When I finished my law degree, and after the requisite ordeal at College of Law, I was admitted as a solicitor. I started work at the big law firm in the sky where I had previously been a summer clerk.
Altogether I worked for about 6 years as a solicitor, first at the big law firm, then, after a break for 4 years, for a small law firm for about a year, and then at the same big law firm again, but this time in another state on a big law case where I was contracted for the duration, though I ultimately went to the bar as the duration became increasingly protracted. So one way round you could say I was a solicitor (though not always practising) for 10 years all up.
College of Law was a foretaste, not to say a forewarning, of what it would be like to be a solicitor. We sat around in classrooms pretending to buy and sell houses and businesses and to commence and settle personal injury claims and file for divorce, as well as writing pretend cheques and running pretend trust accounts and office accounts.
When non-lawyers think of law, they inevitably think first of criminal law, but most lawyers’ work does not (or should not!) involve crime. Crime aside, you can divide it into compliance work (filing returns with ASIC and the like), transactional work (contracts, conveyances and, in a sense, will drafting) and dispute resolution (at the pointy end, litigation). A lot of it is about filling in forms.
Even with the most open-formed forms (wince! but I’m momentarily too lazy to negotiate a more elegant expression), the solicitor’s role is to marshall the relevant facts and the client’s instructions into categories which will be recognised appropriately when some subsequent legal mechanism is brought to bear on the contract or will or statement of claim or whatever. Of course, it is always helpful when you fill in a form to know the rules according to which that form is going to be acted on, and that is where your legal training as a solicitor comes into play, though when you first start practice, the level of legal conceptualisation is not always very high.
Law firms are commercial enterprises. Enter the bane of the employed solicitor’s life: the time sheet and the billable hour. I was never good at this. This was partly a matter of lacking the necessary good habits, but also because, conscious of the enormous hourly rate at which my labour was to be charged out to clients, I was constantly embarrassed at the amount of time it took me to do what I did. Could it really be worth that much? You have to get very tough-minded about this if you are going to make your way or a living in the law.
In a law firm, the organisation is everything. Letters are written in the first person plural (on behalf of the partners, even if there is only one of them) and signed in the name of the firm – in the big law firm, the office copy of the letter would indicate which partner (by number according to seniority) or senior associate (by initials) had actually signed the letter.
We were firmly told by a senior partner that letters were to be signed “Yours faithfully” because we were faithfully carrying out the instructions of our client – which is not what the recipient of such a letter might have apprehended.
After rotations through various parts of the big law firm, I settled into litigating, mostly on behalf of banks and other financial institutions against hapless defaulting borrowers for business loans, who had given security over either their homes or their farms and were facing the forced sale of these. It was not a particularly gratifying job, though, owning nothing myself, I took a meagre fortification from being, in Julius-Caesar terms, a lean man.
A high (or low) point of this was one evening when I went to the Henry IX bar at the Hilton Hotel to serve a Creditor’s Petition (the initiating process for sending someone bankrupt) on a man who was playing the squeeze-box in a band there. This was necessary because he had frustrated all more regular attempts of service by refusing to acknowledge his identity to the process-server, whereas I knew who he was. He was a stereotypically blarney-charming Irish man, but when I stepped up to him at the end of a bracket and handed it to him, he went a ghastly grey. – I wasn’t overcome by any pangs of remorse, because he had ripped quite a lot of people off in his time, but it was still a sobering moment.
On my last day at the end of my first stint in the big firm, a business man who had simply failed to respond at any point to demands for repayment was finally being evicted from his house. I knew where the house was because it was on my childhood bus route from Gordon station to my home in West Pymble. I was called to the phone from my farewell morning tea. It was the private detective/commercial agent, who was in attendance to change the locks whilst the sheriff’s officers enforced the writ. She put the beleagered debtor on the phone and he sought one final postponement: his elderly mother-in-law was ill, in fact she was in the bathroom right now. I asked: “So she can walk, can she?” The eviction went ahead.
Surprisingly perhaps, that was the only sheriff-enforced eviction which I set in motion, though I do remember that prior to sending the jolly squeeze-box player bankrupt, the sheriffs were sent around in an attempt to execute the judgment against him. They returned an inventory of the contents of the house, over which, not surprisingly, his wife also asserted a proprietary claim. The inventory included 5 doonas. Thenceforth my slogan became Carpe doonem – Seize the doonas!
As a matter of karma, I hope I made up for this when, at the small law firm, I later acted on behalf of the little man (or at least the farmer) against the banks. If you couldn’t knock a quarter to a third of the debt with a good Contracts Review Act claim, you weren’t really trying, though this really only ever involved stripping out the banks’ profit component of the transaction.
At College of Law I was at first shocked at how long it took for legal cases to come to trial. I now realise that this is in part because solicitors will typically have many cases to attend to, and there are many pieces of information which need to be assembled and little steps to be taken in each case. The partner I worked for explained the secret of managing a litigious practice: always put the ball into the other person’s court.
There is much more I could say about being a solicitor, though there is a limit on the anecdotal detail which I am free to disclose.
Once, somehow, we (yes, “we”) at the big law firm were retained by some Indian diamond merchants who were embroiled in a dispute over some diamonds they had sent to Australia. Their correspondence was delightfully old-world, typed on flimsy paper with an ancient typewriter, and on one occasion concluding with the wonderful phrase “Please do the needful and oblige.” Comfortingly, they weren’t short of the necessaries themselves – they sent us the requested thousands of dollars to pay into trust on account of our anticipated costs twice.
For a brief moment, for complicated reasons to do with lease-back financing and stamp duty or other tax, I was the proud owner of a Tangara railway carriage. I then magnanimously gave it away by making an oral declaration of trust. I may even now still be the legal owner. Sometimes, late at night and rattling home with a train full of weary and mostly these days subcontinental office cleaners, I entertain myself with the thought that the carriage is mine before humbly and anonymously returning to my copy of MX magazine.