, with common aims and objectives, and that it should not be fragmented by diverse culture-based associations
Potentially negative aspects of culture-based law associations
The first potential negative aspect of culture-based law associations is the perception that there is no real need for them. It is legitimate to ask whether culture-based associations add any value to their members over and above the value of mainstream generalist associations such as the Law Society of New South Wales. Culture-based associations cannot hope to match the committee structure, publications, facilities and other resources of mainstream generalist associations. It may be argued that there is only one legal profession, with common aims and objectives, and that it should not be fragmented by diverse culture-based associations.
I think the short answer to this issue is that mainstream generalist law associations and special interest law associations are not mutually exclusive and can complement each other.
The second potential negative aspect is reinforcement of perceived marginalisation. If a particular cultural group constitutes a small minority of the population and feels marginalised, a lawyers’ association representing that group risks adding to the perception of marginalisation if it becomes insular and an echo chamber for all manner of grievances. Such insularity may engender or reinforce a ‘them and us’ mentality.
In my opinion, this risk can be overcome if a culture-based law association is led by sensible lawyers who have strong links and credibility not only with their own cultural group but also the general legal profession and the wider community.
The third potential negative aspect of culture-based law associations is the diminution of career opportunities. That could occur if a young lawyer of a particular cultural group works in a firm that caters solely for members of that group and associates only with lawyers who are members of that group. In such a situation, the young lawyer could potentially miss out on opportunities to broaden his or her client base, the areas of legal work in which he or she practises and advancement within the broader legal profession.
I think this is a real challenge for lawyers from newly emerging migrant communities whose numbers in the legal profession are relatively low. I well remember that in the 1970s, Greek law graduates tended to work for Greek law firms catering for the Greek-Australian community, unless they had exceptionally good academic results which made them attractive to larger mainstream law firms.
It would be naïve to believe that barriers to entry for lawyers from minority cultural groups have completely disappeared within the legal profession. However, I am confident that the legal employment landscape is much fairer than it was in the 1970s. In part, this has been due to the globalisation of legal practice and the emergence of large law firms with offices in Australia and other parts of the world. Those firms require lawyers with diverse backgrounds to meet their clients’ diverse needs. In this environment, it is in the interests of law firms to recruit lawyers based purely on merit rather than other considerations.
Positive aspects of culture-based law associations
The first potential positive aspect of culture-based law associations is the sense of pride in one’s cultural heritage that such an association can engender. Multiculturalism is an important feature of Australian society and enjoys bipartisan political support. Everyone is entitled to be proud of their cultural identity and to celebrate it in all aspects of their lives, including their professional lives. A culture-based law association can provide appropriate opportunities to express a lawyer’s cultural identity in ways that are relevant to his or her profession as a lawyer. Those opportunities can include social functions, fundraising projects, volunteering and activities that educate the wider community about the lawyer’s cultural group.
The Opening of the Legal Year ceremonies that are organised by Catholic, Anglican, Jewish and Greek lawyers are examples of this. Another relevant example is the Iftar dinners that are organised by the Muslim Legal Network.
The second potential positive aspect of culture-based law associations is related to the first aspect. It is the provision of a culturally safe and welcoming environment for lawyers of a particular culture to express their cultural identity freely without any apprehension that they will be misunderstood or misjudged.
The third potential positive aspect of culture-based law associations is their ability to provide an organised and articulate voice for their cultural groups. As educated professionals, members of such associations can act as champions for their cultural groups, including by defending them from misinformation and attacks based on stereotypes. This is particularly important for members of the Muslim Legal Network when they encounter Islamophobia in the community.
Although some Islamophobic commentary might be malicious, I suspect that most of it is born of ignorance. Irrespective of motive, the best way to counter such commentary is not only to calmly and professionally refute it but also to use the opportunity to educate the community on positive aspects of Islam. Members of the Muslim Legal Network are well placed to fulfil this role. The more credibility the Network has, the greater will be its effectiveness in championing causes for members of the Australian Muslim community.
The fourth potential positive aspect of culture-based law associations is lobbying and law reform. Such associations are well placed to raise law reform and practice and procedure issues with courts, governments and other institutions. That is because they are likely to have expertise on issues uniquely affecting lawyers of that culture and their communities. The Muslim Legal Network is in an ideal position to identify issues of a legal nature that affect the Australian Muslim community and to make representations to institutions that have power to address those issues.
The fifth potential positive aspect of culture-based law associations is mentoring. Senior and well-established members of a culture-based association can act as powerful role models for younger members and provide invaluable mentoring for them. I have acted as a mentor for both the Hellenic Australian Lawyers Association and the Asian Australian Lawyers Association. I have enjoyed sharing my experience with young Greek and Asian lawyers. The feedback I have received is that they have benefitted from my interactions with them.