Farewell speech by John Corker, 22 August 2019
A Tribute to Anton Hermann
I would like to start my comments this evening with a tribute to our much respected colleague Anton Hermann who passed away recently and suddenly. Many of us haven’t had an opportunity to reflect on his great contribution to the pro bono community and the loss we feel.
Anton started in his role as National Pro Bono and Community Investment Director at MinterEllison in the same year that I joined the Centre, 2004 – also the same year that Nick Patrick started in his pro bono role at the Phillips Fox. So we were colleagues for 15 years and I always respected and valued his measured views about the issues of the day.
I first remember being at an pro bono gathering held at Barwon Heads in Victoria in our early days where, after the first day’s proceedings, we headed off to have a swim in Port Phillip Bay, no one else being remotely interested. We swam out from the jetty and Anton insisted that we swim in straight lines in a large square so we knew far we’d swam. I didn’t argue but once we had swum out a fair way I thought oh dear, we’ve still got the other three sides of the square to swim. It was in that moment I got to know Anton and I realised here was someone who was quite serious about his sport. Later I discovered this included cycling, something he loved doing, and was doing at the moment of his untimely death.
He was incredibly helpful to me (on behalf of the pro bono coordinators and with Jilly Field from Ashurst) in putting together the pro bono sessions at the National Access to Justice and Pro Bono Conference earlier this year. It takes a lot of work to identify and articulate the topics that the pro bono community should, and want to talk about, and then to put together panels of speakers who know what they are talking about and can add valuable perspectives on the issues. Anton was there from the start to the end of that process and when the going was difficult, he found some great speakers and agreed to chair a session himself titled “How Technology, Globalisation and New Interfaces will Rewrite How Pro Bono is Delivered”. He was a future thinker! He did have a view about the big picture and wasn’t afraid to put it forward.
For example’ his submission to the review of the National Pro Bono Target last year was quite unique. By focusing on the stated objective of the Target to “address the unmet legal needs of the poor and the disadvantaged” (which he called the justice gap) he asked the question of what the pro bono practices of the large firms were really achieving when so much work was being done for not-for-profits. He called for a widening of the review to include independent consultants with specialist knowledge of social impact measurement and the legal services sector and said that this might provide a pathway towards greater alignment between the Target’s purpose and its ultimate impact. So he wasn’t afraid to ask the hard questions and be bold.
This issue of the impact of pro bono work remains at the heart of what we do and I know that many of you in the room constantly consider that question. We had to advise Anton that it was beyond the scope of the current review but it remains central to the Centre’s work.
So I would like to pay tribute to Anton for his vision, his contribution to the pro bono community and to meeting the unmet legal needs of the poor and the disadvantaged which I think it’s fair to say is how he approached managing the Minter Ellison Pro Bono and Community Investment practice.
So could we please have a few moment’s silence to reflect and celebrate Anton’s contribution and I invite you to watch a number of images of Anton that have come from the Centre’s archives and from Minter Ellison. Thanks to partner, Keith Rovers for his help with this.
Jenny Lovric, John Corker and Anton Hermann
Reflections on my time at the Centre
I have to say that I was extremely pleased when I learned a few weeks ago that Nathan Kennedy had been made a pro bono partner at Hall and Wilcox, and also Kate Gillingham made a partner at Bakers, and Tamara Sims had joined Colin Biggers & Paisley as their pro bono head. I was delighted to see Geetha Nair and Trent Wallace grinning ear to ear on stage at the Lawyers Weekly awards as AGS was awarded the Pro Bono Program of the Year award last week. This is a dynamic community and I am proud to be part of it!
It has advanced considerably in 15 years but due in large part to all of you in the room – It’s a tribute to your commitment to the pro bono service ideal, and the rule of law, that you are all here at what is billed as my farewell which I would prefer be referred to as my fare-thee-well because I’m only marginally less busy than I was before.
Much has changed in the attitude to, and the organisation and profile of pro bono legal service in the legal profession in the last 15 years. The Centre has played a role but all of you in the room have also played a vital role.
Central to that has been and continues to be the importance of the collegiate and supportive nature of the Australian pro bono community – many of you in the room are the pro bono champions upon which this depends. I’ve been lucky enough to see the community develop, to see it work together, gain strength and get better at directing its limited capacity to where it makes a difference.
The Centre has pursued and seen regulatory and policy changes to recognise and support the pro bono work of lawyers. ‘Pro bono’ now appears as a concept in the Uniform Legal Profession Act and Regulations, and in most of the State Legal Profession Acts. Voluntary practising certificates now exist. There is formal recognition of pro bono in the Uniform Admission Rules for Practice, and free PI insurance for corporate lawyers under the national PI insurance scheme now exists. There are conditions added to all practising certificates in most State and Territory jurisdictions that make it clear that the holder is authorised to provide pro bono legal services. These are all developments of the last 15 years.
It’s been a great pleasure to see in the past five or so years the mid-size firms join their larger colleagues in embracing a pro bono culture, and many of you in the room showing leadership and support for this expansion of the pro bono movement in Australia.
Government, and the institutions of the legal profession now actively and formally recognise the importance of the pro bono ethos, and one of the greatest achievements of the Centre has been to get government to build incentives and conditions into their legal purchasing arrangements from the private profession.
I’ve been lucky enough to witness the growth and diversity of pathways through which people can seek and access pro bono legal services. The growth of pro bono clearing houses in each State and Territory, and new models such as Salvos Legal and the Cancer Council services have made the landscape more accessible for people with legal problems. It is fabulous to see this accessibility continuing to grow through online solutions such as those being developed by Justice Connect.
But it’s not all about the lawyers and the firms as we know. The ongoing issue which we continue to discuss, raised squarely by Anton in his submission to the Centre, is what do we achieve for clients – what difference do we make in society. I’ve been delighted to see the pro bono support provided for public interest litigation and campaigns run by organisations like the Australian Human Rights Centre, The Public Interest Advocacy Centre, even the Environmental Defenders Office and the development of the Grata Fund to support this. These organisations do drive social change through law and I would like to pay tributes to those organisations and their leaders for harnessing that support.
The relationships between law firms and Community Legal Centres (CLCs) have also come a long way in 15 years. CLCs have been good at putting aside their mistrust of large firms and developed ways of utilising pro bono support to make themselves more resilient, and improve and increase their service delivery. This has been a big change that has helped CLCs become more productive and professional in many regards.
In looking to the future, please believe that Australia really does have a unique pro bono culture which has influenced development in other parts of the world – for example, the amazing people that have led and influenced change in other parts of the world are mainly Australians and the Centre’s resources have been influential through licensing and adaptation in places such as Singapore, the UK and even South Korea. It was interesting to hear Scott Cummings from UCLA last week talking about Australia in the context of Global Pro Bono, and despite his identification of the factors that have been important in developing the culture we have, three of us in the audience identified other factors being strong collegiality, law firm support as evidenced by the number of pro bono partners, and a commitment to access to justice for individuals, that have made the culture as strong as it is.
I would like to convince you that there are more opportunities to go where the injustice is great despite the apparent conflicts in some cases!
Conflicts will always be an issue in this type of work but I note that a few firms have managed to find ‘work arounds’, be it that their firm is not publicly attributable for certain aspects of the work, or the client is a trusted intermediary like a CLC rather than the individual or organisation seeking the advice. This can really allow the practice to help where the need is great and I urge you to carefully consider innovative ways of addressing apparent conflicts.
I have just written 10,000 words about how to better inculcate the pro bono ethos in law students, how to better build it into the fabric of the profession’s institutions and the important of this. This idea is still contested within the profession but it shouldn’t be because the broader pro bono ethos is a gift, not only from the legal profession to access to justice, but also to the profession itself to maintain its integrity as an honourable profession rather than just a business.
What lawyers do by way of pro bono legal service is more important than ever in current times. With the fragmentation of mass media as a reliable source of information, increased political criticism of lawyers and judges and their decisions, a hardening of attitudes to those less fortunate, and a seeming disrespect by some for the rule of law, the pro bono commitment by the legal profession is more important than ever.
APBC team: John Corker, Trent Wallace, Gabriela Christian-Hare, Sally Embelton, Natasha Rose
Thanks to DLA Piper, Nick Patrick and Cate Martin for hosting the event today and Nick for his kind words. I remember Nick when he was struggling to get a pro bono practice going at Phillips Fox and now he is a global leader. Nick has been great at working with everyone and a strong advocate for the Centre and its resources. He has been fundamental in supporting and exporting the Australian pro bono culture.
I would like to pay tribute to all the directors of the Pro Bono Centre and members of the Advisory Council who have volunteered over the years to be part of its governance structure. I have been lucky enough to work with some exceptional people on the board. Its been very rewarding for me to work with such a strong group of people where policy issues can be raised and debated. I would like to pay particular tribute to the Chairs of the Centre that I have managed to survive. Each one has brought great value to the direction and operation of the Centre in their own way and the Centre is better for it. I would like to thank Andrea Durbach, Tony Fitzgerald, Peter Stapleton, and Phillip Cornwell for each of their unique and important contributions to the direction of the Centre and I would also like to thank David Weisbrot, Chair of the Task Force that recommended the establishment of the Centre in, who was an important mentor for me particularly when he was Chair of the ALRC.
The Centre has depended on strong relationships with key law firms and with particular law firms from time to time. These relationships change over time but that has been one of the great delights of the job because as we all know pro bono is all about relationships!
So, most of you won’t know that a couple of months ago Herbert Smith Freehills presented me with the Keith Steele Pro Bono Leadership medal. I didn’t want to make a big thing about it but I do want to thank Freehills publicly today for that award and their personal support and tell you that it is now one of my most cherished possessions. Thank You Peter Butler, Brooke Massender, Stephen Somerville, Emma Maple-Brown and before that Annette Bain.
For those of you who don’t know, Keith Steele was a Freehills partner who died suddenly ten years ago described as ‘a modern colossus who typified everything good about the firm and what it stood for’. He played a leading role in the establishment of Freehills’ pro bono program in Sydney and was instrumental in establishing the Shopfront Youth Legal Centre in 1992. He successfully established a permanent solicitor secondment arrangement with the Kingsford Legal Centre and orchestrated Freehills becoming a founding member of the Public Interest Law Clearing House (NSW). Many of you will know his wonderful daughter Sarah Steele, Corporate Responsibility Manager at Ashurst.
This also makes me think that we as community should consider developing a medal or scholarship in memory of Anton Hermann. I know Minter Ellison have been discussing this and I support it.
From the early days, I want to thank those who worked with the Centre to educate me about law firm pro bono and help the Centre create the National Pro Bono Target, particularly David Hillard, Ann Cregan, Michelle Hannon and Annette Bain and of course the US based Pro Bono Institute and the late Ester Lardent from whom I learnt a lot.
I would like to thank the UNSW Law Faculty and its Deans for their support for me and the Centre. UNSW Law, with its strong social justice ethos, continues to be a great place for the Centre to maintain an independent and expert view on all things pro bono legal.
Lastly I would like to thank the team at the Centre – so delighted that Gabi has taken over as CEO and has such a strong team to take the Centre forward (Gabi, Sally, Jessica, Natasha and Trent).
And thank you to all past staff members. There haven’t been that many and all have gone on to do wonderful things with their careers.
It’s such a pleasure to see the new energy and skill that is steering the Centre forward and I have found the transition very satisfying. I thank Gabi, her team and the Board for their support in making it what I think has been a fairly seamless and positive process for me and the Centre.
Lastly, can I say that I am not the retiring type, and being convinced that the future of the planet is the justice issue of our time, that’s the work I’m already doing and will continue doing. It’s great having a voluntary practising certificate!
Thank you all for being part of the life of the Centre and for being here today. I’m extremely grateful for my time at the Centre and thank you for this fare-thee-well.