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It's important that the Law Society of NSW does what it says on the tin: maintaining a strong structure to lead and serve the profession, ensuring a just legal system.

This year, we lost a Queen, gained a King and changed a federal government. The Law Society is also celebrating its 180th birthday this year. That’s a cause for celebration. And reflection.

When the first president of the precursor of the Law Society, John Williams, took up the role in 1884, he represented around 27 male solicitors.

Today the Law Society, with its 10th female president, represents more than 38,000 solicitors. Our 180th year threw a spotlight on issues that affected us deeply as a profession and bound us together as a community. This office is an honour to hold and it always needs careful planning. I landed on 5 key priorities for the year:

The first of these: supporting the legal profession’s health and wellbeing.

I’ve listened to many members throughout the year, and the inspiring message I get is that you love being a lawyer, you value your profession, and you are privileged to advocate on behalf of your clients. Some of the last 12 months was good, some of it maybe not so much. Some of us saw our family and pets more often. Some of us worked longer hours than we used to and took fewer holidays. Bushfires, COVID and floods well and truly did a number on some of us and we hit a brick wall.

That’s why our Staying Well in the Law series was so important.  We tackled the profession’s mental health and wellbeing head on. We discussed burnout, perfectionism, Adult ADHD, Alcohol and Alcohol use problems, Imposter Syndrome and Staying Well in the Law with Aboriginal L-O-R-E to name a few. Keeping mentally fit in the profession means we can deliver better results for our clients.

My second priority was designed for the times, Responding to the impacts of COVID on the justice system.

We wanted to know how the profession coped with the changes to the justice system brought about by the pandemic, so we asked nearly fifteen hundred of you.

I wasn’t surprised with the results. Some of us have been rolling this way for years. The results showed that practitioners wanted to put their clients first when it came to time and money. We loved filing court documents digitally. We saw the sense in some matters proceeding by way of AVL. Some features, however, were more challenging – for example, as Doc Neeson once nearly sang, “Am I ever gonna see my staff again?” You may refrain from the usual response. Our CEO and I presented the findings to heads of jurisdiction, the Department of Communities and Justice, Legal Aid and the Attorney General. We have a social responsibility to learn from this experience to ensure the profession is able to better serve its clients leading into the future.

With my third priority, Human Rights in NSW, I was under no illusion that both sides of politics have a lukewarm, if not tepid response to the prospect of a standalone Human Rights Act for NSW.

We held two Thought Leadership sessions on human rights this year. They featured, among other human rights luminaries, constitutional rockstar Professor George Williams and former Premier Bob Carr. Later this week, we’ll see the product of those sessions as we approach Human Rights Day this Saturday. That day marks the 74th anniversary of the adoption by the UN General Assembly of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

My fourth priority, but by no means down the list in terms of importance, is Judicial resourcing.

That unmentionable virus gave the courts a large backlog and we’ve again called on government to increase judicial resources. Attorney General, thank you for answering our call. This year in the Local Court, the District Court, the Supreme Court and the Land and Environment Court there have been 31 swearings-in.

Each appointment has been well received, though far fewer solicitors than we’d like. The solicitors that were appointed were truly quality picks, including Pauline Wright and Penny Musgrave.  Congratulations, you’re both an inspiration to us all. We’ve also worked with the Bar Association to form a Court User Group, to make courts more accessible for people with disabilities. The Courts are nearly always an open forum, and they work best when everyone can participate.

My fifth priority is particularly dear to me as a long-time rural practitioner. That’s finding ways to better support the profession, courts and clients in rural and regional NSW. We have a real access-to-justice problem in the bush.

This was very apparent in our trip to Broken Hill this year, where Sonja and I learnt that an area more than 100,000 hectares is served by just five solicitors in private practice and only three of those practise in crime. The profession, and indeed the government, need to do more to attract and keep lawyers in the country. I watched with interest as yet another program designed to attract nurses, doctors and teachers to the bush was launched last week and wonder whether those 3 criminal lawyers in Broken Hill would like a holiday.

The Law Society provided input into the Law Council of Australia’s small business checklist, designed for small and sole practices to help them grow. The LCA’s Digital Treechange Initiative is attracting PLT students and lawyers to a career in a rural, regional or remote area.

One of the most important visits the CEO and I made this year was to Lismore, along with Kerrie Lalich, the CEO of Lawcover. On behalf of Council we were able to offer the local profession a support package including fee relief and business recovery advice through an expert third party.  Lawcover was also able to provide premium relief.

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"I owe special thanks to our CEO, Sonja Stewart [left], whose wisdom, experience and care throughout the year I will not forget"

This year, for the first time in a long time, we published the 2021 Profile of Solicitors in NSW. The Profile shows our profession is younger, more female and more diverse.

Whilst our profession has grown by 10% in the last ten years and for the last five there have been more female graduates than male, the remuneration and career opportunity gender gap persists. We have been working with signatories to our Charter for the Advancement of Women and other leading firms to gather information about how they address equal pay and flexibility in the workplace. Their best practice will assist us in guiding our members to close that gap more quickly. And a mind-boggling statistic – there are 7,195 law practices in NSW, 61 per cent of which are sole practices.

For these members, we’ve launched a number of amazing resources, including the succession checklist and interactive State of the NSW Legal Profession report.

Media has been a significant part of my gig this year. Radio grabs, live radio, interviews on zoom and in the flesh.

Our studies might prepare us for standing in front of a judge, but a unit in how to deliver a pithy news grab isn’t one of the Priestly Eleven. I’m grateful to those of you who’ve expressed your thanks to me for taking our advocacy through the airwaves to the broader community. Issues such as bail reform, coercive control, The Voice, flood recovery relief, ICAC reforms, Public Health Order fines and the Ice Enquiry have been on our radar, because they are on your radar.

It would be fair to say that I’ve copped a spray or two from Radio Cranky’s Uncle Ray. It’s an occupational certainty when advocating for well-considered reform and I’d do it all again. But thankfully I won’t have to! Cassie, I’m happy to pass that particular baton to you!

In a speech at the end of last year, shortly before I became President, I said,

My personal priority in 2022 is to lead with courage, conviction, humility and honesty. There will no doubt be some fierce debate over the next 12 months, particularly as we look at the way in which we govern ourselves as a Council”.

This year we embarked on a member led process to reform our Council, ensuring we are positioned as a leader in best-practice governance. Our achievement in changing the structure of the Law Society Council is one of the Society’s most significant achievements in 2022 and I thank each of you that engaged in that process.

Every year the President nominates a charity. I chose Sober in the Country, a program aimed at people in the country who want to cut back on the beers, go sober, or just feel comfortable to say “no, not today”. Shanna Whan, the founder and CEO of Sober in the Country, was to be here tonight but due to family circumstances is unable to attend.

Sober in the Country receives no government funding, so I thank everybody who has donated this year, in cash, or by buying a Dining Room Delivers hamper. I’m also grateful for the additional donations that some of our regional law societies made to SITC throughout the year. There are a few weeks left so please, if you haven’t donated, please consider doing so via the QR code on your tables.

This has been, without exception, the most fun, most challenging and most rewarding year in my career so far.

The support from the senior management group in the Law Society has been nothing short of outstanding. I owe special thanks to our CEO, Sonja Stewart, whose wisdom, experience and care throughout the year I will not forget. I wish I had time to name everyone with whom I worked, to serve the solicitor profession of this state. You know who you are. But I couldn’t go without thanking my EA, Hannah Murphy, for a flawless year – many past Presidents could not have survived without her. Her ESP is second to none.

To our dedicated Councillors. Your hard work is truly appreciated. You made sure I kept my sense of humour, sent me RUOK texts and kept me fed during my time in Sydney. You are not only colleagues but lifelong friends. Our committees, policy lawyers and staff work so hard, keeping me in touch with the profession and up to date with legal practices and legislation. Most importantly, they made sure that you, our members, always had a respected voice in our advocacy.

Outside of the office, my husband Anthony, son Zachary and daughter Cooper have kept me grounded. Cooper was 4 when I started as a Councillor at the Law Society. She is now 15. I’m looking forward to resuming my homework monitoring and Insta stalking duties. Anthony, I simply say thank you for being my rock.

In January, I spoke with the Law Society Journal and said “If I get to the end of this year and I have helped one person, awesome. If I can reach just one lawyer, then my job is done.” Last weekend, my daughter Cooper, told me she and her friend Myffy decided to Google stalk me – in Science class. I am informed that my changing hairstyles was the subject of much discussion. That’s school fees well spent. No, Cooper insisted, Myffy thinks you’re great. She wants to be just like you.

I have spent a bit of time with Myffy this year. Myf is a young Indigenous woman from Moree, studying in the big smoke. I’d wager good money that Myffy will one day end up an Attorney General.

My point here is, be visible. Whether you’re a young lawyer in the first year out, a sole practitioner, Managing Partner in a large firm or a member of the judiciary, be visible, and be positive. Be proud of what you do and what our legal profession represents. And obviously, keep your hair styles interesting.

I am proud to be number 10 in the line of women presidents, and for the first time ever, the middle president in a row of three females!

I’m proud of the Law Society doing what it says on the tin, maintaining a strong structure to lead and serve the profession, ensuring a just legal system.

As our motto says, ‘Defending the rights of all’.

This is a partially edited speech delivered at the 2022 Law Society of New South Wales Annual Members Dinner, held on Tuesday 6 December
Image credit: Oneill Photographics